living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Resistance

Sebastian Moore: The Emergence of Self-Awareness & Original Sin

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In the previous section we discussed two awakenings to God as the ultimate cause of desire. In this section we will be exploring Sebastian Moore’s answer to the question of why such awakenings are necessary in the first place. Indeed, why not think of the normal, run of the mill, sorts of desire we experience in everyday life as being normative, while bracketing off the sorts of desire experienced when falling in love or during rather exceptional mystical experiences, as being simply odd quirks of human psychology?  The answer that Moore gives us is, in brief, that desire as experienced by most adults is but the latest form of a process that has a long history. And once this history is gotten in view it is possible to see that calling the emotion we feel in our daily lives “desire” is much like calling Superman merely “Clark.” In laying out Moore’s narrative of the “history” of human desire this chapter will finally bring into focus Moore’s theory of original sin: the loss of our original desire and resistance to its recovery.

Moore reads the history of desire in human life through our developmental history, both corporately and individually. Psychoanalytic theory is one of his principle dialogue partners in charting this territory. He is particularly interested in how psychoanalytic theorists like Margaret Mahler show us how children grow into self-aware existence through a series of crises. The two crises that Moore focuses on most are the separation crisis and the Oedipal crisis. In both cases these crises represent a narrowing down of awareness and desire. This process of individuation is good in that it the process of identity formation, but it comes at the cost of losing the security of one’s original union with being, most obviously symbolized as the child within the mother’s womb.

The Separation Crisis: From “We” to “I”

The separation crisis initiates the human habit of always measuring ourselves against the reactions of others. Following Mahler, Moore describes the process by which the child with newly developed motor skills begins the ecstatic adventure of charting the world beyond the safety of the mother.[1] The crucial point here is that this exploration requires an enormous amount of emotional support by the mother. Just the right balance must be struck between encouraging the child to be on its own and remaining a stable security in the background. However, no mother can ever offer such a consistent, emotionally-supported send off. And to the extent this is true, the infant gets the unbearable message: “either be a part of me, or be on your own.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 71.) Thus, this separation, this first experience of what it is like to be “I,” is less than ecstatic. This dynamic that begins with the mother is then extended to all others. “The imperfectly separated individual existence looks continually to the other whence it has been unable clearly to pull away. Not knowing ourselves apart from others is our trouble, to remedy which we look to others!” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

This initial phase in the birth of self-consciousness gives us the first part of our answer to the question of why our original goodness is more fundamental than our self-image (and therefore desire) as we experience it later in our developmental journey. It also explains why talk of our original goodness is puzzling to most of us, for, as Moore asks, “Why would anyone think of being him/herself other than the way they first came into consciousness? The world on which we first opened our eyes psychologically comes to be the world.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.) And to that extent, our emergence into self-aware existence impedes our awakening into luminous selfhood, for so long as we are looking to others for reassurance and measuring ourselves by their reactions, we are deaf to the “call from the depths of existence which says, ‘you are mine. You are not your family’s, your class’s, your race’s, your party’s. You are mine.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

Discovery on Lake Michigan

The Oedipal Crisis: From Yes to No

The second part of the answer to our question comes from a complexification of the child’s now reduced sense of desirability. This is the Oedipal phase. Here, desire makes its first translation from an original oneness with the mother into interpersonal feeling. In a tremendously intense, sexually undifferentiated love, the child makes a total bid for the mother’s affection. It is here that the child encounters a “mysterious rival:” the father. The father is mysterious due to the fact that he has a claim to the mothers affection in a different way than the child. So not only is the father a rival, but he is a different kind of rival. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.) The result of this asymmetrical collision is that the child’s total bid for the mother’s affection becomes a “no-no” and is repressed.[2] Of this repression Moore says, poignantly, that,

I suspect that this is an important part of that repression of our sense of being desirable which is the root of our weakened relationship with God, people, and the planet. That child’s total zest for life, the sense of being welcome everywhere without strings attached, meets its first great disappointment in the mother’s commitment to an ‘other’ in an ‘other’ way. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.)

In Freudian terms, the culmination of this crisis results in the repression of the Id (the total love-bid now become a no-no and repressed), followed by the emergence of sexually differentiated identity (the Ego), which is modeled and reinforced after one’s parental role model (the Superego). (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) In Moore’s thought, this forms the basis of his theory of original sin. Original sin, he says, “…is the universal, culturally propagated and reinforced, human response to the trauma of coming out of animality into self-awareness, into ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 88.) It is not simply the repression of our passionate nature that forms the birth of evil (as Moore reads Wilhelm Reich as arguing), but also the fact that “…in repressing our passionate nature we are discounting our desirability, which is our experience of ourselves as God’s desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) Without this element, our passionate nature can still be interpreted as “desire from emptiness” and thus be open to all the problems that attend such an anthropology (e.g. relations of dependence).

Once that is understood, then certainly we can say that repression is the origin of evil, and that what our transformation will consist in is the final befriending of all all that is in us that we have had to repress on our first steps into personhood. God is that infinite intelligence for which there is no such thing as evil. Evil arises out of our self-doubt on the part of God’s self-aware creatures. And the closer a person or a community comes to God, the more their ‘dark side’ becomes light. (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.)

And yet, to the extent that we remain “far from God,” much of life takes on a compulsive quality. As Ernest Becker has helped us see, viewed corporately, repression is culture. As such, to appropriate Robert Kegan’s language, culture functions as  a corporate “immunity system.” This partial view of our whole life, motivated as it is by the terror of death, thus compels us to live according to the biases of our family, class, ethnicity, and so on. For if we do not, we will leave ourselves open to the very threats that our collective immunity system was tailor made to protect us from. Seen in this light, Moore’s theory of original sin is not only original, but also universal.

The final point that needs to be understood in Moore’s theory of original sin is that it is not the limited, repressed life that we find ourselves in that constitutes our sin, but rather is it our decision to stay there, to say “this is all there is.” Life itself is a movement of growth and it is our resistance to growth that puts us at odds with life. In this way Moore seems to want to go further than Becker was able to bring himself. Our desire is made for more than merely the creative self-restriction that repression affords us. Desire longs for liberation. Failing this, Moore sees humanity as being “shut in” and “psychologically on top of each other.” Our desires are “limitless,” he says, “and need the limitless breathing-space of the spirit. Closed in, they make us mutually destructive.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 104.) In the next section we will consider Moore’s Christology which functions as his theological solution to this problem of original sin as the  narrowing of desire and resistance to its liberation.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] For this narrative Moore is relying on the following Margaret Mahler’s book: The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant.
[7] Following R.D. Laing, Moore stresses that repression is not only forgetting, but forgetting that you’ve forgotten.

The Structure of Growth: Robert Kegan’s Five Stages of Consciousness

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Some problems in life are impossible to solve; instead, they need to be transcended. One famous example that our culture continues to struggle with is the question of whether life ought to be lived by the passion of faith or, instead, by the critical application of reason. It seems to be a sensible question, yet the very terms in which the question is asked renders any solution impossible. There is no object of faith, even the most tightly held, that is immune from rational doubt, and likewise, no rational position is held in the absence of a passionate reason for holding it. But the example need not be so philosophical as this. Another more “everyday” example would be the question of how one can equally meet the relational commitments of their spouse, children, family of origin, as well as those of their professional life. The aphorism “you can’t make everyone happy” may be true, but that doesn’t stop most of us from burning ourselves out or compromising our relationships while under the illusion that it isn’t. Unlike problems that can simply be solved by the application of technical knowledge, like fixing a pipe that is leaking, or finding shelter when it starts to rain, many of life’s problems require a change in us before they can be moved past.

This may seem obvious. We might think that the person who is stuck in a crisis of faith just needs to realize that the world is a bit more complicated than their ridged concepts will allow for. The one who is struggling to balance their relational commitments simply needs to learn to say “no” and prioritize their time in a way more in line with the limitations of their life. And we might add to this that a person who wants to lose weight needs to stop eating so much and exercise more, right? Why is it, then, that such advice, though it can be seen to be perfectly logical, simply does not result in any lasting change for most of us? In fact, for most of us, problems of this nature are impossible to solve without undergoing the loss of our life as we know it.[1]

Adrian and Superior

Introducing Robert Kegan

Robert Kegan’s developmental stages theory of adult human development is a contemporary model of human maturation that has shown itself to have enormous power when it comes to clarifying the dynamics involved in human maturation. In recent years he has gone further, and with the help of Lisa Laskow Lahey he has developed a whole program designed to stimulate psychological growth. His work is enormously complex and is developed across numerous books, so I will be making no attempt to here capture the breadth of his thinking. Instead I will seek to briefly give a snapshot of his developmental theory, then relate it to the concept of “the immunity to change” that he and Laskow Lahey have recently developed. In doing this we will see, from a formal perspective, how the fear of death that Becker introduced us to is not experienced as a single reality, but manifests in qualitatively different ways at different points in our developmental journey. The contrast that Becker set up between “living a lie” and “going mad” is thus shown to be a bit too stark, yet at the threshold of developmental change his characterization probably maps quite well to the experience. Kegan will help us see why.

Kegan’s Five Orders of Consciousness

The essence of Kegan’s theory is that at each of the five transitions he identifies there develops a capacity to take the reality we see, feel, and know through, and make it an object that we can critically reflect on. In this sense, the dynamics of growth involve and ever growing capacity to move what is “subject for us,” to an object of reflection. Kegan and his colleagues have developed a what they call a “subject/object” inventory, which is a test that is able to locate what stage a person is at on the basis of which elements of their experience they are able to reflect upon and which elements constitute their act of seeing. These latter elements Kegan calls one’s “culture of embeddedness.” Such elements are not open to critical evaluation, for they constitute one’s self-experience. To transcend all cultures of embeddness would amount to what Becker felt was impossible: to live an unrepressed life.

These stages begin with infancy. What is subject for the infant is “the now.” The psyche of the infant operates atomistically and immediately. To even speak of an object of reflection at this stage strains our language, for the infant remains largely undifferentiated from its surroundings. Beyond infancy, the child starts to differentiate and is able to reflect on immediacy as an object. This makes possible the construction of “durable categories.” Peek-a-boo is no longer the thrill it once was because Mommy or Daddy cease to “magically appear” when they emerge from behind their hands. The category “Mommy” or “Daddy” thus become durable. The realities beyond the impression are understood to persist in time and space. This stage typically characterizes early childhood.

Next comes the ability move the durable categories from being subject to object and therefore being able to think trans-categorically. Mom and Dad now not only endure in time and space, but are recognized to have their own independent point of view. This stage typically characterizes early adolescence but many people operate at this stage their whole life. Kegan labels this stage as “traditionalism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the socialized mind” in Immunity to Change.

Beyond traditionalism comes the ability to move trans-categorical thinking from subject to object and therefore develop the capacity to think in terms of a system or complex. One is now able to operate from the standpoint of their own personal ideology. One attains the capacity to have a system of values distinct from Mom, Dad, and the culture at large. One can, for the first time, “be true to one’s self.” Kegan calls this stage “modernism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the self-authoring mind” in Immunity to Change. Research has shown that achieving this stage constitutes the developmental task that most of us (about 58% of the middle-class, college educated, people studied) currently face.

The last of Kegan’s five stages he calls “postmodernism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the self-transforming mind” in Immunity to Change. What characterizes this stage of mental complexity is the ability to hold one’s ideology out as an object of reflection and therefore develop the capacity to think trans-systemically. “Being true to one’s self” is here recognized as one conditioned option among many. The limits of one’s personal ideology are no longer felt as a threat. Mom and Dad are able to be forgiven for their own limited point of view. Less than one percent of all people studied have achieved this level of mental complexity.

Subjective Transcendence and the Fear of Death

Once this subject-object pattern of growth is seen, it is easy to understand how the fear of death appears in the normal course of our developmental journey. These transitions in which a whole way of knowing oneself and the world becomes dislodged and is looked at presents an enormous increase in potential perspective, but at the same time life as one had to this point known it is “lost.” All the familiar stepping stones are pulled from ones feet and a sort of nihilism washes over the self. Is it any wonder that, in view of Becker’s work, we frequently resist our own growth? Sometimes its easier to live with our impossible problems than it is to grow through them. Sometimes it’s not. But the paradox is that in order to move beyond the problem, one must cease to address it directly. Such problems are like the voice of a friend that you can hear beyond a high wall, but cannot yet see. In such a case, staring more intently at the wall is no solution. In the next section we will consider Kegan and Laskow Lahay’s attempt to facilitate growth when our impossible problems become too much to bear.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] This phrase by Kegan and Laskow Lahey beautifully disambiguates the fear of death that Becker introduced us to. As we will see, the experience of losing our life “as we know it” that occurs at the thresholds of developmental growth triggers the very same self-protective strategies that Becker identified. Kegan, 2009, 241.

Written by Alex

December 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm