Last month I began a series of reflections on phrases that struck me during the launch of the DVD, Bearing the Unbearable, at the NCB in July. The first of these was “being held in a healthy mind” and I wrote about that in the August issue of Children Webmag.The second phrase is:
“replication of sameness”.
As I heard it, a string of associated memories from my life at Mill Grove, and my reading in therapeutic literature, came into my mind.
How often have you come across a wife abused by her husband, who leaves him, and then enters into another seemingly identical abusive relationship with someone else? How often do children and young people create the conditions that cause yet another foster placement to fail? When have you known children jeopardise the very relationships or dynamics through which you believe healing might come? How often do you find that nothing seems to have been learnt over the years: the same mistakes are made again and again?
Before going further we need to get one basic point clear: novelty and change are not of themselves good things, and routine, patterns, and sameness are not in themselves bad things. A life of complete spontaneity and freedom without repetition is a figment of the imagination. So the phrase, replication of sameness, is describing something much more specific than criticising sameness per se.
If there is to be development of any kind, then there must be room or space for growth, and opportunities for change. It is as obvious in human and social life as it is in the natural world. In the case of people this requires memory and the capacity to reflect on oneself, others, relationships and situations with a view to seeing things differently, and being able to learn in order to do and respond in new or fresh ways to what is going on.
In the remarkable study of resilience, Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens by Hauser, S.T. et al (London: Harvard University Press, 2006), the authors describe how those who survive to live lives that are OK or satisfactory, are open, however slowly, to new information and fresh understandings and explanations of what has been going on in and around them. By way of contrast, those who continue to struggle and who make little or no progress are those who continue to hold fast to the same few explanations of why things are as they are. Their horizons don’t expand. There is no maturing of their insights.
One young person, for example, remained convinced that the source of all his problems was his father’s suicide and his mother’s inability to express unconditional love (page 274). He may have been correct in his analysis, but it left him no way out. He had resigned himself to the immutable status of passive victim. He could not see himself as a reflective agent. The result is that he could not change and so was consigned to a replication of sameness.
One of the frustrations of those who are alongside such young people and trying to help them is that they seem to lack even the ability to reflect enough to understand that they are indeed repeating the same explanations and behaviour. They seem so locked into the way things are that they cannot conceive of there being alternatives.
This can happen of course in families as well as in individuals, where the structure of relationships is so locked and immutable that there is no sign of change or progress. I think of a family well known to me over many years. We might have a break of several months before getting together again. When we do, it is not long before it becomes apparent that each member is repeating views and explanations, often using the very same words and phrases. There has been no learning in the intervening period. In a strange way, despite their biological ages, no one in the family seems to be ‘growing up’.
Thus it is that sameness is replicated, seemingly with meticulous attention to detail. This raises the question of the reasons for this state of affairs. My sense is that one of the root causes is a trauma, loss, separation, fear, that has caused the person consciously and/or unconsciously to create defence mechanisms in order to survive. There are several to choose from, including flight, fight, projection, introspection, freezing, splitting, denial and so on. Over time and unless there are positive interventions, relationships, or discoveries, the mechanism becomes a way of life, almost part of the character of a person. To question or reflect on what is happening would be in effect an attack on the person herself.
And there is a comfort (however slender or cold) from the sameness: it provides what seems like security. Things are black and white, and that is attractive. A person comes to believe, for example, that he is always unlucky; that life is always unfair, and he is without fail on the wrong side of the throw of the dice. This means that there is no need for reflection: life can carry on without any further need for explanation.
The most important question of all is however: how can we help a person whose nature and way of life is to replicate sameness? My experience is that it seems to become more difficult with age (that is the more set a person is in her ways). So it is well to start as soon as possible. And then it is a matter of committed, consistent, caring, sensitive, respectful relationships.
It has to be said that any ‘success rate’ is very small. But I have not come across alternative convincing strategies. So what does it mean in practice? Put simply it means being alongside the young person with no time limit, listening and watching for the slightest opportunities, and then being alert to any possible opening, however slight.
I recall someone who had been rejected by her parents and who found herself in time cut off from her own children. They experienced this separation as rejection, but she could not understand this at all. She failed to see her own actions from their point of view. What was happening was just another part of an unfair sequence in her life. That was the way things always turned out.
The chink came after many years when she became unwell, and I talked with one of her children. This child could not contemplate contact with the mother who she believed had rejected her. I told her that I understood how she felt, but that if her mother died before she had been able to see her, she would never be able to get her back and might possibly live with unending regrets. She eventually made contact, and some years later the mother was able to make contact with members of her family that she never met before.
It would be unwise to overplay the changes. The fact is that the process is long-term, and the slightest possible natural events or opportunities for reflection must be seized.
Sometimes the length of the relationship means that it is possible to look back together and see some changes, however seemingly small or superficial. At least if you can agree that some things have indeed changed, it opens a sliver of a possibility that there might be a chance of reflecting on something a little deeper.
Let me end on a more positive note: if children find themselves related to a parent who replicates sameness, it is possible to relate to the children of that person in a different way, providing opportunities for them to see and reflect upon change and growth. Even so, it is about long-term relationships.
There are completely unexpected and unpredictable catalysts for change, such as the birth of a child, a religious experience, an event or encounter that stirs the imagination. But by definition these are not to be counted on!
All things considered, it is no wonder that there is so much replicating of sameness around. But the possibilities are always around if you are willing to stay long enough, to be patient, and not to give up hope.