Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The shifting sands of the philosophical parent

Catching up with my New York Times, I skimmed the headlines of my digest version (which I highly recommend for busy mom-newshounds by the way), and I could not resist the teaser headline for a column by David Brooks, entitled The Neural Buddhists. Brooks usually shows up as the token conservative pundit on my must-see political junkie weekend program, Meet the Press with Tim Russert, and I generally enjoy his observations, and I can't resist a teaser that promises a science religion juxtaposition. Yes, now I reveal the depth of my nerd-dom, I know!

It is a really interesting commentary on what Brooks is perceiving as a philosophical and cultural shift precipitated by the current phase of a scientific revolution, akin to the Darwinian shift. He writes, "researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment. " So, the debate is seemingly shifting from if there is an animating spirit, to how it emanates and manifests, as an aspect of the Self, both physiologically and psychologically, and what the implications are for the culture in which this self finds itself.

The last assertion of the isolation of common instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment really got my attention, and ties into why I think this little tidbit is worthy of mom radar. The cultural shift Brooks speaks of is becoming evident in modes of parenting. These common instincts are guiding principles in a growing alternative parenting philosophical movement. I follow an example of one manifestation of this trend through a message group devoted to exploring and implementing "consensual living." A current thread has been discussing anarchy, and whether their mode of parenting is chaotic without the guiding norms of "good" and "bad." The overwhelming response from the community seems to be that there are guiding norms, just not a model based upon top down, conditional management approaches to shaping the family dynamics and values.

Brooks asserts that there is a newly emerging definition of the Self as, "not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships," and for these parents it seems that acceptable or unacceptable behaviors and attitudes in their families also falls under this emerging sense of Self. For these parents, a common family disagreement, say about taking out the garbage, is approached with the goal of acknowledging, understanding and validating each persons feelings and preferences in the situation, and coming to a consensual mode of action through respectful and inclusive dialogue. If your eyebrows just went up, I identify with your exasperation, and I'm thinking that I do not want a debate, consensual or otherwise, about how the garbage gets taken out! But, I do see their point about modeling respectful and inclusive behaviors, which they hope will engender peaceful kids that will go out and make for a more peaceful world. I sigh heavily, but still keep reading to try to grasp where they are coming from, where they are going, and what impact it will have on the world that my kid(s) will inhabit in the future.

I agree with Brooks in his assertion that a possible sea change event is occurring due to the "unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other." I also see it in the closely connected parenting realm. After all, parents are in many ways the cultural gatekeepers to what is normal for a child, that is until they hit puberty, and then all bets are off! I think the implications are that the concepts of a proper way to parent, indeed a proper way to educate as well will be increasingly assaulted with an argument based in what Brooks identifies as "self transcendence," in which the source "moral" norms of the culture (like The Bible) will be marginalized in favor of a far more self actualizing truth from moment to moment, family unit to family unit, community to community, and on and on.

Ultimately, I think the danger of the shift Brooks is observing, and it's implications for parenting, is that if there is no source of Truth, just a common personal and cultural experience of truths, indeed no ultimate Meaning, how do we equip our kids to lead a meaningful and connected life?
If you feel like you've hit a patch of quicksand, you're not alone, and I don't know that I have a rope handy for you.

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