I have just been outside picking raspberries and eating them straight from the bushes that grow in my wild garden. As I was stuffing my face with different size and shape raspberries I was thinking about how we are so good at growing plants for food and aesthetics but how poor we are when it comes to growing humans.
I sometimes catch the gardening programme on BBC Radio Four. All the questions directed at the panel are always about what is the best thing to do to achieve the best results with this or that plant. What is the best spot to plant this particular plant, what is the best food for it, how much should it be watered, does it prefer shade or direct sunlight?
Keen gardeners aren’t just interested in their plants surviving. They want them to be at their best. Farmers are the same. They are not interested in just survival of plants they grow but want plants to fulfil their potential to be the best they can be given their abilities. Professional raspberry growers want the biggest yield possible of the sweetest, reddest and most plump raspberries possible. They would not be satisfied with the wild raspberries that just survive in my garden despite me doing little or no gardening.
The raspberries I have are a combination of wild Scottish raspberries and some cultivated varieties that have grown from me throwing some fruit on the ground a year or so ago. They do their best with what is available to them and without my help, and I love them the way they are. But if I wanted to grow better raspberries and have a considerable crop every season, I would have to learn about what raspberry plants need to be at their best, about the best soil for them, the best watering regime, the best food.
We are the same as everything else in nature. Most humans can survive even in terrible conditions. Look at how many of us there are… But we don’t develop to our best potential if we don’t have the right conditions. If what we want to do is just survive, well, we are doing it. But the reason I have a job as a psychotherapist and why people flock to psychotherapy is because we all want and need much more than mere survival. We want and need to grow to become all that we are capable of becoming. To do this we have to make sure that we know, one, what human beings need in order to do our best, and two, that every child and every human being anywhere is provided with those conditions, not just a few lucky ones.
We know what we need to do to be at our best, we have known for centuries. We’ve always known what works and what doesn’t. We know even better now with research in every conceivable area of psychology and child development. But are we doing it? I don’t see farmers arguing with their crops, telling them they shouldn’t need this much water or that particular fertiliser. They accept that if they want to grow something they have to provide it with what it needs. Why is this so difficult for us to grasp when it comes to ourselves?
I think it’s enough arguing or debating about what we already know. It’s time to implement it. We know plenty about what causes trauma, we know we all have a drive to become all we can become. We know we need to feel safe and loved, we need to feel a sense of belonging and to be valued by those around us. We know the kind of care our bodies need. What is so difficult about providing it?
It should not be left up to individual parents to decide whether yelling at their child isn’t going to do harm. Frightened children do not have the brain space to develop properly. Yelling at children frightens them and there is no reason for it. Raising children in chaotic households with parents who fight all the time, parents who are incapable of relating emotionally correctly, raising children in poverty and deprivation, in an environment that includes substance abuse, or where the child is used one way or another for the sexual or other gratification of adults they are supposed to trust, are just some of the examples of what takes us further away from fulfilling our potential.
Nature reverts to basic survival as soon as we experience fear. We, humans, are 100% vulnerable when we leave the safety of our mother’s womb where everything is automatically provided. We are born terrified because from the moment nature pushes us out of its natural incubator, all of our needs and our very survival depend on others. We therefore have to make sure that we don’t make this fear worse.
Almost everyone, except people who actually kill their children, is fit to raise children to survive. But few people are truly fit to raise children who can become the best they can become. I don’t mean having a good job that pays well. That’s still just survival. I mean that they do not have any psychological obstacles in their development and that they use their lives in a way that does justice to who they are. I mean that they are equipped to work in an area they are passionate about and where they can thrive. I mean not needing psychotherapy.
Carl Rogers, one of the fathers of humanistic psychology, and the developer of Person-Centred psychotherapy argued decades ago that all our psychological problems come from not being able to fulfil our potential. Humans are not meant to just survive. None of us can be properly OK if all we exist for is the survival of the species. We have a need for meaning and for our lives to have purpose. These go hand in hand with fulfilling our potential. They are interdependent.
Just like farmers and gardeners don’t argue with what plants need in order to become all they can become, it is time we stop arguing with what we, humans, need to become all we can become. We already know. So let’s make sure it’s available to everyone. I want my job to cease to exist.
(Key words: Children, development, humanity, potential, meaning, purpose, humanistic psychology, survival)