CO-DEPENDENT HABITS IN BROAD CULTURE
INTERFERE WITH CAPACITY FOR COMPASSION AND JUSTICE
(Note: July 2013: This post is long – I’ve highlighted key points in ‘bold’ with hope it makes it easier to grasp an overview. See also other thoughts I’ve posted on co-dependency (enter in search box, low on right hand column); see also a post on whistle-blowers – our responses to whistle-blower actions are interesting in the context of co-dependency dynamics.
Further: as to insights, understandings, practices we can explore to extricate ourselves and one another from ‘inevitable’ cultural co-dependency — most if not all I feature through pages under “Essential Practices – Our 21st Century” are what I believe we need to bring into reality as societal ways of being. If we teach ourselves to practice principles of ‘conflict resolution’; ‘circle justice (in it’s contemporary ‘restorative’, ‘transformative’ forms); and ‘consensus (non-hierarchical) problem identification and solution-finding) – then I believe we will find ourselves living in societies that ‘can’t help’ but honor both individual and group needs and development.
For some time I’ve thought on Justice and Compassion. I’ve also thought Co-dependency is more common than we realize. This morning the three “collapsed themselves” into a single package of thought.
First: Justice and Compassion. I’ve often pair them, as in Justice/Compassion. I believe practice of one brings practice of the other. I have also cautioned elsewhere: by Justice, I do not mean vengeance. It is important to make this distinction. Justice/Compassion has intent of mercy. Justice with mercy recognizes human frailty. For convenience of discussion, I define ‘frailty’ as action that lacks justice/compassion. Justice is careful to honor frailty even as it demands “correction”, “adjustment”, or “reparation”. In this way, compassion participates with justice. Justice, when practiced without emotional urge to punish or squelch, honors frailty. Therefore, I find it helpful, reasonable, and perhaps even rational and logical to combine Justice with Compassion – to intentionally present the two concepts joined: Justice/Compassion.
I also believe this pair, Justice/Compassion, is inherent. I believe each of us is born with these two in place, ready to be developed into full understanding, ready to be practiced and perfected as best we can across our time of life. I base my belief on writings and teachings of many much more disciplined in their studies of “human nature” than I. I base my belief also on my own personal inclinations since birth. An urge, a call, to Justice/Compassion has long been with me, and is, I believe, with all children.
Over many years working with young children, ages 7 and 8 mostly, I witnessed their impulses, their responses to events around them.I have seen spontaneous facial expressions on every personality-type of child when they witness or hear of events that might demonstrate Justice/Compassion, or lack of same. A child’s contrast in facial expression will show ‘comfort’ or ‘discomfort’. These could also be expressions of ‘security, safety’ or of ‘insecurity, uncertain safety’. Because their personalities can be so different, yet these responses, to perceived Justice/Compassion (or lack of same), are so remarkably consistent – I find the impulse to recognize Justice/Compassion “universal”, therefore “inherent”, inborn. I add that these children, for all their personality differences, also consistently practice Justice/Compassion in many events of their experience. Their practice is spontaneous – adding to evidence of inborn universal recognition of Justice/Compassion.
Co-dependency, however, I do not believe inborn. Co-dependency – for clarification – is not interdependency. Interdependency describes behavior that serves “cooperation in equality“; interdependency ‘knows’ we need one another but have no right to use ‘power-over’ to ‘get our way’. Co-dependency is based in ‘inequality’. Co-dependency describes an “unhealthy” relationship, in which Justice/Compassion are set aside to protect needs that the relationship provides. A co-dependent relationship is active when “neediness” dominates choice of response to an event. (“Neediness” nearly always springs from very real, often deep, unmet needs or insecurities about them – in co-dependency, power and fear about the needs are present.)
I believe co-dependency develops out of other inborn qualities. Vulnerability – the very real vulnerability of a newborn human – helps us develop co-dependent survival strategies very early. Needs dominant, the infant has no ‘equality of power’ to caregivers. “Power and fear” are present in ‘raw’ form at the most basic level in relationship between infant and caregiver. Few escape this, if my observations of our general culture are on track.
For the sake of discussion, I distinguish between ‘frailty’ and ‘vulnerability’. I’m saying “vulnerability” is “at the receiving end” (victim is vulnerable), and “frailty” explains action that commits injustice/non-compassion. Frailty also explains ignoring situations when we witness injustice/non-compassion. I’m suggesting vulnerability and frailty are both present at birth, that vulnerability leads to fear and insecurity, which leads to self-protective behaviors that easily become ‘frailty’, (inability to act, or preference to ‘overlook’ situations that call for justice/compassion).
Frailty, inability to act with Justice/Compassion when events call for it, is the mark of “co-dependency”. Related and entangled, “felt” vulnerability dominates the (frail) response to injustice/non-compassion. This is the case even in adults, even when bodies and minds are not threatened with physical harm.
These co-dependent responses: ignoring, “not seeing”, and injustice/non-compassion out of felt vulnerability – are very much in our culture. They are present throughout social/political/economic activity. They are centered in felt vulnerability of our secure place in relationships. We experience felt vulnerability in families, and within communities to which we belong. Much of our felt vulnerability is focused on maintaining income-related relationships – financial security is a significant part of nearly all our relationships. These take on political quality when we behave much as a politician might: we withhold comment here, or advance “soothing” comment there, for the sake of maintaining a relationship. A relationship we believe and experience as essential to our security in some way.
It is fair to observe that all relationships have elements of ‘political maneuvering’, that from moment to moment, we engage in ‘withholding’ or ‘soothing’ for the sake of relationship. We are, after all, “hard-wired” to social relationship! But we also know situations that lack justice/compassion can arise in any relationship: consumer-marketer, citizen-government, client-servicer, member-organization, individual-group (including within families). When we are unable to respond in a corrective way to such events, we are behaving out of our insecurity, our felt vulnerability. This is co-dependent behavior.
Genuine wisdom, genuine maturity, exists when co-dependent behaviors are recognized and challenged by an individual. When someone leaves a situation thinking: “I should have spoken up – what was happening was not ‘right””, this individual privately recognizes need to challenge on behalf of Justice/Compassion. Sometimes the individual later has thoughts along the lines of: “But if I had spoken up, so-and-so might have been embarrassed; I genuinely like so-and-so, and did not want to embarrass him/her.” This thinking is either co-dependent, or potentially so. With less personal relationships, when we think, “What happened to that person or those people is injustice/non-compassionate” but I can’t do anything because I’m not involved”, or “the risks to my security are too great”, our thinking is co-dependent, or potentially so.
A choice to act on behalf of justice/compassion, once ignored, is not ‘gone’. A person can decide: “I will bring this up privately with my friend (my colleague, my fellow-committee member) … and do so within the week or quite soon.”, or “now that I know this can happen, I will respond differently and not ignore the next time.” Other choices are to say to oneself: “I’m no good at confrontation, it makes me feel very uncomfortable, I don’t know how to bring this up with my friend, (colleague, boss, members of my committee …), which might lead to: “I’ll find a more comfortable way to support justice/compassion (perhaps by working with a group known to be active on issues of justice/compassion.)
A main reason we cannot act is that we have not learned to be comfortable “confronting”. This is entangled with all our ‘protecting relationships at all costs’, and is co-dependent. It is also a wide-spread experience. When ‘confrontation’ is needed, a wash of uncomfortable, even painful, feelings are experienced. We know confrontation is needed but have no skill or practice, do not know how to go about it.
It occurs to me dis-comfort with confrontation is based – first, of course, in our infant experience of vulnerability. We each have long-forgotten this, but have carried it for all our years. Across those same years, we have been taught, by others and by social convention, that there is something “not nice” about confrontation. (This is often true! Because we don’t know how to accomplish confrontation, we frequently “explode” in anger , frustration, or tears!) Part of our learning has been by our own experience and observation, which feeds back to “socialization processes”. Speaking up to another, or to an audience (family or otherwise) when confrontation is not understood and respected, can teach us to “withdraw”, or to smile (soothe), and “give the moment a pass”.
Across these years of learning, we also coach ourselves to “rationalize” our choices of silence when Justice/Compassion is called for. We hear constant public conversation “explaining away” why “Justice/Compassion” is “not politically available at this time.” We hear ourselves and friends explaining to one another why we do not take steps to address situations lacking Justice/Compassion. Sometimes we make the argument that recipients of unjust/non-compassionate action “brought it on themselves”, or offer an alternative: “It must be karma (or God’s will) for that person, that group”.
With time, these co-dependent behaviors become “normalized”. Our many practices of thought and non-action toward situations calling for Justice/Compassion, feel “normal”. We explain this also. We say, “Frailty is our human condition, it is normal, we cannot rise above it or go beyond it.” Many a child eventually outgrows capacity to spontaneously recognize moments when Justice/Compassion, or lack of these, is at work.
Because of years of practice with confrontation-avoidance, and all the ways we rationalize it, accept its normalcy, explain our frailty, we are inclined to give the entire issue of Justice/Compassion a pass! We are unaware, even, there is individual, and societal, exploration to be made!
The entire whole culture must be ‘pegged’ as having strong ‘co-dependent practices’! Since everyone is protecting relationships, is practicing confrontation avoidance, believes speaking-up potentially harmful to valued relationships, and since everyone is practicing rationalization for why we do as we do – it can feel extremely uncomfortable to do any challenging, even when called for! People have lost jobs, and suffered much worse, for speaking up.
I write of these awarenesses because I have experienced them, and do still. All of them. I could go on at length about the challenge of self-challenge. I could add much more detail and description of our co-dependent ways and explanations for avoiding confrontation when it is called for in the name of Justice/Compassion.
Before I close, I want to toss in an observation on yet another component of how we feel about relationships and why we practice co-dependency. Individual and cultural experience/attitudes on “embarrassment”, “shame” and “guilt” are in the mix! These three emotional experiences are curious. We certainly were not born with them! They thrive in cultural practices of judgment of ourselves and of one another. The felt discomforts of embarrassment, shame and guilt drive our reluctance to challenge others. We dread the feelings in ourselves, and do not want, by challenging, to create these in another, (besides, it’s ‘not polite’). If your friend (family member, colleague, boss, or a community or political leader) behaves unjustly, without compassion, and you cannot challenge because you are “pre-aware” of the deep unpleasantness of “embarrassment”, “shame”, and “guilt”, or if you suffer these out of self-examination, I point this out to you: no infant was born to know embarrassment, shame, and guilt – not in the way they’ve become ‘manipulative devices’. (The more ‘natural’, ‘healthy’, function we carry that is similar to these would be ‘remorse’ – a private, reflective, experience of regretting ones own actions.)
Listen to across-the-board chatter, in the news, among yourself and friends talking about current affairs. Listen to political talk … just listen to “culture”, to “society”. Its language, its thoughts, are rife with judgment. At close range, where it matters personally, judgment, if practiced at all, is far more comfortably directed outward at individuals and groups. We deflect discomfort of self-examination, (such discomfort can be deep indeed), by joining into judgment of others. Embarrassment, shame, and guilt, if they must be experienced, are preferred elsewhere! (It is not me or my friend who is lacking justice in this matter, it is another, others.)
We’ve been at this – at “co-dependent” behavior and all associated practices, emotions, avoidances to confrontation to unjust/non-compassionate behaviors – for thousands of years, generation upon generation.
One wonders, and it’s a reasonable question: Just how can we manage to shift ourselves out of these practices? The good news is that the process of shifting started some decades ago. Both at the social level and at the personal level, the foolishness of needless embarrassment, shame, and guilt is known. Miserable experience continued by co-dependent practice can be overcome. New practices can be brought in to replace the old. Practices such as “conflict resolution” and “justice circles” have been taught, are being taught, and are practiced. Each of these is particularly valuable in appoaches to non-vengeful confrontation; each is geared to increase understanding and healing when injustice/non-compassion needs to be addressed. Personal psychology work has gone quite some distance addressing individual discovery of “essential self”. So too, have some practices in the spiritual exploration realm. Each of these can be explored, studied, by individuals wanting to step past “culturally based co-dependent approaches to life.”
But even individuals aware of conflict resolution, justice circles, and “essential self” feel overwhelmed at times personally, and many times culturally, when they would bring “confrontation” talents, skills, and understandings to the “broad cultural field” of practice. We are only just beginning to find our way!
My suggestion is we relax “just enough” to more frequently tackle the topic of our co-dependent broad-cultural habits. Above I noted we “normalize” our co-dependent behaviors by “explaining them away”. We can take “normalization” deeper, by realizing that our co-dependent behavior can itself be explained – not as appropriate, not as our best choice, but that it is ‘normal’ for us to have all these trans-generational ways of protecting ourselves. We can relax, release any embarrassment, and decide to address the co-dependency that permeates our culture.
I have posted these observations – to “stir up” the topic of cultural co-dependency and how it interferes with practice of Justice/Compassion. The topic itself can be explored “objectively”, as a topic worthy of discussion! It can become comfortable as a discussion. Such a discussion need not only happen when there is an issue of injustice/non-compassion to resolve. The topic can become fruitfully comfortable when pursued away from an immediate event that calls for action!
On behalf of Justice/Compassion, within and for all of us, I submit these thoughts to you.
My Best To Each of You – MaggieAnn