Character Development

In Awareness Through Movement, Moshe Feldenkrais proposed:

The general tendency toward social improvement in our day has led directly to a disregard, rising to neglect, for the human material which society is built… Individuals, rightly or wrongly, tend to identify their self-images with their value to society… Despite the fact that the inherited differences between people are obvious, there are a few individuals who view themselves without reference to the value attributed them by society. like a man trying to force a square peg into a round hole, so the individual tries to smooth out his biological peculiarities by alienating himself from his inherent needs. He strains to fit himself into the round hole he now actively desires to fill, for if he fails in this, his value will be so diminished to his own eyes as to discourage further initiative…

He continues:

In all human activity, it is possible to isolate successive stages of development…At first these things (are) done “naturally,” that is, in the same way that animals perform whatever is necessary in their lives…At the times and places where there (is) a new development, we always find a [second] special, individual stage. That is, certain persons found their own personal, special way of carrying out the activities that came naturally…When a certain process can be done any number of ways, somebody may appear who will see the importance in the process itself, apart from the way it is carried out by any individual. He will find something in common in individual performances and will define the process as such. In this, the third stage, the process is being carried out according to a specific method as the result of knowledge, and no longer naturally…

…We may observe, natural practices have gradually given way to acquired methods, to “professional” methods, and that society in general refuses to allow the individual the right to employ the natural method, forcing him instead to learn the accepted way before it will permit him to work…

… The power of the system is so great in their eyes that even the little they learned in their childhood of these things is gradually expunged from their self-image because they are occupied mainly with activities that they learned systematically and consciously. While such people are very useful to society, they lack spontaneity and their lives are difficult in areas outside their professional, learned field.

We thus come back to the need to examine and improve our self-image so that we can live in accordance with our natural constitution and gifts and not in accordance with the self-image established by chance, more or less without our knowledge.

Feldenkrais concludes:

The education provided by society operates in two directions at once. It suppresses every nonconformist tendency through penalties of withdrawal of support and simultaneously imbues the individual with values that force him to overcome and discard spontaneous desires… Every aspiration and spontaneous desire is subjected to stringent internal criticism lest they reveal the individual’s organic nature… The only compensation that makes life durable despite these sacrifices is the satisfaction derived from society’s recognition of the individual who achieves a definition of success.

…The satisfaction derived from the actions even when they are successful is not revitalizing organic satisfaction, but merely a superficial, external one.

Very slowly, over the years, a man comes to convince himself that society’s recognition of success should and does give him organic contentment…And, indeed, the private organic life and the gratification of needs deriving from strong organic drives are almost unimportant to the successful existence of the mask and its social value. The great majority of people live active and satisfactory enough lives behind their masks to enable them to stifle more or less painlessly any emptiness they may feel whenever they stop and listen to their heart.

.     .     .     .

I recently began to reading a chapter book to my son for the first time. My wife and I have read to him almost daily since he was 9 months old (if not earlier) and – up until now – he has “read along” looking at the illustrations. Now that he is getting older, I wanted to try to foster his visual imagination and I have begun reading a couple chapters per night to him from an un-illustrated text to try to encourage his imagination and curiosity while improving his attention and (hopefully) enhancing his desire to read about something other than NASCAR.

The first book that I selected was Stuart Little. In case you are unfamiliar with the story – which I am reading for the first time and am only half-way through – Stuart is a mouse who (somehow) is the child of a human family. His mother, father and brother are all human. There are two other characters that live in the Little home, Margalo (a rescued bird) and Snowbell (a white Persian cat).

The beginning of Chapter 10 begins:

Snowbell [the cat] had several friends in the neighborhood…[including] a beautiful young Angora who had escaped from a cage in a pet shop on Third Avenue and had gone to live a free life of her own in the tool house of the small park near Stuart’s home.

One fine spring evening, Snowbell had been to call on the Angora in the park. He started home, late , and it was such a lovely night she said that she would walk along with him to keep him company. When they got to Mr. Little’s house, the the two cats sat down…Snowbell began telling his friend about Margalo and Stuart [the bird and mouse that lived in the home with him].

“Goodness,” said the Angora cat, “you mean to say you live in the same house with a bird and a mouse and don’t do anything about it?”

“That’s the situation,” replied Snowbell. “But what can I do about it? Please remember that Stuart is a member of the family and the bird is a permanent guest, like myself.”

“Well,” said Snowbell’s friend, “all I can say is that you’ve got more self control than I have.”

“Doubtless,” said Snowbell. “However, I sometimes think I’ve got too much self control for my own good. I’ve been terribly nervous and upset lately, and I think it’s because I’m always holding myself in.”

“Look here,” the Angora cat said to Snowbell, “I admit that a cat has a duty toward her own people, and that under the circumstances it would be wrong for you to eat the bird. But I’m not a member of your family and there’s nothing to stop me from meeting her, is there?”

“Nothing that I can think of offhand,” said Snowbell.

.     .     .     .

When I first began home care physical therapy, I was excited. I had seen the effects and impact that the outpatient therapy clinic had on my patients. I had come to realize that a clinic with 20 other patients, open doors, and a large gym is not the place to be one’s authentic-self, especially when they are in pain. It was my impression that by visiting the patient in their own home I would have an opportunity to work with them in an environment where they would be able to truly thrive, in their most authentic or natural state. It would be their opportunity to be their inner-Angora, the creature who was able to escape the cage to live a free life of her own.

Unfortunately, the patient in the home is often no different than the patient in the clinic. Worse yet, I have come to witness that the patient’s least authentic self is often on display in the home and for their family. Perhaps the patient feels pressured to put on a show for loved ones to appear stronger than they might actually feel. In other instances, they are forced to remain stoic as they are constantly reminded of their inadequacy as they watch caregivers complete household tasks that were once their own responsibilities. Meanwhile, they remain home-bound and feel trapped, unable to move away from or escape a harsh reality that they never asked for or expected and have difficulty coping with. Regardless of their motives, my patients in the home care environment are exposed – and succumb – to the same societal pressures within the walls of their own residence as they do outside of it.

What I failed to appreciate 20 months ago was that the culture does not stop at one’s door step. Even in the confines and security of one’s home, the culture does not stop impacting the self. Instead, the self has already (and will continue to be) impacted by a culture from which it cannot escape. Whether I see them in the home or in the clinic, that which was once natural to each patient has long since been stripped away from the person, leaving them hiding behind a poorly constructed mask meticulously sculpted by the society in which they live. They carry their mask always, in the home or out.

Like Snowbell, they are working hard to keep themselves in and keep their masks up. Is it possible that they too are exercising too much self-control for their own good?

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