Helen Lutton Cohen
There was a fascinating story on the public radio evening news on Wednesday: The town of Port Arthur, Texas, a conservative, middle American community, is building a memorial to its best-known native daughter—Janis Joplin. Janis Joplin—rock star, rebel, outrageous dresser, screamer and shouter, dead of an overdose in early adulthood. Janis Joplin, who horrified her hometown all the time she was alive, will be honored by that town with a statue. Even the venerable Port Arthur Historical Society is giving its support to the project.
You see, Port Arthur has a problem. It’s suffering from the oil depression. The economy is in deep, deep trouble. And someone came up with the idea that a memorial to Janis might bring in lots of tourists and their money—like Graceland. An intriguing idea, though I can’t help but see it as something of a funny solution.
Actually, I’m more interested in Janis herself. How did she get to be the way she was, growing up in Port Arthur? I don’t mean, “how did she end up dying of an overdose?” because the final steps to that can probably be traced pretty easily. But why did she set herself up as such a rebel in the beginning? She certainly seemed odd, not to say unforgivable, to her townspeople as her life took shape in their midst. Why, they must have asked over and over again, why does she have to be that way?
Well, why does one retired millionaire in Florida spend his time clipping newspaper coupons and driving all over town shopping to make sure that he saves a few pennies, while another retired millionaire in Florida gets a job bagging groceries and pushing carts in a supermarket so that he can chat with people? Why do some people always enter a room doing something to catch everyone’s attention, while others always come in so quietly that everybody turns around and says, “Who just left?” Why do some people like vacations where they go out into nature, pitch tents, get dirty, wear the same clothes every day, and often end up standing knee-deep in the mud and rain, while others seek out a hotel where they hardly have to tie their own shoes? Why do people collect things, and such different things—stamps, coins, matchbooks, paintings, butterflies, books, acquaintances, money? Why are there road-runners and couch potatoes? Why does someone like the English travel writer Bruce Chatwin want to be moving on constantly, never settling, while other people want to live and die in the same house in which they were born? Why do some people always want to talk about their feelings, and some people, never? Why do some insist on meat and potatoes, some explore every foreign cuisine, and others prefer to get most of their nutrition in the form of manufactured chemicals? Why do some need mountains, others need oceans, others need rivers or maybe the big sky? Why do so many families come home from their daily adventures and turn on a machine that numbs them with sound and sight until they can go to bed?
And why, with all this wealth of possibility, all these various adaptations to life, why do we each tend to think that our ways of doing things are right? Our vacations, our styles, our collections, our goals, our relationships—and different ways are, well…Think about it a moment. What do we think of those whose ways of conducting themselves, whose life patterns, whose major decisions, look very different from our own? We may love them at a distance, but aren’t they, after all, just a little bit crazy?
One of the questions about people, about us, that has always intrigued me is whether we are more alike or more different. If we look at ourselves the way I have just presented us, if we see mainly this radically different surface behavior, we’ll certainly be struck by the differences and amazed at how they came to be. As Celia Green says, “the remarkable thing about the human mind is its range of limitations.” And yet we are all one species, one sort of being…aren’t we?
When our daughter Sarah was about three, she developed an early morning pattern of going downstairs and fixing herself a bowl of cereal—complete with flour from the canister, a little grape juice if available, and occasionally some cat food thrown in, to keep the cats company. This habit of hers drove us up the wall. Why would she do such an illogical unreasonable, crazy thing? But no matter how much we asked or told her not to, no matter how gently, insistently, crossly, or loudly we spoke, she wouldn’t stop. I think we even hid things away—but she found them! I began to think that she was heading down some path to complete abnormality.
And then I happened to read somewhere something very simple: there is always a reason for what children do. Though it was hard to believe in this instance, we thought hard about what the reason might be for such odd behavior, and we realized how much attention she was getting from it. Now it might seem crazy that even negative attention is better than no attention—but it’s true! And soon after, we paid more attention to her in general, and especially for positive things, and less attention to the cereal, and the pattern came to an end.
Don’t ask, of course, why Don and I got so upset about the cereal, flour, grape juice, and cat food. I’m sure it made perfect sense! Oh, and don’t think that we solved the issue forever. But the incident, and the insight we gained, began to force on me the knowledge of our basic shared needs, and of the fact that we might, like Darwin’s orchid, be willing to use whatever resources were available, however odd or funny, to meet those basic needs.
That same year, in the summer, I did chaplaincy training at a hospital as part of my ministerial education. In my group was a younger woman, just out of college, training for the Presbyterian ministry. She was a warm, caring person, quite bright and articulate. I liked and respected her, but she talked a lot—at lunch, in our group sessions, wherever. Late in our two-month training period, we had a powerful, difficult group session about some personal ministerial issues. I was sitting next to Karen, and I suddenly became intensely aware of her silence, her long silence amidst our discussion. Just at that point, the supervisor asked me what I was thinking about Karen’s behavior—and I said that I was much more aware of her presence than usual because she wasn’t talking.
It certainly seemed odd to me, as we all then began to understand, that Karen’s talking was a technique that kept things at a distance—that as long as she talked constantly, she didn’t have to take in as much of what was going on with others, and other people shut her off because they were overwhelmed or simply tired of listening. But when she was silent, it was clear that she was really daring to take in something new and difficult for her. I really wanted to know, at that moment, just what she was thinking and feeling. She was paying more attention, and more attention was being paid to her than usual. Normally, I thought, we talk when we feel safe and want to make contact, and we’re silent when we’re feeling uneasy or want to be left alone. Well—maybe normally for me—but not normally for Karen. Karen and I met our needs in different ways, but I could see, finally, that the needs were very much the same.
What are the needs that we are meeting with this extraordinary range of human behavior? Just as the orchid develops a range of mechanisms to survive and to thrive, so we do the best we can, with the tools of mind and emotion and imagination to survive and to thrive physically, Above all, we need to feel we exist, and that we are safe—we need to feel both present and secure. I am convinced that these very basic emotional needs lie at the heart of all kinds of behaviors.
That we “solve” the problem of survival, that we meet these needs so differently, is the result of many factors: our inborn temperaments, our positions in the family, our family situations, our broader life experiences. Let’s just take the issue of attention as an example. Attention is generally a signal to our psyches that we exist—we are there—a reassuring signal that infants seek out very early on in life. So, when parents are distracted, caught up in their own things, not paying attention to a child, then many children will choose to “get into trouble” just in order to get that attention. A quieter, more passive child, however, might not be able to do that, might never learn how to get attention, might grow up always wondering about whether he or she is really there—and later, might find that attention is very frightening because they’re not used to it.
In other families, where, say, one or another parent is always paying attention and there hardly seems to be safety and privacy for the psyche at all, where the “me” of the child cannot have a sense of identity separate from the large hovering figure in his life, or in a family where the only attention comes in the form of verbal, or physical, or even sexual abuse, children might learn every possible way to avoid attention because the wrong kind of attention threatens their existence, their sense of self, their security.
In still other families, where a number of strong temperaments are in competition with one another, a whole bunch of people with an amazing array of attention-getting devices may be created.
We can see how, out of one basic need, a panorama of behaviors can develop. There are many other issues that come out of our basic needs —issues around control and power, around setting and possessions. And I think there are other central needs that we share as well that play a large part in our lives: the need for the fulfillment of our talents, the need for excitement. But what does all this have to do with religion?
Well, I think that Darwin’s and Gould’s and Dickens’s view of the world is a religious view, a view filled with wonder at the marvelous adaptability and interrelationship of living things. They show to us a world of beings constantly responding, changing, developing, creating in order to meet their needs—a world where a man deprived of attention and love in his own household might throw cucumbers over the garden wall in order to get some from other people. It is a view filled with love and appreciation of the extraordinary things that are possible in such a world.
When we want other people to be like us, when we pass judgment on them for being different, for being “odd,” or “funny,” we are expressing our need for security, to be validated by the fact that there are no differences. When we feel safe enough to risk connection with them, then we grow.
This is not to say that we’ve got to love and accept everybody at close quarters. The more we understand our own behaviors and the reasons behind them, and the more we “see ourselves as others see us,” as Robert Burns said, the more we may come to accept our own oddities and funninesses; and we may come to feel that certain other oddities and funninesses that irritate our own may as well be avoided as much as possible—as long as we also learn that we need not judge the other, as long as we recognize our common humanity beneath the surface and do our best to “live together” in a more general sense.
You know, if Janis Joplin were to suddenly come to life, I don’t imagine that the inhabitants of Port Arthur would really like her any better now than they did twenty years ago, or she them. Her attention-getting devices were created in that conservative atmosphere to maximize the amount of attention, of irritation, not to create a bond that she couldn’t believe in, for whatever complex of reasons—but I’d like to think that the residents could appreciate her more as a fellow human being—adaptable, energetic, witty, creative. Who else could have given us that great attention-getting prayer:
Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedez-Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedez-Benz?
And I just wish, also, that someone she could have trusted in her lifetime could have gotten close enough to her to recognize and understand the need, the problem she was trying to solve, before the “solution” became destructive.
I wish that we might all look at one another and recognize and understand the common humanity behind all our odd and funny ways, so that we might feel, and indeed become, real and safe.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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