Monday, January 2, 2012

The Continuum Concept

Jean Liedloff was a New Yorker who went to Europe and pursued modeling and journalism work.  She met some Italians who were leaving for the jungles of Venezuela to hunt for diamonds.  On a whim, she joined their expedition.  Over the course of five expeditions, she spent two and a half years living with Stone Age people.  As she bounced back and forth between the modern world and wild freedom, she became acutely aware of the staggering differences between the two ways of life.
The natives were “the happiest people I have ever seen.”  She found their lack of unhappiness to be spooky.  The adults maintained a high state of social harmony — even when everyone was drunk.  Their children were all well-behaved, never argued, never hit each other, never had tantrums, never suffered boredom, and were never punished by their parents. 
Returning to the modern world was always a ghastly experience, because the people were so strikingly unhappy.  Why?  Liedloff explored this question in her book, The Continuum Concept.  It compares wild people to civilized people through the eyes of an eyewitness reporter, and tries to explain how communities of the same species could be as different as night and day.
Liedloff observed that the misery of civilized people began shortly after birth, when the newborn was immediately carried away from its mother, placed in a crib in the nursery, and left to scream.  Welcome to civilization, Bubba!  The sense of wellbeing enjoyed in the womb came to an abrupt end at birth, and most of these kids would never again recover it.
The Indians, on the other hand, raised their children in accordance with ancient instincts — a specific sequence of normal developmental experiences that Liedloff called the human continuum.  From the moment of their birth, newborns were held and nursed and loved — and this warm, secure, continuous contact lasted for months, until the child indicated that it was ready to begin the creeping and crawling phase.  Raised in the Indian manner, the kids lived with a sense of wellbeing throughout their entire lives.  They were happy.
Our animal instincts are very much in tune with our evolutionary journey.  In the civilized world, “primitive” instincts were disregarded, and society was dominated by intellect.  The Indians were intelligent, and they knew how to reason, but for them intellect was a servant of instinct.  The rise of civilization corresponded with the rise of intellect.  Unbridled intellect is the father of unstable societies, like the one outside your window.
Today, civilized mothers are so removed from natural life that they actually have to read books by childrearing “experts” like Dr. Spock to learn how to raise their young.  But when these non-continuum instructions are followed, civilized mothers “produce children they cannot love, who grow up like themselves, anti-self, antisocial, incapable of giving, destined forever to go hungry.”
Indian children, raised via time-proven instincts, develop normally, in a sequence designed by evolution.  Civilized children do not.  We miss vital developmental steps in childhood, and this frequently leads to adults who have infantile components in their personalities, for their entire lives.  Here is the most striking paragraph in the book: 
“Man can ‘survive’ in appallingly anti-continuum conditions, but his well-being, his joy, his fulfillment as a whole human being, can be lost.  From many points of view he might be better off dead, for the life force, in its ceaseless tending toward repair of damage and completion of developmental phases, among its instruments employs anxiety, pain, and an array of other ways of signaling that things are wrong.  Unhappiness in all its forms is the result.  In civilization, a frequent outcome of the operating of the system is constant misery.”
She wasn’t fond of modern society.  Liedloff eventually became a psychotherapist, and she used what she had learned to help some people reduce their inner pain.  She didn’t discover miracle cures, but she believed that some degree of healing was possible for some people.  Her book has helped many new mothers avoid making some of the classic mistakes. 
She presents us with compelling descriptions of both ways of life, and these fit nicely with studies done by many others.  The symptoms of our illness are numerous and easy to see.  But her diagnosis is primarily focused on the child-rearing process, and I suspect that this might be too narrow. 
There are many other major differences between wild societies and civilization.  Wild people live in wild lands filled with wild animals, and they spend most of their time outdoors.  They rarely experience strangers, crowds, or machines.  They are not controlled by others, they are free.  Their sense of rightness is not suffocated by contact with school systems, corporate systems, religious systems, or greedy, exploitive, dishonest people.  Civilization damages us in numerous ways, throughout our lives.
The good news here is that we can quit blaming our parents for screwing us up, because the entire society is screwed up.  “All one can discover from horizon to horizon are victims of victims.”  The bad news is that we are locked into powerful, unhealthy patterns of living, and damaged parents create damaged children.  There are no simple solutions.  The good news is that Peak Cheap Energy is going to disrupt our patterns of living, and one of the possible outcomes is positive, beneficial change.  Liedloff provides us with some important pointers for the road ahead.
Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept — In Search of Happiness Lost, Addison-Wesley, New York, 1977.

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