Where the Wild Things Are

My son and I saw Where the Wild Things Are, last night. Maurice Sendak originally published the book in 1963, the year I was born. Dave Eggers adapted the screenplay for the movie which was directed by Spike Jonze. Jonze and Eggers collaborated with Sendak on the film.

A lot of people are angry about this movie because they say it’s too violent, dark and depressing for a kids movie.  Maybe it is.  Rumor has it that Warner Brothers was going to scrap the whole project because they thought it was too dark.  But in the end they gave Jonze time to lighten it up a bit.

Had I been taking very young children to the film, I may have been a bit disturbed, too.  But I didn’t read this book to very young children because it’s not meant for young kids. I think most people know this. There were very few kids in the theater when my son and I viewed the film.  It is rated PG, after all.  There were a few kids, but the vast majority of the theater was filled with adults and teens.

Max, the main character of the film, is at least five years old.  He’s at a major developmental turning point. Three and four year olds aren’t going to get it!

I first read Where the Wild Things Are when I was in Kindergarten. I was 5 years old.  I got it from the school library and checked it out so many times that the school librarian got angry with me and told me I needed to give other kids a chance to read it, too.  I can’t tell you exactly what appealed to me about the book.  I suppose I was a kind of wild child. Probably ADD, although it wasn’t medicated back then. Just threatened. My mother said she had to keep a picture of me from when I was four to remind her of how sweet I could be. Developmentally, 5 & 6 is a difficult age for parents to deal with.  I have never  had a stitch of issues with my daughter (who is almost 15) except when she was 5 or 6 years old!

Around six years of age is known developmentally as the narcissistic stage of our development.  At six years old, we have become somewhat world savvy, yet we have not yet acquired the ability to see beyond ourselves. No matter what charming creatures we may be, at six years old, everything is about us.  The Twilight Zone had a fantastic episode called, “It’s a Good Life” about a six year old who has mutant powers and controls the world.  This child is considered a monster.  What the show makes clear is that you don’t want a six-year old controlling your world!!  And if you do have a six-year old controlling your world, you better do everything in your power to make him or her happy or else that child will make your life absolutely miserable.

One of the points that The Twilight Zone is making is that very often, adults are stuck in that six-year old level of development and don’t require mutant powers to control the world.  All they need is intellectual brilliance, a good marketing scheme, and a bunch of people willing to keep them happy.

But Max is a 6 year old and is going through what every single 6 year old goes through. He’s not always so nice.  And when things don’t go his way, he gets really angry and acts out in sometimes very violent ways.

So back to my Kindergarten days.  When I was five and six years old, I was deathly afraid that the end of the world was around the corner.  Seriously.  We had to do those crazy “duck and cover” drills in case of a nuclear disaster and I had seen that guy getting his brains blown out in in Saigon in 1968 on NBC prime time news.   I remember my mother apologizing to me for having seen it and we weren’t allowed to watch the news (or much of anything on television) after that.   I had nightmares for months afterward.  I don’t think anybody had ever seen anything like that on television, before.  And even though television has become increasingly violent, I don’t think they’ve shown anything quite like that on prime time since.   That was televised execution!

If you are 5 or 6 years old and are going through natural narcissistic development while the world around you seems permanently fixated at this stage, then “Where the Wild Things Are” is likely to resonate with your world.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, his mother called him “WILD THING!”

He was sent to bed with nothing to eat.   And in his room, a forest grew “until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”

Personally, I think the best fantasy occurs in this way – when you can walk into a wardrobe or a picture in your home that leads to another world.  You don’t have to run away from home to access it. It’s already there, just waiting to be discovered. But in the movie, Max’s mother doesn’t send him to his room.  He runs away from home.  He has to physically leave to access this other world.  It’s not waiting dormant for him in his room, like it is in the book.   My son and I were both deeply upset that the movie changed this aspect of the book.

But either way, Max sails “in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are” who roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws.

Max confronts the dark side and tells it “Be Still!”  And it complies. For this, he is made king of the wild things. He doesn’t run from the dark side in fear.  He becomes king and demands a wild rumpus. But despite the rumpus, the king of all wild things discovers he is lonely.  The only thing that will solve his loneliness is to leave the wild things and go home.   The wild things don’t want him to go and tell him they will eat him up because they love him so.  They roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws.  But Max steps into his boat and waves good-bye.   He sales back over a year and in and out of weeks to find dinner waiting for him in his room.  And it’s still hot.

That’s the book.  If you want to know how the movie differs, go see it!  The monsters are our egoic mind.  They are what we project “out there”.  Sendak said he had drawn the monsters according to his aunts and uncles.  So these monsters are definitely adults, but they act like Max! They are narcissistic projections. And what do these narcissistic projections do?  Demand happiness from one another, which, of course, comes at the expense of actual happiness!

Most six year-olds go through their necessary narcissistic stint and quickly figure out that wanting things to be the way they want them to be does not bring them what it is they want.  And so they grow up and begin to recognize the genuine importance of “other”.  Yet, our politicians, corporate leaders, and others who have a significant impact on our world often seem to be stuck “where the wild things are”.

Potential Spoiler Warning….

In the movie, the wild things are willing to let Max go although they don’t want him to go.   There is a sort of mutual “growing up”.  In the book, the wild things don’t want Max to go and threaten to eat him up.  The wild things don’t change. They remain wild.  But Max moves on, anyway.  And despite what horrible things he did to deserve to be sent to his room without dinner, he returns.  There dinner is – and it’s still hot.  Forgiveness.

Our ego doesn’t want us to change and when we want to leave it behind, it becomes angry.  It roars its terrible roar and gnashes its terrible teeth and rolls its terrible eyes and shows its terrible claws.  It becomes exceedingly relentless and increasingly boisterous.  We either give in and remain in that narcissistic state, or we wave good-bye with forgiveness and without judgment.

Why Is it Always About You?

Supposedly, most U.S. citizens have unhealthy levels of narcissism. Do you think this is true?  And if narcissists are incapable of knowing they are narcissists, how can we be certain of our answer?

I grew up with a mother who was unable to recognize the existence of a separate “self” in her children. The attempt to create even the most meager of boundaries was met with violent opposition. My mother would read my mail, listen in on my phone calls, spy on my interactions with friends, and then would correct my interactions with her advice on how I “should have” handled those interactions. I played competitive tennis and my mother was always there on the sidelines, taking notes and presenting me with what I “should have done” after the matches.

Perfectionism was the name of the game and it was impossible to live up to her expectations. There was no recognition that who I was, was different than who she was.  If I did something that didn’t meet with her approval, she either deemed me worthless or boycotted me for months on end for daring to cross her – even when it really had nothing to do with her at all. My worth was completely dependent upon my ability to meet her needs and expectations. What I wanted out of life didn’t matter. What mattered was what she wanted for me.

Anyway, I bring this up because I just finished Sandy Hotchkiss’ book, Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. I’ve read a lot about narcissim over the years because I’ve always been worried about passing on to my kids what was done to me. I don’t think I am a narcissist, but how would I know? Especially if narcissists don’t know they are narcissistic? Of course, Hotchkiss claims narcissists don’t worry about being narcissists so maybe that’s a healthy sign. But I found her book to be really confusing in this regard. How objective can anyone be about their “self”? How we view ourselves is necessarily subjected to our personal point of view. It can’t be objective!

Before all of her advice, she adds the disclaimer that we need to be objective about our narcissistic tendencies. OK??  How do we go about being objective about a tendency that is exceptionally subjective?  I want to know how not to continue the unhealthy pattern and Hotchkiss’ books said it would provide that help. But I didn’t find it helpful.

She takes stabs at the narcissism in New Age religion and claims that the growth of narcissism is thanks to the “Me Generation”. But that just seems like a huge oversimplification to me. The onset of narcissim can be traced back to the beginnings of the industrial age when men relinquished their parental roles to the women. The U.S. government had a huge marketing plan to help with this transition by encouraging women to become “angels in the household”. Females were told to repress their needs for the sake of the family. The “angel in the household” expectation was a completely unreasonable expectation!  So what happens when women didn’t meet it or refused to meet it? They were made to feel ashamed and so of course took these feelings out on their children. What other recourse did they have?

As much as I detest the New Age movement, it’s not New Age religion, and the “Me Generation” of the 1980s, and the self esteem movement of the 1990s that has created narcissism. It’s the attempt, in whatever guise, to suppress the shame that has created it. Most of conservative Christianity is heavily narcissistic, too, for the same reason.

I guess what bothered me about Hotchkiss’ book is that it just felt like more of the same old, same old. What good does it do to try and get people to feel ashamed if it is an inability to deal with shame that has created the problem in the first place? Hotchkiss is clear about this in terms of how to deal with narcissists, while at the same time clearly viewing their behavior as shameful.

I just think the only way we are going to get through this “disease” is with a whole lot of compassion for one another.   We each need to be able to look at the darker side of our natures, but that’s extremely difficult to do when we’ve been taught to reject all that is dark through our American Christian heritage.  For instance, is Hotchkiss in touch with her darker nature, or did she write this book as an attempt to deny it? She tells us we have to treat narcissists like children and that we can’t make them feel shame. But if we genuinely believe their behavior is shameful, then it seems to me we’re simply shoving our own shame and narcissistic tendencies off on to these people we’ve labled narcissists.

It’s a very slippery slope!

Persona (1966)

Persona has to be one of the best movies I have ever seen! It was like watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. for the first time and there are a lot of similarities which makes me wonder if Lynch, perhaps, was partially inspired by this Bergman film? I don’t remember reading anything about it when I was on my Lynch kick, but will look it up, later.

The commentary is given by Marc Gervais, a University Professor and Jesuit Priest. I love the fact that a Bergman expert is a Jesuit Priest.

Persona is a deconstruction film in that it points to the unreality of film, but likewise shows the unreality of “reality”.  All of reality is perhaps some sort of thing we can’t come to grips with. Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson are the main stars.  Anderson had been in several Bergman movies prior to this one, but Ullmann was relatively new to the movie scene and her role was entirely silent. (Bibi had been Bergman’s lover but Ullman was taking her place, so a lot of the film is potentially about Bergman’s confusion of the two.)

Everything is “in an ting”: Nothing.

What I got from the film was the idea that everything we see “out there” exists within us as well.  All our interpretations are just that – personal interpretations, not reality.  Bergman had been hospitalized with a sort of nervous breakdown and wrote this film in his hospital bed. He says he had the experience of existing to not-existing. When he experienced non-existence, nothing could get to him. You have to wonder: is that a form of mystical experience? Does he mean all the stuff out there that could potentially get to him couldn’t get to him? Or the realization of nothingness could no longer get to him?  Either way, it’s probably the same thing.

My other thought was his use of the vampire image because the vampire image is the essence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There have been clinical articles claiming Bergman was NPD and that may true, although he seems far too self-aware to actually be NPD.  It’s a lack of self-awareness that defines NPDs. If you know you are NPD, then unless you are exploiting your NPDism because someone has slapped that label on you, you likely aren’t NPD.

I think a lot of us who are somewhat older, especially in Bergman’s period, have grown up with mothers who were at least borderline NPD simply based on cultural expectation. With the introduction of the industrial age at the turn of 1900s, the role of women shifted dramatically from being one of co-parenter to being the primary parent. This parent was supposed to be the “angel in the kitchen”. She was no longer able to be an individual, she existed entirely for her family – the angel of the family.  There have been very few studies on motherhood, but the few that exist show this trend: women had to exterminate their individual identities for the sake of the greater good, and this had trickle down effects because once men left the household to work in industry, they no longer had much effect at home. Women were far more influential than men at home, but this influence very often came in the form of a sort of coldness because the role of woman had been reduced to something that completely degraded the intellectual capacity of the female.

Bergman seems to understand this in Ullman’s character, but you wonder if he understands it in the character of his own mother which he viewed as extremely cold? He seems to blame his parents more than he understands them, although perhaps he came to a sort of understanding in Wild Strawberries.

Anyway, fascinating film and one I think I probably need to own.  (This is the first of the Bergman films I’ve seen so far that I feel so heavily compelled to own.)

ACIM Lesson 262: Let me perceive no differences.

Father, You have one Son. And it is he that I would look upon today. He is Your one creation. Why should I perceive a thousand forms in what remains as one? Why should I give this one a thousand names, when only one suffices? For Your Son must bear Your Name, for You created him. Let me not see him as a stranger to his Father, nor as stranger to myself. For he is part of me and I of him, and we are part of You Who are our Source, eternally united in Your Love; eternally the holy Son of God.

We who are one would recognize this day the truth about ourselves. We would come home, and rest in unity. For there is peace, and nowhere else can peace be sought and found.

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I had a strange dream last night. In the dream, I was talking with several spiritual gurus and they all told me that they were struggling with narcissism until they gave up the idea of some supreme guru. I forget the name, now, but it was clear that this guru taught monism – that all is one.

There are two ways to understand that all is one. One is narcisstic – it’s really just an egoic projection. You see “the other” and think he is no different than you. The other way to recognize that all is one is more paradoxical. In order to fully realize that all is one, you must be willing to see the other as fully “other”, without egoic projection. We tend to be afraid of what is “other”, but as ACIM repeatedly reminds us, there is nothing to fear because what appears to be “other” is an illusion. If we understand the illusion, we can have the courage to allow the other to be other without making demands that they be what we want him/her to be.

Religulous

My husband and I saw Religulous today and we laughed all the way through the film even though we realized that much of what we were laughing at really wasn’t funny at all.  Bill Maher is absolutely right.  If we don’t do something about the current state of religiosity, we are going to self-destruct.  We will have holy wars on a scale that makes what went on in the Middle Ages look like child’s play.
And he is also absolutely correct that inherent within religious belief is the desire for death because institutionalized religion assures us that what supposedly awaits us in the future is better than what we are living now. As Bill Moyer’s wrote in “Welcome to Doomsday”, this belief is nothing to scoff at.  People are actively bringing on Doomsday because they believe that they will be saved from this world and life will be better for them in the “otherworld”.
It’s the quintessential narcisistic utopia.  If you don’t believe what they believe, you’ll be destroyed in what it is they have set in motion (which is really a sort of suicide mission) while they ride off to paradise on their white horse. If people genuinely believe we are in the End of Times (and these people include our leaders), what motivation do we have to take care of the world? I think Maher makes an excellent point!
I am definitely not as anti-religious as Maher, and throughout the movie I was wondering what it would be like to have a conversation with him. I imagine he’d lump me into a category in which I don’t belong. Maybe not. There is just a bit of irony in his claim that he doesn’t know because he states it with such conviction.
I agree with him – if there is a God out there, we can’t know it, so it makes no sense whatsoever to discuss the facts about God or even argue the existence or non-existence of God. It’s a ridiculous argument that can only go in circles.  Whether you believe God exists or doesn’t exist only points to the starting premise of your belief system.    It’s a mute point.  Who cares???? Lots and lots of people, unfortunately.
But I think Maher is preaching to the choir with this film. Maybe he’d make some moderate religious folks re-think their beliefs, but if people are scared, they are going to come out shooting and I think this sort of film will make the scared even more scared.
I think the reason we have so much fundamentalism right now is because people are severely afraid and the worst thing we can do is add to their fears. The “us and them” thing needs to end and we need to start being able to talk to one another. Can’t say I’m exactly sure how to go about this, but inciting the 16% of non-believers to rally against the believers is probably going to make things worse, not better. But maybe I’m wrong?
Go see it! Perhaps it will spark more dialog than hatred.

The Vision of Nietzsche – Philip Novak

Philip Novak wrote the text my professor used for a World Religions class I took about 10 years ago. Later, I discovered that Novak is a Buddhist when I bought a book he co-authored with Huston Smith on Buddhism. So when I was at my favorite Half Price Bookstore and happened upon a book about Nietzsche by him, I immediately bought it.

The vast majority of the book is a collection of aphorisms written by Nietzsche organized around specific topics to show his progression of though so very little of the book is actually written by Novak. But he has an interesting Afterward that compares Nietzsche and Buddha. He writes that even though Nietzsche looked with suspicion upon spiritual teachings of the traditional sort, “was in spite of himself an embodiment of the archetype of the religious prophet and the philosophical seer – not only because of what he said, but also because of the form in which he said it. Nietzsche’s teaching has a familiar soteriological structure [soteriology is theology dealing with salvation]. First, he diagnoses a fallen state: human beings in their normal, untransformed situation are in a radically unsatisfactory condition. They live diminished, benighted lives, embracing illusions as truth. Second, he provides a prescription for salvation: human beings have within themselves the potential for self-transformation, for conversion to a limitlessly better condition, a fulfilled, enlightened life. Every teaching that presupposes such redemptive possibilities must also entail, as Nietzsche’s teaching does, destructive and constructive tasks; first errors must be destroyed, ignorant modes of living must be abandoned; second, new ways of life in accord with the new aim must be envisioned and adopted.”

Many wisdom traditions claim that false self-assessment is the most pernicious error that needs to be destroyed. We overestimate what we are, thinking we already possess the fullness of human potential when our lives are more impoverished than they are full. Wisdom traditions attack self-complacency, ignorance, and unfreedom (that is thought to be freedom) in the same way Nietzsche does. But you can’t just attack, you must also provide general blue prints for a new way of being. Nietzsche does attempt to provide a blue print but Novak says Nietzsche’s redemptive vision doesn’t fulfill it’s promise to “bring glad tidings such as there have never been.” But, Nietzsche’s vision did make room in Western thought for the ancient ideas of self-transformation that had originally been rejected in the Western world as “Eastern”.

The viability of his positive vision relies on the viability of the Ubermensch. Solomon is always very clear to say that the Ubermensch is an ideal and not something we should take literally. But Novak says the idea of the Ubermensch is very similar to Buddha’s awakened being. Both Buddha and Nietzsche did something unusual in that “they offered their teachings on the psycho-spiritual refinement of the human person without recourse to theism.” In the case of both the Ubermensch and the awakened being…

  1. the emphasis is on disciplined self-mastery;
  2. the idea of lifelong overcoming is involved;
  3. inner freedom is cherished as a high aim;
  4. contemplation is not about fleeing reality but penetrating into it in order to see the true nature of what lies before it;
  5. a psycho-physical training that aims at deconditioning the self, freeing it from automatic reactivity, and draining the poisons of enmity and ressentiment are recommended to provide it with access to life’s free flow of quality and the concomitant blessings of freedom, plenitude and gratitude.

But there are definitely differences. For instance, Novak points out Nietzsche’s repudiation of pity. Solomon would say that Nietzsche repudiates a very specific type of pity and compassion (Christian pity) and not the sort Buddhism espouses. When compassion and pity are undertaken in terms of a belief in external morality, the “help” being offered doesn’t take into account the values those being helped might hold and becomes oppressive. Without realizing it, the Christian has placed himself as superior to the person he claims to have compassion for. I wonder of Nietzsche would have been troubled by an understanding of Compassion that takes into account interconnectedness and is not based on a belief in an external morality? It is the belief in an external morality that makes loving your neighbor as yourself narcissistic rather than truly compassionate. In order to truly be compassionate, we must be able to see “the other” as “other”. To think we are helping someone based on our own value system and what we would want to happen to us without also taking into account that the person we are helping may not share our value system is narcissistic. This sort of compassion isn’t really compassion at all and I think Nietzsche was right to reject it.

Nietzsche does reject Buddhist compassion, but both Novak and Solomon claim this is based on long-held Western biases that say Buddhism is life-denying. (Buddhism is definitely about self-control and self-mastery. But the purpose for this is not to deny life. According to N.P. Jacobson, it’s purpose is to provide the means by which we celebrate the wonder of being alive every day.)

It does seem doubtful that Nietzsche’s Ubermensch will be able to stand the test of time as a means to live a joyful life. But I think Novak is definitely right. What Nietzsche has provided us is a way out of a belief system that created the most violent century in history (which Nietzsche accurately predicted). There are many among us who wonder if we are about to kill off the entire planet and a very typical response people have is to laugh and say that if the planet is going to come to an end, they’ll go down in style. (They don’t want to give up their products and comforts). That’s the complacency of Nietzsche’s Last Man who only exists for safety and comfort. It’s mediocrity and is definitely not life affirming! There is a growing group of Christians who want to actively bring about “the end of the world” because for them it means the chance to go to an even better world. We are in dire need of creating new meaning that values life – this life, this world, now!!

Buddhism has become a really big deal in America. Supposedly, it was a dying religion and America has revived it. It’s a very flexible religion so American Buddhism looks very different than Eastern Buddhism. We’ve made it our own and much of it’s teachings have been incorporated into all sectors of our culture. Mindfulness training shows up in Christianity as does meditation. Medicine has been making extensive studies on meditation with interesting results showing it has a positive affect it has on our well-being.)

Novak concludes:

There is a sense in which Nietzsche sacrificed his life for us, offered it as an experiment to test the consequences of sailing on a sea where all Gods have died. His books, written in the blood of this sacrifice, constitute a school through which everyone who wishes to think deeply about life’s enduring questions should pass – but only if they can afford the tuition: the exposure of all cherished convictions to Nietzsche’s relentless hammer. And if our above remarks have any validity, Nietzsche has given us at least one other gift. He has made a western clearing for an ancient path of self-transformation now freed of its commitments to premodern Asian cultures.

Self-Righteousness and Utopianism

We are inundated with megachurch commercials this time of year and some are incredibly moving. The general message is join this church and be an imperfect part of something perfect. It doesn’t matter what kinds of sins you have committed, what you wear, what you once believed, you have a home with us.

I don’t doubt that megachurches serve a great many people. The problem is that they are like cities unto themselves and they all preach some sort of utopia and one of my biggest pet peaves is utopianism. Fundamentalist Christianity is utopianistic. Fundamentalist Islam is untopianistic. And there are plenty of fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist ACIMers, too, whose focus is about creating a sort of utopia.

Utopianists believe that the world should meet with their particular vision, which of course they hold to be visionary. If they can just get everyone to conform to this vision, then the world will finally be worthwhile, a nice place to live, peaceful, loving, etc. (“If everyone would just listen to me, the world could be perfect…”)

The secular economic idea of onward and upward is based on this sort of utopianistic vision and has been at the expense of many. It’s greedy. Perhaps there is a connection between utopianism and narcissism?

Studies show that children of overly narcissistic parents (typically those who have been abandoned, neglected, or overly-protected) tend to be very empathic. From early infancy, they learned to please their parents by becoming adept at reading their parent’s motivation. (Parent looks unpleased, child adapts immediately in order to be pleasing and even becomes adept at anticipating the behavior of the parent.) These kids likewise become extremely perceptive in terms of the motivation of others which is a potential benefit of their upbringing if used appropriately. But many form an inappropriate attachment to these perceptions. Just as their parents had expected them to conform to their desires, they expect others to conform to theirs. They are often very influential because they place so much faith in their perceptions that they easily convince others who lack this confidence to place their faith in those perceptions, too.

It’s reasonable enough. Because they were unhappy with their childhood, they seek to create in their adulthood something better. They often have very little tolerance for what they perceive to be flaws in others because these flaws contradict their ideology. They see it as their job to point out these flaws so that they can be corrected. If you choose not to follow their advice, they establish a “holier than thou” attitude and are likely to make belittling comments.

This isn’t just a fundamentalist Christian thing. It shows up all over the place! The problem isn’t religion, it’s utopian idealism. Utopianists have total faith in their utopianistic vision and their faith in humanity depends on human beings conforming to their utopianistic vision.

In terms of Christianity, Jesus was proclaiming the good news, not a utopia. Jesus never said that we could create a perfect world. His good news was that Heaven is here now. There is nothing we need do but realize it.

I keep playing with this because it’s so subtle.

To try to create a perfect world is important. But this is entirely different than saying we should create a perfect world. Ideas of perfection vary from person to person and culture to culture so whose should is the right should? When we choose one should, we have to reject another and it becomes important to convert people to our should. Utopianism does not realize Heaven is here now. It thinks that there is a perfection to be realized “out there” at some future date when everyone finally “gets it”. But gets what, exactly? Which should is it that we should get?