Earl Biddle’s description of childhood anxiety, imagination, and omnipotence offers deep insight into the inner life of a child, and into adult psychological development. His theories offer an interesting way to understand the recent phenomenon in popular culture called, ‘Tebomania’, and ‘Linsanity’. Before applying some of Biddle’s and Swedenborg’s insights to this phenomenon lets first look into Biddle’s theories. I believe Biddle’s ideas meld well with Swedenborg’s. I hope that in studying these matters we will learn something about the integration of psychology and religion, and most of all about our own souls.
Biddle describes the inner life of the child and the importance of the child’s phantasies. (‘Phantasy’ emphasizes creative imagination, whereas, ‘fantasy’, implies more an element of illusory day dreaming):
Childhood is usually regarded as a period of life which is normally happy and carefree…But it is difficult to appreciate the extremes of anxiety and joy which the small child experiences throughout his everyday life. The small child dies a thousand deaths. Equally often he reaches the pinnacle of bliss…(These experiences) are very real to the child, but the adult says they are imaginary (Biddle, p. 32).
The small child under the age of three views his parents and other adults as gigantic, all-powerful people. They can do infinite good or infinite harm to him. But according to the logic of the child, a good person cannot do any bad, and a bad person can do no good… The child does not regard the gratifying father and the frustrating father as the same person. The same is true with the mother. Besides being real people the parents represent phantastic, illusory, or imaginary persons. The small child, then, has, in addition to his real parents, a phantastic father and mother who are preposterously good, and a phastastic father and mother who are preposterously bad.
Emotionally the child under age three experiences only extremes. When someone pleases him he does not simply like that person, but loves him with every fiber of his being. When someone displeases him he does not dislike him, but hates with murderous intensity.
These feelings remain latent within us throughout life, but are worked out, and refined and gradually become unconscious as we mature. When we react to people and circumstances we tend to regress to these feelings. Biddle describes how the child learns to process and work out these feelings in his or her imagination:
The child cannot physically handle the parents. He cannot defend himself against them when they appear to threaten him. The problem is worked out by a natural process whereby the child makes inanimate objects, which he can handle, represent symbols of the parent. A match stick may become an imaginary bad father who can be chewed, broken into bits, and thrown away…By this process of imagination the child “really’ gets rid of the bad parents because he destroys a real object which symbolizes a parent to him. The child can also change his inanimate objects from bad to good, and thereby improve the phantastic parents, which the objects represent. The imaginary threats are thereby relieved. The child never attacks the phantastic parent with the intention of doing harm. He may do so simply to assure himself that he is not really causing harm. He may in imagination harm the parent he has clothed in destructive phantasies only to find the real parent does something good. When this happens the child must in imagination repair the phantastic damage he has done.
Paiget (30-33) has done a great deal of work concerning the child’s conception of real objects. He confirms the psychoanalytic observation that the child animates and personifies all material objects. When a leaf is blown the child does not think of the wind moving it. To the child the leaf is a little person who walks, runs and flies…All objects when reduced to their primary symbolic meaning represent father and mother figures. Freud’s “phallic symbols” then can be interpreted more correctly as father symbols, and receptive objects as mother symbols.
The imagination of the child is so vivid that he cannot distinguish clearly between what is real and what is imaginary (43, Biddle).
The child uses the functions inherent in his own body as the means by which he exercises his imaginary omnipotence. In imagination he can annihilate the world by simply closing his eyes. Then he can recreate the world by opening them…His words have magic power. By calling Mama he can make his mother appear from ‘nowhere’. His tears, saliva, and bodily excrement are given phantastic destructive and creative power.
The child’s omnipotent phantasies are of tremendous importance in his psychic development. One need not fear that the child will continue to believe himself omnipotent if his phantasies are not disputed. A brutal assault upon the phantasies of the child renders him helpless and insecure in a gigantic real world with which he cannot cope…The entire life of every individual is shaped by the impact which the real world makes upon the imaginary world of the child. The adult helps the child to distinguish between reality and phantasy, but the phantasies cannot be eliminated. Strangely enough, the desire for omnipotence, which caused man to lose paradise, is essential to him in early childhood if he is to regain heaven. Only the genius of the creator could change what appears to be intrinsically evil desire into an essential good.
The phantasies of omnipotence do not continuously sustain the child. The child constantly fluctuates between feeling omnipotent and annihilated. There are many times too, when he is afraid of his omnipotent destructiveness. For instance if he ‘blows up the world’ he will have no place to stand.
The child’s omnipotence is relinquished not because of the threat of reality, as the psychoanalysts claim, but because of the safety of reality.
When reality is not safe, when parents are consumed with their own survival and cannot fairly perceive the child, the child is in danger of growing up to be self-centered, and have delusions about their personal power. If the child is made to feel overly fearful of his omnipotent power, then she grows up passive, shying away from life. This kind passiveness is not peaceful, but full of tension, and fear of conflict and anger, because the unresolved phantasies are stymied, and such a person feels diminished and destructive. As a chaplain one of my primary objectives when working with a person who suffered trauma and loss is to cultivate the kind of care and presence that helps people to feel safe. Appropriately, only when a person feels safe and can trust will they share their deepest issues, otherwise the conversation remains on the surface.
In the child ‘omnipotence’ is appropriate, because she is innocent and helpless. Objectively the child is born in ignorance, knowing nothing, can do nothing for her self, and must learn gradually. Swedenborg writes that all humans at birth have hereditary evil, but that it is latent. The creator clothes the child in innocence so that it is adored and taken care of; and the child’s actual experiences of love and loving are stored as remains in her soul. These remains of love connect her to God, and temper the hereditary evil in her as she grows. These remains are an essential means of reception of good from the Lord. Evil is latent because a baby has not developed an identity yet that is self-willing. The ‘omnipotence’ of the child is a reflection of the creator who is omnipotent and seeds us with this feeling for the sake of our protection and freedom. Remains are gifts of innocence and love married into the soul of the child from real feeling and experience. They are stored from experiences of pure love for parents, caretakers and playmates, and from utter enthusiasm for phantasy play with objects. Omnipotence is an appearance, but it is real to the child, just as every person that has lived appears to have life and freedom from themselves, but internally these are gifts from God. In the development of the child omnipotence is the seed that yields creativity and strength, if healthy; if held on to into older ages out of survival, it becomes the cause of delusion, self-centeredness, and mental disorders.
Recently I went to eat out with my seven-year-old daughter. I had some books and other objects with me and she had some toys. She spent time organizing everything on the table the way she wanted it. This was her way of working out and taking charge of her feelings – a healthy phantasy impulse. On the other hand when she is upset she has an extreme emotional reaction like the world is ending.
‘Omnipotence’ is the image of the creator in the child, because the creator is omnipotent. This is a psychological way of perceiving the spiritual truth that the Lord is intrinsic in the human soul. This psychological condition parallels the fact that freedom is the Lord’s nature, and the freedom we enjoy is entirely a gift from the creator. Omnipotence is the only form freedom can be expressed in an infant.
In this light the mission of life can be seen as working through the paradox of, on the one side, learning personal skill and competence; and on the other, returning fallacious omnipotent power to where it belongs – God.
The value of this principle is not so much theoretical and abstract, but it helps interpret what is always closest to us – our inner life. What could be more important? Our internal life eventually determines our eternal life.
In adults we see all the time that the less one has inner self-knowledge the more they claim omnipotence (self-centeredness). In the adult the extreme of feeling that he or she is omnipotent is a form of insanity. Swedenborg writes of witnessing that the deepest hell is for those who believe they are God himslef. This is the ultimate example of an unresolved omnipotent fantasy. He says the spirits there completely believe that they are God and all others are subjects.
As adults when we regress, it is because we inwardly feel powerless and distressed, so we reflexively return back to the feelings of omnipotence for protection. These feelings are unresourced. Childhood omnipotence in the adult is by nature blind to others, and driven by survival. It is an ‘automatic’ default setting inside for the sake of self-survival. We may or may not have sophisticated ways of justifying it, but the quality and import of it is self-serving.
There is in regression, also, if we remain self aware, an opportunity. Regression points to the wounds within us that need development. If we react the same as in the past then there is no movement, but if we act with some measure of composure, we can change the phantasy within our self to a good one, or a better one. Regression is also an opportunity because beneath the feelings of childhood omnipotence are remains, the stored feelings of innocence and love. These feelings are often felt as a sense of personal ‘specialness’, because deep down we want and feel a core of good about our selves that is seeking expression; these are in potential and need development. If felt and opened, remains can be transmuted into a footing for submitting to God as the true source of ‘specialness’. And in yielding to Him we feel joy, more our self. This provides the inner security to care for others as much or more than our selves (which is the cornerstone of society and religion). Remains are in potential and need to be spiritually mined and thus incorporated into our will. This is spiritual remembering. God provides that remains are inside everyone, as a means of connecting with His will for life. Every time we regress there is an opportunity to renew the unresolved issue in our self that cries out for attention and healing.
Advertisers use the motivating energy of our need to sort out our omnipotent phantasies, and to believe in the good father and mother, all the time. A good advertising campaign attempts to tap the primal spot where we live inside; this way they influence us to identify satisfying our deepest drives with their product. Where advertisers put their money is a good litmus test of something’s veracity: by study and process of elimination they do what produces. They are acting from very practical motivation – the bottom line, maximum results, making money. One of the psychological means Advertisers use is to portray animals and objects talking and acting like humans. There is certain magic and delight kindled within us in seeing these absurd and exaggerated images. There are hundreds of examples of this on TV commercials and kids shows. We see talking animals, sponges, fruit, vegetables, and trees, constantly, and it never ceases to be funny! Recently, there has been a commercial of a humorous, straight-talking cow that tells the mom of a family what everyone is thinking when the mother shows up asking about her goofy clothes. The family is too afraid to say anything about it, but the sassy cow tells her like it is. It is hilarious for many reasons. It images for us a way that we can feel safe to hear what is underneath and real. The cow represents the phantastic mother being real, good, and refreshingly truthful to us; teaching us it is ok to express our perceptions. The modeling of truthful speaking helps us move through a barrier of anxiety. This is joyful to us because it develops inner skill, and real satisfaction. We move from being subject-to our anxieties, to a creative agent.
In addition, psychologists (and Swedenborg) write that all children up to a certain age believe that their play animals and dolls are alive. Experiencing this as children is part of our original experience of the mystery of spirit. Robert Kegan refers to it as embodied childhood spirituality. Biddle calls it a developmental precursor to belief in the spiritual world and God. Swedenborg calls it remains, or the experience of love and innocence married into our soul. In a humorous way the commercial reminds us that as children we believed that magic is real. The act of remembering this kind of thing as adults is part of the process of integrating the forgotten remains of childhood. We are all engaged in the continuous activity of building a good image of the phantastic father and mother. We need the good father and mother because it helps us feel safe in the world, that we have a positive agency toward life and others.
The innocence of childhood is external innocence and only becomes internal when combined with intelligence. Then it becomes wisdom. By the same token wisdom is only genuine wisdom when at its core there is innocence.
Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin have stimulated passion in the soul of millions, without intending to do so other than persevering in their own passion. They are men who have a quality of innocence, yet they are successful in a real, tough world. They are unusually successful as beginners in their sports. Their success is tenuous, and the lasting power of the skills is much debated. They are natural leaders on their team and inspire team spirit. They do not have a sense of entitlement, as some others around them tend to. Jeremy Lin is an ordinary guy who used to tag along with his big brother and just wanted to be involved. Now both are living out an omnipotent phantasy, except they have the skill to live it in real life. The great thing about sports is that we get to see how it all plays out for ourselves on TV. We can see it and feel it, and judge the story for our self. They are acceptable heroes because they show at one and the same time phantastic success, and before our eyes they demonstrate transferring omnipotence to God. They give credit to their teammates and to God, and they usually accurately take responsibility when they miss the mark. They do these things to an unusual degree, and in an unexpected medium. It is powerful symbology to watch, and it stimulates deep passions and yearnings.
Tebow is a football player that has become a lightening rod of controversy and inspiration, partly because he openly and sincerely expresses his faith in God. On the field he is accused of having too poor passing skills for a professional football player, yet he wins. To make up for his passing skills, his coach designed a mostly running, option offense that is normally only used in college. On a team that previously was losing, Tebow pulled-off 6 straight wins. Then, he lost three in a row. Everyone says again he can’t make it in the pros; they point to his terrible passing statistics. He has terrible statistics in the first 3 quarters, but great statistics in the forth quarter. Then he wins a playoff game by making great passes. On the field Tebow is working out his tenuous competency before our eyes. Everything about him is confusing, extreme, maddening, and inspiring.
The symbol of Tebowmania is the pose he strikes at important moments. After a great play, or after winning, or after losing, Tebow kneels on the ground with his head down, his knuckles to his forehead, closes his eyes, and prays. This is a potent image of transferring omnipotence to the good father. In this pose, after the mighty struggle to achieve, he submits to God, and thanks God. The act of kneeling itself is a bold, demonstrative act of humility and honor. It is like the knights of old who kneeled before the King.
In Swedenborgian psychology Tebow represents the son with ‘good proprium’: Hiesman trophy winner, physique of a Greek god, good Christian. Some people dislike him for these qualities. Proprium refers to the part of the soul that is inherited, and comes from self-will, not God’s will. Swedenborg warns that good proprium is at least as much a danger as bad proprium, because there is not much in the soul to overcome, and as a result the fighting spirit for good is not developed. Jesus often teaches that the person who is forgiven much and overcomes much is closer to heaven. Victor Frankl similarly says that it is the fighting spirit in the soul, no-matter how bad the circumstances, that makes the man or woman. In Frankl this comes from good authority, because he survived Auschwitz, where he led people to fight to live, and to keep their identity and faith. Conversely, the person with good proprium is often complacent, which corresponds to being lukewarm. But Tebow, with his image of good proprium and upbringing, demonstrates tremendous fighting spirit, and care for others.
Part of the fascination with the Lin story is that he is a somewhat marginalized person, in a cultural sense because he is the only Asian in NBA basketball, and in a basketball sense because he is the only player from Harvard. Before exploding he was very discouraged because he had been rejected from two teams, and nearly cut from NY. He was sleeping on his brother’s coach. When his brother needed privacy he ended up on a teammates coach. Then he suddenly got his opportunity.
Role models can be young or old. Not that Lin and Tebow have it all together; they simply popular figures that remind us of these of forgotten feelings and issues in us. We need good role models to help us perceive ways of incorporating the phantastic good parents in the world and our life; that magic and reality can come together, that we can achieve and transfer power to God. The central value of Christianity is to walk the narrow path; to not retaliate in the face of unfairness and conflict; to feel anger and not become it, but use it; to be steadfast in winning or losing. Anytime we see someone do this no matter how small, we recognize it as heroic.
A lot of people are struggling and these guys show people something good. They are mirrors of our yearnings, and remind us of our struggle with the narrow path.