Religion, Fundamentalism, Gnosticism: Part XI

Genesis associates abstraction and adultery, suggesting that abstraction is the opposite of love. This is, curiously, one of the themes that emerges from the CPTSD or complex trauma literature.

Proper socialization of a child entails discipline. The latter is an unpopular term, but recall that it shares a root with “disciple” to more easily understand it as something like “training in useful skills with a combination of affection and correction.” Successful discipline involves a great deal of attention, and a kind of negotiation, responding to the preferences and peculiarities of each child. We may call this feature “mirroring.” 

A child disciplined in this manner gains a partial but meaningful mastery of his environment and of his emotions. He recognizes his own desires as legitimate, but admits their limits: they must be negotiated with reality and other people. The result is a measured self-esteem and agency, which may be described as “inner-direction.” In this context, Bessel van der Kolk speaks of an “internal locus of control”: 

“A secure attachment [to a parent] combined with the cultivation of competency builds an internal locus of control, the key factor in healthy coping throughout life…Securely attached kids learn the difference between situations they can control and situations where they need help. They learn that they can play an active role when faced with difficult situations. In contrast, children with histories of abuse and neglect learn that their terror, pleading, and crying do not register with their caregiver. Nothing they can do or say stops the beating or brings attention and help.”

The absence of attentive discipline, or mirroring, is perhaps the most damaging aspect of childhood abuse and neglect. Because children not properly attended to find their desires ignored, held in contempt, or punished, their own desires cease to motivate them. They become “other-directed.” Moreover, since children learn to interpret and regulate emotion through mirroring, in its absence, their untutored stress responses tend to be primal—fight, flight, or freeze—and these may be, after all, well adapted to their situation at home.

The end product is an adult whose self-regard and motivation are dependent on an external world he considers, unequivocally, an enemy. He will use desperate tricks consistent with his habitual stress response: 

1.    A fight type approaches the enemy, either assertively, by means of grandiosity or bullying, or passively, by means of fawning or manipulation. 

2.    A flight type seeks safety in busyness and performance. He is the workaholic, the compulsive runner, and the fastidious in charity or religious observance. 

3.    A freeze type gives up, and loses himself in the dissociation of over-intellectualization or fantasy. He might be a college professor or a drunkard. Sometimes both. 

Two more features of complex trauma are relevant here. First, since abandoned children can trust neither their own desires and intuitions, nor the dangerous other, they are hyper-vigilant. This makes them intolerant of ambivalence; they need to know, at a glance, whether a newcomer is friend or foe.  

Second, because hypervigilance is exhausting, those with complex trauma tend to adopt secondary stress responses, or coping mechanisms. These may include overeating, smoking, drugs, alcohol, porn, promiscuity, and other sexual deviancy. 

Complex trauma does not require overt physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. It is, for example, reliably produced by the “better whipped than damned” mentality not uncommon in religious families. This has its advantages for the cult, since complex trauma victims make excellent recruits to fundamentalist or Gnostic movements, whether political or religious. 

Fundamentalism affirms the intuitions of complex trauma—that the individual is broken, that the world is corrupt, and that there is no ambivalence, only good guys and bad guys—but specifies who the good guys are, and how one may join their ranks. Fundamentalism may either indulge the destructive coping mechanisms mentioned above, or invite the inductee to replace them with the new faith, but in either case, the underlying dysfunction is left untouched, because it is the cult’s very glue. 

And the underlying dysfunction is a failure of love. The fight type treats others as manipulable objects. The flight type mediates the interpersonal with activity and accomplishment. The freeze type withdraws and fantasizes. In every case an abstraction from the complex ambivalence of reality. 

Love is a matter of intention and, above all, attention: attentive discipline rather than the lockstep of the cult. It is agonistic, grappling with reality, rather than a fixed rule. This is why, in the Christian tradition, a few thou-shalt-nots specify what love is not, and the rest is specific to context. Fundamentalism destroys love by a denial either of reality (the thou-shalt-nots), or of contingency.

To return to Mr. Hurrell’s question, perhaps “what the woke want” is a Gnostic fantasy to match the intuitions of their trauma.

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