My friend Pete punches and kicks his daughter. If you were to see the feet and fists flying and Molly down on the floor, you might be tempted to call Protective Services. Only Molly punches and kicks Pete back. Nobody gets hurt; it’s sort of like the rough-housing that wolf or bear cubs regularly engage in – a kind of practicing in preparation for going out and facing aggression in the real world. In Molly’s own words, “When we’re both down on the floor, it’s because we’re laughing too hard to stand up. It’s something we both enjoy as a bonding experience and as a way to get pent up aggression out, stuff that, if we tried to talk out, would take hours and we’d never get anywhere. It’s therapeutic. A truce can always be called and we always end with a hug.”
Leaving out the limbic system
I bring this example up for several reasons. One is that where abuse and trauma are concerned, contexts and outcomes are important variables to factor into any assessment; along with what happens afterward. The punching and kicking that go on between Pete and Molly is not fueled by a high-jacked limbic system; neither one of them is so angry as to be out of control. Instead, their interactions provide a unique kind of energy expression and personal connection. This is not something so easy to obtain in healthy ways between a father and a teenaged daughter.
Hellfire and Damnation
So, that’s one example where things aren’t necessarily as they seem. For another, consider my friend Jane and her daughter, Maria. Every Sunday they attend church services together. They are faithful members of their church community and their pastor is a powerful preacher of the hellfire and damnation school. If you watch Jane and Maria and the other people who leave church at the end of services, you’ll notice that there’s not much smiling and socializing going on. For good reason.
Good God/Bad God
Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami has recently published a remarkable study. She spoke about it at the Spiritual Transformation Public Symposium held at the University of California in Berkeley. Ironson’s research was on spiritual transformation and HIV patients. Her key finding is that HIV patients who believe God loves them have much slower disease progression, and live significantly longer than those who do not hold this belief. In other words, if you believe in a punitive God, you will suffer for it. The nature of the God we believe in appears to affect our neurobiology as well as the strength of our immune system. If true, the magnitude of the suffering such environments create is highlighted by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion: they found that 31% of Americans believe in an authoritarian, judgmental God; and it’s as high as 44% for people in the southern states. Only 23% of the people in America believe in a benevolent God. There’s a lot of punishment apparently being meted out in America in the name of God.
You Be the Judge
Now here’s a question: suppose we accept that Dr. Ironson’s study is true (and I could offer detailed, empirical epigenetic support for it; also, Ken Heilman and Russell Donda present their unique perspective in an article entitled Neuroscience and Fundamentalism). Next, suppose we explain to Jane the damage that apparently happens in Maria’s brain and body by attending such church events. If Jane insists on taking Maria to these “brain-damaging” sermons, should she be reported to Protective Services for “simply” attending church services? Again, contexts and outcomes are important variables.
Change your God, change your health.
This is not an easy question to answer, but I want to make several points here. One is that when we consider which actions are kind and loving and which are harmful and dangerous where children are concerned, we can’t necessarily apply adult reasoning. We need to not only consider contexts and outcomes, but more importantly, as Peter Levine and Maggie Kline ask in their book, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, what is the actual experience and effect on the child? Most parents want the best for their children and if we discover we’re doing something harmful, in the best of all compassionate worlds, we would choose not to do it. But oftentimes we don’t have such choice. We each come to the role of parenting with personal histories and limitations – the kind of God we were raised to believe in, being one of them. So, what to do? All reasonable suggestions will be welcomed and posted.