Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Nature's programming

I often speculate on how much human behaviour is subject to natural programming, so that individuals, as they go through their lives, tend to find themselves wanting to do this or that according to a standard pattern. There are surely urges and yearnings that kick in at certain stages of life, such as a need to find someone special and make a family. Or are always there, just waiting to be triggered, such as a need to have sex, or seek temporary oblivion, or cheat, or fight ruthlessly in self-defence.

These urges and yearnings, being hard-wired into us, are hard to resist. Not that you'd necessarily want to fight against them: they are the line of least resistance. And they are generally sanctioned by custom and everyone's expectation - even if seen as a failing, a weakness, or a crime. If they are within the range of recognised local behaviours, they fall into the 'normal' category and the perpetrator remains part of the local society, even if smeared with an unsavoury reputation.

It's curious that so long as an individual - even one deemed selfish, or stupid, or unreliable - exhibits behaviours that most people would think of as conforming and down-to-earth, even minimally so, they will still fit in. If they seem to be someone the rest can understand, and read like a book, and to some extent relate to, then they have their place in the community. Nature demands interpersonal rapport within a society, but it need only be basic. 'Perfect' relationships are an unnecessary luxury for species-maintenance. So long as human beings rub along, pair off as needed, keep their local society cohesive, and engage in human reproduction, that will do.

Within such a local social framework much individual variation, both physical and mental, will be tolerated. But anything too different from the local standard will seem questionable, alien, wrong; and might be attacked or destroyed as a threat to the welfare of the majority. In a general way, this is surely the reason for all human conflict - that instinct to suspect the worst of strangers, or anybody 'not like us', and to eradicate them if they can't be pushed away.

It's really dangerous to be different. Everyone who is learns very quickly that it pays to seem like everyone else, even if that means leading a secret, hidden personal life. And if they don't understand that urgent need to be careful, their parents will bring it to their attention. No parent wants to see unusual behaviour or tendencies in their children, because they know what might be in store for an eccentric or wayward child. So they stifle those aberrant behaviours before they become habitual, and get their child into trouble. Or at least try to.

But children become self-aware very early on, and know they are different, even if they don't have the words or concepts to explain what it is. As soon as they go to school, if not before, they realise that no amount of personal bravery will stop bullying from those other children who have their own problems, but can hide them behind a domineering front. Fighting fire with fire is one reaction (my own tactic at school, if pushed too far) but wearing and stressful, and only leads to official punishment. So the habit of being as much like the other children as possible takes hold, as a means of self-defence, and this will continue into adult life. It's a coping strategy. It usually works. But it sets up inner strains, for most of us want to live open lives if we can, and not be constantly hiding our true natures. But when the cruelties of schoolkids are replaced by the merciless realities of adult life, the inner life has to carry on without disclosure, into marriage and beyond.

Being unconventional and different inside, and yet apparently 'normal' outside, is frankly dishonest. I was like that, and I know that many readers were as well. And yet there seemed no way out of the dishonesty at the time. Not while one's parents were alive, and their generation. My own parents were aghast and dismayed to discover, when I was fifty-six, and they in their late eighties, that I was not the person they thought I was. But if a bit more honesty had been possible, they would have learned the truth decades before. I don't know how such a disclosure would have worked out, but at least I wouldn't have had to lead a secret life, and we might have been closer and more loving.

When I speak of 'being honest', all I could have said up to 2008 was that inside, in my mind, I was a very different person from the child they had brought up, and thought they knew. I could have described how I felt about myself, but I had no name for it.

I had always thought that feeling like a misfit was just a sign of long-term immaturity, a lack of experience, a want of adjustment to the world as it is. It hadn't stopped me having a career, and finding partners. It had stopped me wanting a family. For some reason I didn't understand, I was frightened to death of creating children and taking on the role of their parent. The nearest I ever got to that was being a step-parent for a while. That phase over, I had not the slightest desire to be a parent 'for real'. None of this was ever explained to my parents. The underlying reasons were never explored with them. Nor with anybody else, partners included. I am happy to talk about it now, but decades passed during which that conversation, and similar ones, were an impossibility.

Or at least seemed to be an impossibility. Had I ventured, something might have been gained. Surely.

When I am so self-assured nowadays, and no topic seems off-limits, I rather despise myself for not opening several vital subjects with various people in my past life and, whatever the initial embarrassment or consequences, getting a discussion going. I'm convinced now that I would have encountered more empathy than I believed was on offer at the time. But fear stopped me then. It was the fear of being different, of career consequences, of ridicule and ostracism. Had I had a scientific word to wave at everyone, a word they could understand and embrace, such as 'diabetic', I might have risked it. But I hadn't. I didn't understand quite what my issue was, only that I wasn't what they thought I was.

But I still think I was cowardly about the entire thing. In 2017 I am prepared to discuss almost anything you like. Why couldn't I do it then?

I have to come back to the basic instinct, the fundamental programming if you like, not to stand out, not to be different, and to blend in. It's a reason for silence. It may be a very good, life-saving reason. Of course I would have risked harmful and life-shortening drug and electro-convulsion therapy if I'd aired my 'crazy ideas' when young. Of course I might have lost my job. Of course I might have never had a relationship of any kind, and become a strange and embittered person by now. But none of this now seems sufficient excuse for letting people think me this, when really I was that.

But I can't now go back and alter the past. It's done with. There is a legacy, but I'm stuck with it. Curiously, although I have said that I despise myself for saying nothing about myself to my parents and others in those years long past, I don't feel any need to make amends. It's as if my whole-hearted, without-reservation insistence on living my present life - the life I should have always lived - is such a virtuous thing to do, that it washes out all the secrecy and dishonesty of the past. I can't see how it really does, but there you are. Perhaps this is the point made by the biblical story of the Prodigal Son - I should say Prodigal Daughter - that a lost child is always welcome back when that child finally returns, whatever their misdemeanours while they were away in the wilderness. I have a definite feeling of 'coming back home to live a worthwhile life in future'. And yet, really, what did I do that was ever wrong? Even morally, given the state of society and its attitudes? And wasn't my life always worthwhile?

What a pity that my parents in particular are not here to see me now. I'd love to know what they would have to say. I hope they'd be more than just relieved that I was still OK, but actually proud of me. Or would we instantly revert to the old parent-and-child relationship, so full of over-protective comment, criticism and warning?

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