Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Fall from Grace: Garden of Eden Revisited

Adam and Eve depicted in the Garden of Eden surrounded by many animals
I have always found the biblical story of the Garden of Eden to be puzzling and confounding, to say the least. Questions have abounded regarding its moral lesson and utility. The story seems to suggest that original sin originally came into existence as the direct result of disobeying (admittedly blind and overbearing) power and authority; worse, since the act involved the dichotomy between ignorance and knowledge, the Bible seems to suggest that the former is preferable to the latter, hence delivering a primordial message of ignorance being bliss. Did God really want to us to live and be stuck in the shadowy realm of ignorance?

Add to that, the copious amount of misogyny thrown in as well as thrown at Eve, the mother of all living who is blamed for the ultimate form of temptation, i.e. knowledge and understanding, and one can only scratch or better shake one’s head in profound disbelief, if not utter astonishment at this biblical tale.

That is why until most recently the Gnostic reading and interpretation of Genesis seemed to be more reasonable and much more in line my acceptance and liking. It was the serpent that spoke with the voice of reason, whereas God’s (over)reaction spoke volumes about his fear of humans one day equaling (or even surpassing) him. This may be the main reason why he not only banishes Adam and Eve from his realm, but even puts a cherubim with a flaming sword to protect the tree of life lest humans become immortal too.

Yet when I stumbled upon Erich Fromm’s interpretation, it shone much needed light upon the hitherto dubious beginning of humanity. This all goes back to a concept of God that is overlooked and misunderstood in the Christian view. 

God is embodied as perfect and static. With it goes the mainly cerebral definition (might I say limitation) that everything that is perfect has already reached its full potential and cannot ipso facto improve in any discernible ways whatsoever.

In that sense, the most perfect state would be one that is utterly and completely dead, namely death seen from a strictly materialistic and nonspiritual angle designated and determined as the endpoint and cessation of any forms of consciousness. A stone would then be the most perfect of all beings having reached the stage of being perfectly static and immovable.

But if anything, the Bible shows us that God’s heart alongside his will are not made of stone. He is volatile and fluctuating; he is angry and forgiving; he is loving and cruel; he is at times merciless and at other times full of mercy. And if his very own statement and discovery to Moses were translated as “I am that I am” and taken at face value, it would entail that we are confronted with and praying to a rather intentionally and purposefully conflicting, contentious and confusing power and being.

Yet if we consider God not as statically and immovably outside of time but rather on a point on the plane of evolution, then God might lose his eternally fixed constant of always being or rather always remaining who he is, but he shall then become who he shall be, which could then continue and be prolonged eternally to time immemorial.

This might be a possible and closer translation to the actual meaning of his translated and interpreted comment. If seen as “I am who I shall be,” there is room for the possibility of change and improvement and a certain drive for perfection within divinity itself. If read in such a way, we see evolution and evolvement not only within humans but reflected within God himself as we were made in his image, the same way he is in ours.

If people object to praying to a god that is not already perfectly formed but like his creation strives for perfection on a higher plateau (a view not incompatible with the Buddhist concept of the universe), then one might ask oneself why it would be preferable to worship him as a seemingly emotionally unstable entity. Indeed there are countless moments of anger and fury, where he is controlling and impeding his creations; yet over time he begins to form a loving bond and relationship with humans and shows his greatest sign of love by offering and sacrificing the Son of Man or by making himself Flesh in order to sanctify all human beings and provide them with the necessary divine spark, not unlike the fire of Prometheus in Greek legend.

Such a reading of the Bible would explain why God is initially suspicious of his creatures, as there is a fundamental lack of trust and love and there is not a relationship per se between him and Adam and Eve; yet God manages to change and adjust his point of view.

In return, Adam and Eve did not have much rapport neither to God nor to themselves. Erich Fromm points out that both Adam and Eve did not know who they were and that they lived in a complete state of natural primordial harmony. Our earliest ancestors must have lived similarly as they were and saw themselves as an inseparable part of nature. Yet it all had to come to an end so that growth and evolution could manifest itself.

This could be symbolized with Adam and Eve eating from the tree of good and evil. Suddenly, they lost all touch and contact with nature and were left on their own. They became aware not only of their separate identities but more importantly of their loneliness. Suddenly they stopped seeing themselves as one with nature, and they saw each other as perfect strangers.

Unadulterated paradise existed no more and each had to survive on their own. There was no love yet between them, but only shame, embarrassment and guilt. Adam does not act out of love but out of spite when he blames Eve for the transgression. He tries to save and salvage himself. He has completely forgotten that Eve is part of him and his equal since both are part and parcel of nature and the harmony around them.

The fact that God created Eve out of his rib has given to erratic speculation and the faulty and irresponsible conclusion that therefore he must be superior and she inferior to him. This kind of conclusion is misguided and harmful and is too focused on a literal meaning of an unnecessary detail. What is more important here is the fact that she is created and taken out of him, his body and mind, and that Adam without Eve is incomplete, not unlike Plato’s androgynous being as described in the myth of Aristophanes.

The rib or rather rib cage is meant to protect and support two of our most vital organs, the heart, which is an evident symbol of and stand-in for love as well as the lungs, which regulates and controls respiration, the very breath of life. Furthermore, bones are indestructible life since they persist longer than the flesh. If we conceive of Adam as flesh, then Eve is the bone, the physical and spiritual support of the body. In such a manner, man and woman complement and complete each other.

The same idea is, in fact, expressed by Adam himself when he states that Eve is the “bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” It is thus that they shall be One flesh, and both continue to be like God as he created them in his image and likeness. To separate one from the other or to perceive one as essentially different from the other in terms of spirit, love or intellect would be a faulty and misguided interpretation then.

In addition, there might be also a case of mistranslation, since the word rib may possibly have meant “side.” That means that God did not take Adam’s rib but half of his side so that woman would be be-side man, not beneath nor above him; they would be side by side and perfectly equal.   

Before the supposed act of rebellion, Adam and Eve are indeed in a world of pure sensations or rather what Freud would term primary process. Eden is a paradise in which all beings and animals are one and communicate with each other and live in perfect harmony. This is akin to the world of the infant who would have had his needs met in the womb and who comes into the world blind to the outside world still feeling strongly connected and attached to his or her mother.

The moment that this idyllic situation experiences a rupture is the growing awareness of the outside world in terms of other people, objects, and food. This world is explored primarily through the mouth of the infant and through basic sensory experiences, including taste, smell and temperature and corresponding feelings and associations.

It comes as little surprise then that the outside world would be represented by a tree that contains fruit or apples. It is through the physical ingestion of that so-called forbidden fruit that knowledge is gained. Suddenly the perfect harmony is in disarray and Adam is disconnected from this and begins to feel separate and lonely from nature as well as from other beings.

In fact, what he feels for Eve is not nor can be love since the first thing he does is to justify himself before God by accusing her of having incited him. This is also connected to the sudden realization of not only physical nakedness but rather a feeling of shame that is associated and strongly tied with it. It is the budding of sexual instincts, not in the form of spiritual or romantic love union but merely as a primitive instinct or drive.

What stands out between them is their pronounced and visible difference. There is a selfishness or self obsession that drives and separates one from the other and it may be conceived as the growing pains of giving birth. Adam and Eve, God’s first children are not led by rules any more, by admonishments in the forms of don’ts, but they shall acquire moral insight in how to be and how to become, that arduous but eternally rewarding path towards morality and goodness. 

In that moment, in the very act of rebellion, humanity has taken its first stand, or rather it is the first time that humanity stands on its feet; now it needs to learn to walk, and, more importantly, love each other and its Creator. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Narcissistic Mothers

Painting by Ambrogio Borgognone from Rijksmuseum
The mother, nourishing and taking care of her infant, is upheld not only as an ideal for human development, but also considered a sign of spirituality: a mother is often depicted as an embodiment of the sacred and the holy, which is most expressly symbolized by the Holy Virgin of the Catholic religion. In fact, motherhood is put on a pedestal as she is seen engaged in the selfless act of not only protecting her loved ones but also imbuing them with unconditional love. 

Motherhood is equally reflected in the symbol of the Earth as providing protection and nourishment for its inhabitants and used as the symbol of the fertile land or of one’s home in its purest state. In the Bible, this is referred to as the land where milk and honey flows freely. As Erich Fromm points out in his seminal book The Art of Loving, this is the symbol of the mother taking the flock under her wing. But it is important to underscore that ideally each mother would provide both milk AND honey to her offspring.

Giving milk is triggered automatically and naturally within the body via breastfeeding and despite modern artificial and less adequate forms of nourishment (formula milk as milk replacement), it is still what most mothers initially provide to their hungry infant.

Humans as a rule are genetically predisposed to instinctively feel warmth and love towards a child, but this feeling tends to be more pronounced in the mother. She will give milk and nourishment to her helpless infant and only the cruelest and most resentful of mothers would deny providing this to their dependent baby.

But as man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone, the child will need more than milk. This is where honey comes into play. This stands for the sweetness of life. It is a mother’s twofold responsibility towards her child to provide not only the basic amenities but also sweetness, meaning an abundance of joy for life as well as spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment. However, most mothers fall short on this second aspect, which causes a wide range of problems within the growth and development of the child, and which spills over and carries on into adulthood.

This so-called lack of sweetness is most pronounced in neurotic individuals, and it is a condition that is most promulgated and exasperated by narcissistic mothers. On the surface, these mothers may appear to be a beacon of the perfect mother and being a narcissist, mothers of this kind enjoy both being the focus of attention as well as having the infant in its most helpless and dependent state of his or her life.

Gladly, they take on the role of the giving mother by providing milk as they see the infant as a reflection of their own ego. For a while, narcissistic mothers become the center of attention among family members and friends, and they relish in that feeling as they lavishly soak up each and every pore and aspect of this situation.

Humans, unlike other animals, are in a rather prolonged state of helplessness and dependency, and they need their parents, especially their mother for their survival. In fact, infants are born practically blind. There is no other world for them expect that of the mother with whom they feel united and unified.

Infants tend to feel that they are still in the womb connected to their mother through a now invisible umbilical cord and, in fact, their mother is not only their first contact with the world, but she is also the first love relationship in their life. 

Yet after some time, infants not only become aware of the outside world as separate from themselves, but they notice a new budding identity that feels separate and distant from the mother. This is a period where moments of separation from the mother can create intense feelings of anxiety within the child. In their minds, they fear that the mother has abandoned them and left them to their own devices, which from an evolutionary point of view would signify certain death.

The narcissistic mother still enjoys that stage of development, but she becomes aware and preoccupied that the power she has held on and wielded over the child is slowly beginning to diminish.

Soon after the child becomes more and more independent, the mother that provides honey will not only accept that growing separation and independence, but she will actively encourage it and help loosen - and later sever - the bonds of motherhood, namely to cut the invisible umbilical cord that still emotionally connected the child to her.

Yet that is an unwanted stage and anathema to the narcissistic mother. First, she would lose her standing and position as the center of attention from both family and friends. Gradually, her child is also gaining and creating some distance from her. This arouses intense anxiety and frustration in her as her projected role of motherhood as a caregiver is falling to pieces.

Since her love for the child is neither authentic nor genuine (let us keep in mind that narcissists are generally incapable of loving or feeling empathy for others, not even themselves for that matter), and as her love and care are merely an expression of her wish to control and have power over the helpless child, she will try her utmost best to stifle the growth and independence of her offspring.

In fact, what happens afterwards with narcissistic mothers is a case of neurotic “unselfishness.” This supposed unselfishness is, as Fromm points out, not in the sense of love and caring for others but more a manifestation of the hidden symptoms of depression, tiredness, and failure in the mother’s own love relationships. The so-called unselfish mother will claim to not want anything for herself and will make others (and sometimes herself) believe that she is only living for others, that is, for her child and children only.

Such unselfishness, were it meant as a true manifestation of unconditional love, should create happiness within the given individual, but the fact remains that the narcissistic mother does not feel happy at all; quite to the contrary, she feels unhappy, sad, angry and resentful with life in general and her lot in particular. These people are indeed paralyzed in their capacity to love or enjoy anything, themselves, their family or their children.

What lurks behind this fa├žade, appearance and demeanor of unselfishness is, in fact, an intense self-centeredness. Narcissists see themselves as and continuously crave being the center of attention, and this is exemplified in their supposed sacrifice (of time, money, resources, and energy) for their children; they relish posing as and even complain about being a victim or being victimized by their constant and never-ending state of motherhood. We can see how and why physical but worse emotional independence and separation demonstrated by her children can cause distress and displeasure within such mothers.

Moreover, children who are supposed to benefit from this supposed sacrifice of their mother are, in fact, not happy but rather traumatized by this situation as they grow up in a toxic environment to begin with. These children tend to be anxious, tense and afraid of the disapproval of their mother and try hard to live up to her expectations; yet to no avail as she will never be satisfied with others or herself. 

Children raised by narcissistic mothers feel stifled in their personality and individual expression, while, in many cases, they do not manage to shake off the bonds and tight grip of the domineering and possessive mother. Even in adulthood, they may not only hold onto the need for having their mother’s emotional support and guidance, but they often project those same qualities upon their own partners and spouses.

In fact, a selfish mother in contrast would be much better for one’s psychological health and well-being because the narcissistic mother’s unselfishness works like a protective halo around her. While you can criticize the selfish mother for being careless and for not catering to the needs of the child, the same is much more difficult to be said or done when it comes to the “unselfish” mother; the child feels both conscious as well as subconscious guilt towards her and does not or is reluctant to give or utter any kind of criticism whatsoever. Since the narcissistic mother does not love herself, she is equally incapable of giving love to her child, and this trauma reaches out and continues far into the adult life of that person.

A narcissistic mother is trapped in a time bubble of when she felt most needed and wanted and when her children were merely the object of her power and control. She will do her best to stop their emotional and mental growth and the fact that she does not want what is best for her child but rather what is most convenient for herself shows not only deep-seated self-centeredness but worse a hatred of and contempt for life in general. Not only does she live her own life without honey, but she has also none to give to her offspring so that they must look for a replacement via other means.