Beliefnet
From "Soul Work: A Field Guide for Spiritual Seekers," by Anne and Charles Simpkinson. Reprinted with permission of Mary Pipher.

If you think about it, people until recently had roots. They were rooted in communities, in extended families, in religious congregations, and so on. They had walls of identity around them. Uniqueness tended to be played out in small ways. Of course, there were eccentrics, people who always dressed in a certain way or had funny habits. But you can only be eccentric in a world where most people have a very homogeneous set of values. The word eccentric

really means nothing in New York City in 2000; everyone is eccentric.

I was thinking about this last night when I was listening to National Public Radio. A man was reading a letter from his mother, who'd gone back to Mexico after visiting him in San Francisco. She asked him, "Don't your neighbors like you?" She noticed that when they walked into the apartment building, people didn't talk to him. They didn't stop him in the hall and start gabbing away. She also noticed that when his children's friends came over, they didn't talk to her; they didn't call her grandmother. She thought all this meant that perhaps her son was not a well-liked person. The only way she could understand that behavior was through her experience. In her small village in Mexico, if somebody was disliked, people wouldn't talk to them; the children wouldn't call them grandfather. The idea that you would live in a place where you didn't speak to your neighbors and that children would come into the house and not address an older woman as grandmother was incomprehensible to her.

The self is composed of the appraisals of others. If you grow up in a community of a thousand people, you have the appraisals of a thousand people with which to put together your self.

I think it's hard for children now. At one time children had many adults who knew them, joked with them, taught them things, and stayed a part of their lives. Maybe they didn't relate with them that much, but they were safely around the perimeters of their life. Children don't have that now. If they are very lucky, they have their parents' friends in their lives. But a lot of children haven't experienced these kinds of long-term relationships.

I like kids a lot, and I would be much friendlier to them if I could figure out how to do it. It seems to me that one of the things we're losing as a culture is social mechanisms to connect adults and children to each other. I will see a child and think, "Oh that little kid is really cute. I'd like to talk to him," or "That little kid could use some help putting on his shoes." I'd like to move into that child's space, interact with him, teach him something, or make a joke and see if he laughs. But now, because of the culture, I stop myself. My thought is always, Could this be misinterpreted? I may see a child trying to get their coat buttoned and will want to stop and help them, but I think, Will their parents suspect I'm some sort of sexual pervert who likes to touch children's bodies? So I won't do the things that I want to do and that were done for me as a child. This situation is bad for adults and for children. We are losing the connective webbing between children and adults.

We all get identity from the relationships we have. In my opinion, the self is composed of the appraisals of others. If you grow up in a community of a thousand people, you have the reflected appraisals of a thousand people with which to put together your self. That's how you know who you are. If you grow up in the suburbs and have only your parents and maybe a few neighbors that wave at you, you have so much less information with which to work.

It's very hard to nurture children you don't know, which means that children don't get this strong dose of love that can translate into positive identity. The other thing that children don't get if they don't know adults is feedback. Feedback is important if you are going to develop an accurate sense of who you are. For example, if I got up from the table at my grandparents' house and didn't push my chair in, someone would say, "Push your chair in." They would also say, "Put your napkin on your lap, and don't chew with your mouth open, and say thank you for the pie." Families still do that to a certain extent, but children used to get that everywhere--in the stores, on the street. They also got positive feedback, such as, "You are a good worker."

How can a person self-actualize on an island? They can't. Native Americans believed that a person banished from the tribe is not a person, because they had lost all identity under those circumstances. I believe that, too, because what people who try to have an identity without connection have is only shards and fragments.

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