Monday, October 24, 2011

What keeps us safe

My housemates' baby is four months old now. As I watch them bounce, cuddle, and sing their son to sleep, I wonder about how lullabies worked before recording. If you're actually only singing them when your child is so young they can't fall asleep unaided, the child is too young to remember songs. Maybe older siblings hear what their parents sing to new babies, or what neighbors or relatives sing?

There are modern lullabies that obviously never went through the folk process. Take the beautiful "John O' Dreams":

When midnight comes good people homeward tread
Seek now your blanket and your feather bed
Home is the rover, his journey's over
Yield up the night time to old John O' Dreams.

It's lovely, but it's not exactly for kids. It's got four wordy verses which I've sung dozens of times but can't remember. This is clearly not the kind of thing that sleep-deprived parents pass down orally. But why write a lullaby for adults?

The other shoe dropped for me recently in a lecture on self psychology. Self psychology is cursed with terrible nomenclature - almost none of its terms accurately describe what they mean. So the "idealized parental imago pole" of the textbook sounded like mumbo-jumbo until the professor explained: "Our lifelong task is to find what feeds us and keeps us safe." We never outgrow the need to feel that we are protected by someone wise and strong. People may get this from religion, from idealizing a romantic partner, from hero-worship. And it's okay, because it gives us ideals to strive towards as well as a sense of wellbeing.

Children are born without much ability to self-soothe. Parents do it for them with sounds and touch. Later children carry around objects (blankets, dolls) to comfort themselves with when the parent isn't there. Still later, we repeat verbal assurances we have heard from others. (The first time I took a city bus alone at age fourteen, I repeated the phrase "It's going to be okay" under my breath for the duration of the trip.) The need to be comforted doesn't go away, but we learn to parent ourselves.

One of my favorite experiences is falling asleep while other people are awake and making music. It feels comforting in the same way that reliving childhood pleasures is comforting, except that this wasn't actually something that happened in my childhood. I think it's the sense that I can relax because all's well in the world. I've heard other people describe this feeling while falling asleep in a car with someone else driving.

This is why we have wordy lullabies for adults. This is why 25% of businessmen take their teddy bears with them on business trips. This is why Guns N' Roses wrote "Sweet Child O' Mine" as a joke and it topped the charts. Even if our parents will never literally hold us and comfort us again, we have to get that feeling somewhere.

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