My junior year of college I took the most collegiate class ever, at my Christian university, from Dr. Leffel. It combined principles of Nazarene (Wesleyan) theology and psychology, and included challenging deep texts and high-level conversation. I loved it.
But one premise in the class bothered me. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seemed in conflict to me with the teachings of Jesus. Leffel told us that humans cannot live to their fullest potential if they do not have not only food, clothing, and shelter, but also don’t live with fear of wanting for any of these basics. At the time, I felt this was in conflict with the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor…” I’ve pondered this over the years, observing the experiences of myself and others. Sometimes financial insecurity forces us to value our families and relationships more. Sometimes wealth comes with a whole host of other problems. What’s best? I don’t know. But of course: food and shelter are necessary to basic heath, regardless.
There was one time I really stumped my professor, unfortunately, because I really wanted an answer.
Dr. Leffel was talking about the power of personal narrative. He gave the anecdotal story of a mother and her son. The father had died when the boy was too small to have many memories of his dad.
Leffel said the mother knew the importance of a child’s need to feel connected to both parents for proper emotional development, so she helped fill in the child’s healthy memories of his father.
“He would take you fishing, and the two of you would sit quietly on the riverbank for hours.”
The mom frequently repeated that story and others, then she eventually took the boy to help him learn to fish. Even though his father was gone, he could later go fishing alone, and each time would feel connected to the man who loved him so much but could not be physically present. The boy was walking in and reliving memories his mother helped reconstruct, and it held the emotional benefits as though his father was with him the whole time.
In this way, the mother helped her child develop healthily psychologically, despite the physical absence of his father.
It was such a beautiful story, and at age 20, I fully embraced it. But I asked Dr. Leffel:
“What if it’s fake? What if her son’s father never actually fished with him? What if he was never around, and the mother invented these stories for the sake of the child? Would the boy still feel loved despite the absence and develop in a healthy manner?”
I never got my answer. I hate it when teachers can’t respond, fumble around, look embarrassed, and change the subject.
But the premise has stuck with me in the 20 years since. It’s full of so much wisdom. Children need to fully have access to and love for all their parents, as much as possible, for healthy emotional development.
I’m interested in how this principle plays out in adoptive families – to surround children in an atmosphere of love, safety, and healing, especially if birth parents are not present.
“You are loved. You came into this world in love. You are safe. You will always have our love. Even if you act in ways that are angry, disobedient, or say and do hurtful things, you will not ever step outside how much we love you and are here for you. The parts of you that reflect each of us as your parents are worthy of love. Everything will be okay.”
Every child deserves to be bathed in this nurturing message, every day, no matter what, as a birthright. We need to help parents who work hard at survival so they have enough energy every day to give this comfort and care to their children. We need to support our public school teachers, who are sometimes the only ones in a position in children’s lives to tell them they are worthy, valuable, and loved.
And we need to love ourselves and our children enough to be kind, gracious, gentle, and yes – even loving – with our exes who are the parents of our treasured children.
Rage that’s not filtered by love perpetuates cycles of violence.
Rage that is filtered with love gives courage to see the bigger picture and choose the nonviolent actions that create change.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”
Onward and upward, so the next generation can walk in healing. Nothing gets better if we hold to bitterness until it becomes a crippling false identity. There’s always a new, best path forward. For ourselves and our children.