The birth of a human being marks the beginning of the darkest trauma of the most brutal kind — the rape of innocence. Cutting of the umbilical cord symbolizes the original separation anxiety from our Creator, the mother. Unfortunately, her intense cries of agony are met with camera flashes, smiles, high-fives, and congratulations among doctors, nurses, and family members. I can’t help but wonder what words a newborn would have for all those around her if only she could express herself in a language that adults could understand.
While our caretakers, the religious guard, and society at large generally mean well, the nurture effect ensures that, as a child grows, her capacity to see into her own soul and the souls of others keeps diminishing with time. Freud’s ID, ego, and superego begin to cast their shadows on her soul. The innocent soul loses its divinity with each passing day.
The field of Positive Psychology is dedicated to reversing the effects of this erosion of soul. Gratitude Interventions, such as those tested and reported by Seligman and Steen (Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions, 2005) have shown promise. While reading the article titled Positive Psychology: An Introduction, authored by the renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman, I came upon a poignant moment in this largely scientific body of work.
While Seligman was weeding the garden, his daughter, Nikki, kept asking him questions that seemed to annoy her father. Upon sensing his annoyance, Nikki said, “And if I can stop whining, you can stop being a grouch.”
This affected Seligman deeply and shifted how he thought about psychology. He went on to see this exchange as a moment of strength for his daughter, a strength which he calls“seeing into the soul” — a rare but refreshing acknowledgment by a scientist about the existence of a soul. As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how that interaction between the daughter and father rewired Nikki’s brain. What did it do to her emotional template? There are many more Nikkis out there who don’t have an intuitive and perceptive father like Martin Seligman. What if that incident had turned abusive for some of them? What if such an abuse was repetitive and not limited to weeding in the garden? What kind of weeds would an innocent soul be infested with if Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) were to continue for prolonged periods of time?
The documented effects of ACE are far too widespread and much too common in the world around us. An innocent soul is morphed into an anxious, depressed, suicidal, angry, and/or addicted mortal who is filled with shame, guilt, helplessness, and other complex feelings to which the entire field of psychology and psychiatry is dedicated.
Some cynics would correctly argue that some of us are living a positive, resilient, and authentically happy existence that is as close to the core of our soul as it can get. I would argue that such lives are adaptations of our character strengths as outlined by the work of Peterson and Seligman in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, 2004. It is reasonable to assume that the hierarchical ranking of such virtues and character strengths was impacted by our childhood experiences. While some experience a remarkably happy and uneventful childhood, how would the ranking of our unique strengths shift if those childhood experiences were adverse and happened over a prolonged period of time? Is it possible that some develop perspective and spirituality — which are generally considered “positive” character strengths — as the top two strengths because these children had to understand the world of abuse with a different perspective? Did developing spirituality give them the strength to tide through those difficult dissociative periods?
The field of Positive Psychology has the right intent – “…to contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people…” (What is Positive Psychology, Gable & Haidt, 2005). However, even experts like Seligman agree that work lies ahead before we can stop traumatizing the innocence of a newborn’s soul.
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