When we’re first born, we’re pretty much all reflex. Those reflexes can be remarkably strong and highly targeted for the survival of this otherwise helpless assemblage of protoplasm.
Under optimal conditions, newborns develop out of a small collection of reflexes into an interactive being. By as soon as eight weeks, they may single our faces as objects meriting a higher degree of attention. They may recognize and develop strong attachment bonds with primary caregivers. By this point, you may recognize deliberate smiles. This is the age that can mark the arrival of arguably the greatest strength and weakness of the human condition: boredom. With so much to learn, these solipsistic little beings can, nonetheless, compellingly complain when the scenery doesn’t change.
During that period of my own children’s lives, just as I settled into my deep-sleep cycle, I was awakened, screamed at, forced to do complicated and careful sequencing, before being allowed to rest again -- only to have the pattern repeated in two hours. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the time, the primary caregivers give up their secrets.
Every breath you take; every move you make; every bond you break; every step you take: they’ll be watching you.
Every single day; every word you say; every game you play; every night you stay: They'll be watching you.
Every vow you break; every smile you fake; every claim you stake: they’ll be watching you.
Yeah. During this period, you’re installing all your unconscious biases deep into their operating system. Later, when you all have a conscious language to share, you’ll leverage it to install your conscious biases. And, of course, my caregivers inherited many of these biases from their caregivers during their own development, and those caregivers received their own, a generation earlier.
Beginning around two years of age, we begin to individuate, which means we can separate from some of our forebears’ biases. This individuation reaches a full flowering for most of us during adolescence when a lot of our behavior involves testing new paradigms against those of the people most responsible for us. In young adulthood, we tend to regress back toward the mean, arriving at a syncretism of old and new.
For me, those unconscious biases installed within me include many adaptive ones: resilience, openness, distrust of authority and conventional wisdom. (I’ve learned those last two aren’t universally admired, but this is my story, and I’m sticking to it.)
And those unconscious biases installed during the middle of the 20th century included many maladaptive ones: racism, sexism, homophobia. Further, any honest accounting on my part, has to include the acknowledgement that, in spite of a lifetime of resistance, those biases are still burrowed deep in my bones like a stealth infection. I can repent and join the resistance without losing the fact that I’m still a carrier. They’re called unconscious for a reason.
The Yahwist may not have understood epigenetics, but she recognized the outcome.
“The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the forebears upon the children to the third and fourth generation.” Numbers 14:18
The Rev. Dr. King offered us the hope that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. At the same time, my wife, Susan, admonishes that the arc doesn’t bend itself: it needs us to pull on it.
Please forgive me.
You’ve got this post because Easter morning has me in hope of redemption, while mindful of the harm I’ve caused and the work I still have to do.