The human tendency to adapt as life changes swirl around us, or to stand pat by holding to the past even when doing so is self-defeating - begins when we are infants. Our personality patterns, values, attitudes, expectations and all the rest jelled when we were deciding who we are, what life is all about and what we are worth in the scheme of things. Your life-theme, the prism through which you interpret what goes on within and about you, has also been called a person's world-view or mind-set. We prefer the term life-theme, for as a musical theme has a recurring pattern in a composition, so a person's theme keeps showing up again and again in everything he or she does. Fortunately, a negative, discordant theme can be improved upon, can be brought to maturity. You can progress from a closed and fearful view of life to open and fearless expectations through which you can find greater fulfillment. Edwin Markham said it well.

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
He drew a circle that shut me out.
Love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle to take him in.

Roberta has expanded her circle all her adult life. Nancy Hughes is a retired military nurse who does not see management, politics and patriotism from Roberta's frame of reference. They clashed repeatedly in a health organization to which both belonged. Roberta considered her a martinet - and she knew Roberta was a soft-headed liberal as they tried to steer the group's policy. Then she fell really ill and Roberta was one of the few persons who went to the hospital regularly to see bow she was getting along. She supported her emotionally as she broadened her circle to take her in and if you can imagine, no more than two weeks ago, Nancy put her arm around Roberta's shoulder and said; I must be getting soft-headed - your ideas are beginning to make sense to me. It wasn't the quality of Roberta's ideas that had improved their relationship but her acceptance of Nancy as a person. And that grew stronger when she listened to her conscience that whispered: get over there - my friend needs some support.

Themes form like this in childhood.

PERSONAL LIFE THEME = f (Heredity x Environment x Choices)

An individual with an open and accepting theme simply assumes that he or she is an all right person, is competent enough to relate well to others and can adjust to good or bad circumstances as life shifts. Such a man or woman feels at peace in life and with the human race. On the other hand, a person with a closed and rejecting view of existence feels that something is wrong most of the time. Joan Bishop, for example, remains in a constant state of worry, fearful of her own emotions, frightened by those dangerous people who are different from herself and unable to work well toward a career. She feels that life must be frozen forever as it is now, to keep from losing the few good possessions, experiences and relationships she has managed to acquire. Our hearts bleed for Joan and we'd give anything if we could lead her to a deeper, more fulfilling acceptance of herself. It could be a new beginning for her - as healing as the one Charles Colson had when he left bare knuckle politics to work with prisoners and persons leaving captivity. An open and accepting theme would be a powerful predisposition toward making life outstanding for her and her family. There is, unfortunately, a major factor that complicates a person's shift from a closed to an open theme. It is:

  • Each person's life-theme is virtually always invisible to himself or herself.

  • Many psychologically unsophisticated persons feel that:

    You may have a life-theme that focuses your life but what I experience is real. Concepts like personality patterns, mind-sets and life-themes are psycho-babble used by liberal psychologists, philosophers and other soft headed intellectuals to disguise how tough life really is.

  • Andy Hanson told Jard this early in their Logotherapy sessions. Andy cannot tolerate anyone of a different race, nationality of economic class. In one discussion he rambled for an hour - telling him how stupid and dangerous Blacks, Indians and Asians are and how cautious one must be around them. He says that his prejudices are based on the Bible that God planned for the white race to dominate the lesser breeds out beyond decency, who are not completely human. Andy has hurt many people physically as well as emotionally, for he is a strong and aggressive man, but because of his spiritually bankrupt life-theme he has harmed himself most of all. He is an enormously talented musician who could have contributed a great deal to humankind had he stepped out in faith, hope and love through a purposeful focus of his strengths. His fearful and closed life-theme has crippled him.

    When a child learns during several formative years, from the handful of adults dominating the home that life is good - that when hungry he'll be fed, when frightened will be comforted, when soiled will be cleaned - all in good grace, the child develops what psychologists call basic-trust. This is the normal feeling that life is pretty good, he or she is an all right person who deserves a share of the good things life offers and that there is enough love to go around. Such a child learns the secret of love that all you need do to win all the love you need is to offer your love to others. Open minded and accepting parents see to that. Unfortunately, this can be a cruel and brutal world for kids. Not all youngsters are that fortunate - in psychologically and philosophically immature homes many learn fear and doubt rather than love and trust.

    A growing number of children, now that life has become increasingly complex, with so many parents trapped in spiritual bankruptcy and society spiraling out of control, grow up in misery. One study of inmates in women's and men's prisons revealed that most of the prisoners had terrible childhoods. Many were reared in poverty, but even those who had enough money were pawns in cruel conflicts between their parents, were taught nihilistic values or suffered sexual abuse within the home. Charles Manson, the evil mastermind behind the brutal Sharon Tate murders in California some years ago, defended himself when some media people accused him of kidnapping boys and girls and using them for such murderous schemes. Manson was quite honest when he indignantly insisted he'd stolen no one, that he recruited his followers sitting hopelessly on some curb where their parents had abandoned them. He had persuaded just a few of the many alienated, rage-filled adolescents of a deeply frustrated and nihilistic society to join him. How could such a child believe that he or she deserves faith, hope and love? He or she seldom prospers without a modicum of grace which overcomes the crippling assumption that he hasn't the ability to attract love, to win life's good things and live joyously without using mood altering drugs. Obviously most of the people who suffer basic-distrust toward life and others are not nearly so far down the mind-set continuum as Manson. They just feel miserable much of the time although some do become addicts and criminals.

    Very few of us are as naively innocent as the protagonist in Melville's great novel BILLY BUDD. Billy was so naively honest, aboard the whaling ship, that his crew mates had him killed to keep him from betraying their petty schemes while talking to the ship's officers. Fortunately, even fewer people are like Ted Bundy who killed up to fifty college girls in his campaign of terror from Seattle to Florida. Nevertheless, many women and men are unable or unwilling to shift their life-themes from closed to open even when it's in their best interests to change. They have lost the precious ability to adapt and to adjust, to take the powers life gives them and to turn them into something great Their minds are closed to new attitudes, activities and relationships unless they profit immediately from them.

    Obviously, even the boys and girls who start out well in life learn caution along the way. We discover through parental guidance, logic or trial and error experience that stray dogs shouldn't be indiscriminately petted, some strange men frighten mother and certain other kids will take all your candy or toys if given half a chance. In other words, although we learned basic-trust, we progress beyond our childhood innocence quickly enough. We become wiser in the ways of the world and its people and look into new situations before wearing our hearts on our sleeves. Nevertheless, in our heart of hearts, within our life-themes, we continue believing that life is pretty good, that we deserve to share in many good things and that families, organizations and communities work best through mutual faith, hope and love. We see life's exceptions and even feel sorry for persons trapped in basic-distrust, for those who remain frightened and bitter, but we go on loving and trusting to the best of our abilities although we do due diligence to avoid being abused.

    On the other hand, a doubting, suspicious person, suffering from a closed and fearful world-view, also sees exceptions in his grim, dog-eat-dog world. Society has a most generous portion of good pastors, talented teachers, honest merchants and all the souls who contribute to making a civilization succeed. However, if a person's basic-distrust is burned deeply in his or her psyche, so that good and evil, trust and distrust cannot be put into perspective, the many good people may remain invisible. Because of a closed life-theme, they may never appear on his or her personal radar screen. Or, if they do appear, the sufferer may attribute their motives to selfishness or assume they are getting close in order to abuse him. Some persons with closed life-themes even set themselves up for attacks to prove that a distorted view of reality really is the right one. Of course, that drives away the very people who would make life more satisfying through mutually supportive relationships. Gerald Dawkins is a police officer with a closed life-theme that seriously complicates his activities and relationships.

    Gerald goes armed around the community although he patrols in another precinct and relates to people through power and prestige rather than with persuasion and support He humiliates neighborhood children and teenagers and so antagonizes neighbors that some of them retaliate by smashing windows in his patrol car and stealing his kid's toys from their yard. Then he complains how rotten the neighbors are and how he is compelled to use violence to keep them in line. He is married to a little sparrow of a woman - his third marriage - who's afraid to challenge him when he abuses her. We have little doubt that his attitudes and actions reflect his rage toward the people he's sworn to protect and serve. Gerald has brutalized scores of black teenagers whom he claims assaulted him or resisted arrest, testifying in court to send several to prison on flimsy charges. Nihilistic, opportunistic city administrators hid the facts of Gerald's malfeasance and abuse of authority for as long as possible to keep from embarrassing themselves and a cynical county attorney steered a grand jury away from indicting him for crimes committed behind the protection of his badge. Even his chief admitted that Gerald has a dark soul that we call a negative life-theme. Not long ago, Gerald injured an innocent elderly black couple when a grenade exploded in a drug raid gone bad and then brutalized a handcuffed teenager. The lawsuits that resulted lead to the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and penalties by Minneapolis tax payers to atone for his angers and violence. Gerald's talks about moving out into the county but instead keeps on working for Minneapolis, where he'll be part of an army of occupation more than anything else. Gerald is the kind of cop or soldier who dominates others through intimidation and violence and when that fails to keep life tolerable, kills himself with his service pistol. In the past decade when New York City was losing twenty-one police officers to street violence by criminals - sixty-six of its cops shot themselves to death with their service revolvers.

    As with most of us, Gerald's negative life-theme remains invisible to himself although it is perfectly obvious to his neighbors. To him the violence that swirls around him is the central reality of his unhappy and aggressive existence. What he desperately needs is to mature as a real-person, to live with faith, hope, and love and to find peace within himself and with the world. If he fails to find philosophical wholeness, if he doesn't develop spiritual values, he'll likely drift into yet another marriage and cripple his children - even if he doesn't die in a dirty alley some night because he abused someone even more alienated and aggressive than he is. And faster with a gun.




    Author's Bio: 

    Jard DeVille has published more than a score of psychology books, seminars and psychological assessment instruments. His book NICE GUYS FINISH FIRST was a powerful best seller. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LEADERSHIP was New American Library's offering in their Executive Development Series.
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