Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Brain that Wouldn't Die

One of the most common, and yet the most difficult, thing that any man or woman can do is to bring hardship or pain to someone they love.

Yet life tends to creep up and headbutt you with this sort of moment every so often, however.

My life, anyway. Mine and my beloved's.

Fortunately the mountains of agony are usually inselbergs, single peaks of loss and suffering so tall, so sharp and icy cold that you can feel your heart hang and tear on them, feel yourself swing out over the dizzying, horrible emptiness knowing that the weightless drop is only a caesura, a moment of suspended time before the final slip of the straining fingertips, the sickening swoop of the fall, the impact with the shattering wasteland below.

Much more common are the little daily speedbumps of conflict, the knolls, drumlins and kames of confrontation that make the day bumpy, that sends one to bed in tears and leaves the other shaking his or her head in rueful acceptance of that bump on the head, the small pellet of bitterness dissolving under the tongue, the residue of the collision between needs and wants, between greed and restriction.The Peeper had a nasty spill on one of these little bumps the other night, refusing to leave his computer game when it was time for bed, nastily arguing and finally spitting hateful words at his mom when she insisted gently that he listen to her instructions.

I was already in bed, exhausted after a long, cold day working in the rain. But the raised voices, and my little boy's vicious tone, brought me upright with my loathed reading glasses slipping down my nose as if they, too, wished to avoid the coming defenestration.

"Mister Peep?" I said in my sternest drill sergeant voice, "I need to see you in here for a moment."

There was a moment's awful silence and then the sound of a little boy bursting into tears.

"No, mommy, no! I'm sorry! I'm shutting it down, see! I'm listening to you! I'm listening!" and his mother's caustic reply "You're not listening to me, you're just afraid of your Daddy.", the truth of which was attested to by another rain band of weeping. It was a crumpled-faced little fellow that shuffled into the doorway of the bedroom pushed by his mother.

"I'msorrydaddyI'msorryreallyI'msorry!" he whimpered, fearing the dreadful punishment I represented more than honestly regretting his harsh words and unpleasant attitude towards his gentle and loving mother, who really does try and understand, cajole and entice him towards responsibility.

Unfortunately for him I am more of a kinetic sort of parent."Go and brush your teeth and get in your jammies and come back here, son." My level look always produces more floods of tears at this point, and it worked to its usual effect here. A sobbing child staggered off to the bathroom to ablute and dress for bed.

By the time her returned the fear had subsided to jerky sniffles, but the boy still refused to come sit by me, retreating to the end of the bed until I promised not to scare him AND his mother sat beside me. Then he crawled into our arms and lay snuffling soddenly.

"What are we going to do, little man?" I asked one pink ear "It's not OK to use mean words and be unkind to your mommy. When she asks you to do something, the best thing to do is do what she asks, or, if you have to, talk to her and explain why you don't want to do that thing."

The Peeper sat up, wiped his nose and looked at us earnestly.

"I don't want to be mean, daddymommy... (when excited, little man tends to conjoin his parents as a single noun)...I really don't,'s my brain does bad things."

"Your brain does this stuff itself?"

"I try and be nice, but my brain doesn't always listen!" His sweet, rounded little boy face was a model of sincerity, his eyes wide, his lip almost trembling. "I'm not being bad, I don't want to be mean, but my brain just DOES it..." He really believed what he was saying; perhaps what he was saying was the truth. As he saw it.

We both hugged him and told him we loved him.

We told him that part of being a Big Boy was mastering his brain when it was bad. Perhaps when he felt that brain trying to make him snarl hasty and angry things that he might put his hand over his mouth, count to ten, think of something nice until he could talk to his mom in a less angry tone. And that he would have to work hard at this, and in return his mom and I would be a little more patient, give him a little more time when asked to do things he didn't like to do, like putting away his toys, washing his feet, or trimming his fingernails. He agreed to try that.

So he went to bed, still sniffling a little but with a hint of a smile. He gave his mom a big hug, and me a slightly smaller one.

As I tucked him under his beloved (and now slightly frayed and dingy from all the love) "kitty" quilt he roiled a little under the covers."Sometimes I don't always like my brain, da-da." he said in his small "sleepy" voice.

"Yeah, I know, kiddo." I said, thinking of my stern voice and the face of a little boy reduced to fearful tears. "Sometimes I don't always like mine, either."

And I turned out the light.


Pluto said...

A great story brilliantly told.

Every parent has been there but it takes great maturity to handle the moment appropriately.

I like to think I've done well with my two boys but I know I wouldn't have been quite so lenient as you were. Boys (all children, really) need to learn that actions have consequences.

FDChief said...

Pluto, I think the "fear up" my intervention produced was a pretty harsh punishment for the boy. And ti his credit, he's been better this week about running his mouth on his mom.

He never, never does it with me.

It helps maintain order, and yet, it's because he fears me, a little. Yes, he loves me, too, and I hope that as he grows up he'll see that the fear of punishment is a just and sensible fear. But, in all, the fear will always be there when he looks at me and that's kinda hard.

Pluto said...

We've got a different dynamic in our household.

I'm not very physically impressive (my 16 year old is now an inch taller than me) and I've got the more gentle disposition so I don't really have a situation with automatic fear but the guys learned a long time ago that certain behavior draws certain responses.

You have the dubious advantage of being able to punish with a look and a comment, I have to take action to get the same result.

Lisa said...

A well-told tale, the excuse as old as Methuselah: The devil made me do it, or my brain, or some other entity outside of oneself. Many men never learn to own up to their own failings, blaming their spouse for "making them" commit any number of indiscretions. It is loathsome to witness.

Good that you are teaching Peeper kindness, a lesson which must sometimes be driven home sternly in a child's egocentric universe.

FDChief said...

Pluto: not a bad thing, in a sense. I can bring the fear with a word and so I have used it, and now my little man's affection for me is tinged with that fear and may always be. I can live with that, but not like it.

Lisa: Sadly, the Peeper is another living proof that reality is not as douce and happy as we'd like it to be. I love reading those Victorian stories about the natural love and kindness of children, of kids as the angels of Nature. But without schooling in empathy many kids - and, as you point out, the adults those kids grow into - are selfish, egocentric little monsters. The take home lesson in parenting for me was that there IS no such thing as an inborn moral sense. We learn it from our elders, parents and mentors.

Or we don't. Hence those loathsome men of which you speak.

Meghan said...

Coincidentally, I was watching Bill Cosby's old standup show "Himself" last night. In it, he convincingly argues that all children are brain damaged.

How else can you explain that you tell a child NOT to do something, they immediately do it anyway, often repeatedly. And when you challenge them as to WHY they disobeyed, they say "I doooon't knowwwww..." Ah, parenting. It must require the patience of a person much stronger than I.

FDChief said...

It's a contact sport, Meghan. And there's no halftime.

Lisa said...

I agree -- there is no inborn moral sense. Generosity and kindness is taught and witnessed, and sometimes learned.

What is inborn is a greediness, born of survival instinct. Some behaviorists suggest an impulse to justice and cooperation, but only based upon maximizing one's own gain. So at best, we are little pragmatists.

Kindness as a stand-alone good is taught, or never learned.

Ael said...

Actually, much of our kindness and generosity *is* genetic.

Watch a room of adults when a baby is brought in. That sort of reaction is deeply hard-wired. In fact, it is so hard-wired that things that kinda look like babies (e.g. baby animals) also brings out a strong reaction.

However, much of our selfishness is also genetic (and for good reason as I don't believe we could build a society of saints).

Luckily, we are very plastic creatures and we can modify our behaviour beyond our genetic predispositions.

Lisa said...


I would counter that the "cooing" and fawning reaction of which you speak is not "kindness", but a socially sanctioned dotage.

It is true the human baby is born very needy and requires much attention, hence we are attuned to those needs. It is even suggested that domestic cats have learned to mewl in such a way as to mimic a baby's distress cries in order to gain attention.

It is also true that human males are attracted to the facial dimensions approximating those of a baby, but again, that does not equate to kindness.

We could argue that the capacity for kindness is innate, and needs only to be awakened, but at this point that is a philosophical discussion.

We agree re. the plasticity of the brain. It'd be nice if more of us used it. . .

FDChief said...

Ael, Lisa: I have read that much of what we think of as our "instinct" for nurturing is largely the remnants of tribal or family group. And, as Lisa points out, it is socially sanctioned and expected or even required of us. The study I read noted that reactions to babies between "out" groups; that is, Caucasian adults reacting to Asian or African babies or vice-versa, were often much less nurturing. In the case of pure tribal societies it was common for the men to kill both enemy men and children, probably as a way of vacuuming the gene pool so the next generation would be theirs...

Ael said...

So, you guys would argue that kittens are "cute" because we are culturally instructed to believe it?

FDChief said...

Ael: Nah, kittens - and babies - are just cute. But there's a lot more to kittens and babies than cuteness. A tomcat will try and kill the kittens of another tom. A man will often find good reasons to ignore, or even injure, kids not his own. The degree to which humans find babies cute in particular rather than in general is proportional to:

1. The degree that we have been bred out of our paleolithic loyalties to kin first, clan second, tribe third and everyone else a distant last, and

2. How "nice" we are as individuals.

I'm not a very nice individual, so I can easily see how ten centuries ago I could have ridden into a village and cheerfully killed every human thing. Not my "tribe", see? My babies? Adorable. Your babies? Another verminous mouth to feed.

We live in a very peaceful and sentimental culture, so our natural love and tenderness towards "our" babies has been enhanced to take in babies in general. The cuteness of babies makes a HUGE difference, sure, but in tribal societies the pull of clan and kin trumps that cuteness. We Westerners generally don't have that killer instinct anymore, most of us. Luckily for us.

That ties into what Lisa is saying about how much of this tenderness and consideration for others is a learned reflex, and without parents and societies to hammer it home, I think we tend to revert more to type. Sure, we still find babies cute. But just some babies are too cute to hurt - "ours" - while others are just collateral damage.

Ask some Germans, Iraqis or Vietnamese how sentimental we were about their kids when we needed not to be...

Lisa said...


Seen another way, kittens are not cute -- they really are ferocious killers, all fang and claws, when you think of it. It's just that someone in Egypt decided to revere them, and thought them lovely. But there is no reason they should be any more lovely than, say, a Norwegian rat.

We look at things pragmatically: What can they do for us? Cats can rid the barn of mice; rats will eat and contaminate our grains. Bad, dirty rats.

Seen another way, human infants are quite scary: Wriggly, pasty things, pupae-like, that excrete smelly stuff all day. Their bodily proportions are odd -- large heads and small bodies. So it is conditioning that causes us to react sympathetically to their need (if we are not pushed to the wall under stress.)

I am not a misanthropist, but choose to see things as they are. Much of our behavior is conditioned, and cannot be attributed to inborn affinity.

That said, there are certainly instinctual urges, though how much of that is hormonally-regulated we are only now discovering.

Lisa said...


"Love thy neighbor" -- just those in our tribe, in proximity? Love all men? If it were a directive to love all, then why the additional proscriptions against murder and coveting, and directions to respect and honor? Love would seem to be the penultimate directive, and if it were intended in an ecumenical sense, it would be the only message necessary.

No, I do not think we are born with a loving impulse. Suckling, reliant... "suck-ups" we are, maybe. Call me a cynic...

Ael said...

As you say Lisa, babies are scary critters. Deformed and smelly.

If it is mere conditioning that turns us into baby-talking chuckling idiots when presented with a smiling baby then I am amazed at people's ability to resist a dictator's propaganda.

Lisa said...


Well, couldn't one argue that our ability to be swayed in either case is the same? Not too many people reject propaganda, and most wish to be seen as sociable and well-liked.

(As an aside: It is a killing cut when a baby or animal makes the decision that the coo-er is less-than-sincere and runs away or begins howling. That is not the reinforcement we are looking for.)

As long as we see some benefit accrue to us (either positive or avoidance of negative), we are game.