Today I am thinking of Jean Piaget and his theory about object permanence.
As you may remember from your college psych 101 class, Jean Piaget theorized that the role of maturation was instrumental in a child’s increasing capacity to understand their world. Put another way, we cannot undertake certain tasks until we are psychologically mature enough to do so. For those of you who didn’t make it to class that day, or had more sense than to major in psych and minor in Eastern philosophy, here’s the bottom line: Jean Piaget had a bazillion theories about the cognitive development of children. Some of his research has been questioned, but it is still taught and used, especially in early childhood education.
One of the many terms Piaget coined was object permanence, which is the basic understanding that an object exists even when it cannot be seen or touched. Until this stage of development is reached, it’s basically “out of sight, out of mind” for the child. This is illustrated by the utter joy adults and babies get playing peek-a-boo. The child squeals in utter delight each time the adult’s face suddenly reappears again, and of course the adults (all being well) love to hear the giggles of happy children.
This is all very lovely and (all being well) part of normal childhood development. It obviously creates stability– you know the ball doesn’t really disappear from existence when your crazy Uncle Joe hides it behind his back, you know mom is coming back (again, all being well), you know your bed really exists even when you leave the room, and so on. The fun part of the developmental stages, and in my mind the most fascinating, is at about age 3, when children believe that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. So a 3-year-old will stand in the middle of everyone and cover his eyes, believing this makes him invisible. And wouldn’t that be a lovely trick during high stress meetings?
In case you are beginning to wonder if all those psych and philosophy classes fried my brain and if we will ever get to the point, the answer to both of those questions is yes. So, here we go:
I’m fascinated that we need to know things are predictable and stable, that there is object permanence, but also that this very same need and belief creates enormous stress for people. It is the belief that things are permanent and will never change that creates a lot of fear and grief in humans. It is my clinical experience that people who are depressed are stuck in the past, and people who are anxious are stuck in the future. People who are in present time and mindful of their present life tend to be pretty relaxed. But most anxiety and depression comes from the experience of loss, or at least the projection of the fear of loss or change. The anxiety comes from being afraid of losing something you think you have, or of not getting something you think you want. We know that things are not permanent, yet we tend to fear change.
I don’t think we ever outgrow the need for knowing there is object permanence, what as an adult I call predictability, stability or security. We rely on it, need it, thrive under it. And, just like a child giggling playing peek-a-boo and crying, “do it again!” I find myself trying to be that present, joyful and mindful of my own little corner of the world. C.S. Lewis said he thinks sometimes God delights in creation in this same way, making the sun rise each day, like a giggling child each morning, saying “do it again!” I love that image of the Divine, as a happy, giggling child, full of trust and goodness, and that the Divine sees us in that same giggly, happy way. It’s a great way to view my world…thinking of daisies blooming all summer and giggling while saying do it again, the moon cycling through and saying do it again, the joy I get from watching my tomatoes grow or the cicadas sing their bluesy summer songs, the redness of cardinals and the flow of rivers. And when I pay attention to the natural world, I find stability and a deep spiritual connection there. And, just like a child with object permanence, I have to have a certain level of maturity to trust it in this way. And I find that ability also seems to ebb and flow, just like everything else in the universe.
It is when I confuse predictability with permanence that things can get sticky. So the sun comes up each day, yet we are in a different place. The river is always there, but as Heraclitus said, you can’t ever step twice into the same river. So things remain constant because they are always changing. But it is the belief that things will always be the same and never change, or at least the desire for this, which creates much stress and grief in life. Buddhism teaches that understanding the concept of impermanence is central to our liberation from suffering.
The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said of impermanence,
Nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. The Buddha implored us not just to talk about impermanence, but to use it as an instrument to help us penetrate deeply into reality and obtain liberating insight. We may be tempted to say that because things are impermanent, there is suffering.
But the Buddha encouraged us to look again. Without impermanence, life is not possible. How can we transform our suffering if things are not impermanent? How can our daughter grow up into a beautiful young lady? How can the situation in the world improve? We need impermanence for social justice and for hope.
If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don’t suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away. If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation.
So today I am pondering our need for stability with our need for understanding the ever-changing, impermanent nature of things. Today I recognize that my parents are sick and one day will die. Today I recognize that while there is war and some folks are experiencing a tough time economically, this too shall pass. Today I recognize that it’s about 100 degrees in my little corner of the world and the tomatoes are coming in, but in a very short time I’ll be donning sweaters and jeans again because that will have changed too. Predictability can be a wonderful and grounding thing, and it is necessary to create a sense of safety in children and in adults. But taken to an extreme it can create a false sense of control and result in terrible anxiety when we lose that false sense of power regarding people, places and things.
Einstein said the most important question to ask is, “Is the Universe a safe place?” He said we formulate all of our understanding of the universe and beyond based on the answer to that question. I think he was right. I believe the Universe is a safe place, full of predictable change. And the truth is that when I like the changes, like the seasons always flowing into one another, knowing it will flow back around again, I like it. It’s when I try to hold on, or grasp or cling to how things are in this moment, or how I think I want myself or someone else to be without ever changing, dying or leaving that things get cumbersome and stressful. I think it’s human nature to want things we label as bad or hard to change quickly, but want to hold onto the things we enjoy or love.
So today I am thinking about object impermanence and trusting that just like the sun coming up today and tomorrow and probably the day after that, the Divine delights in me and all of us, in our changes and growth, in our ponderings and questions, in our holding on and and letting go. And each time I hold on or let go, make a mistake or learn something new, I trust the Divine is there, unchanging and permanent in that giggling joy. And that we can all just keep doing it again and again and again, ever mindful, ever giggling, ever present to predictable change.
A child has to have a certain level of maturity to understand objects are permanent. And I have to have a certain level of maturity to understand that they are not. Things are ever flowing, ever changing, flowing back into the One, into cycles of beginning and end, knowing I can always start where I am and pick up the flow. And then do it again… how cool is that?
Have a great weekend.