Equilibrium and disequilibrium

We noticed it in our kids before we read about it in a book. Actually, I was noticing it blindly - I was dealing (wrestling?) with it, but not having words for it. It was my husband who put words to it.

He saw it and called it expansion vs. processing/contraction and later, he called it gathering information vs. synthesizing information. Like his daughter after him, he could remember doing and feeling this cycle when he was a child. The book I eventually found, one of Drs. Ames and Ilg's classics on child development, called it equilibrium vs. disequilibrium. Whatever you call it, though, if you've raised children, you've seen it.

The authors of the books say that this cycle goes in approximately six-month-long waves, but I'm not so sure about that part. How long each swing of the pendulum takes is more individual to the child, I think, and I also think it happens a couple of times before that first six-monther. Our first two kids were about one and a half years apart, and their cycles most definitely overlapped from time to time. I still get tired just thinking about it.

I don't think we ever stop doing this absorbing and rhythmic life dance. We put our right foot in, and put our right foot out, and do the hokey pokey over and over and over. It goes on for the whole of our lives, in ever-lengthening rhythms of ebb and flow, and although we don't blitz through the passages every six months as we age, we still have this movement in our lives. Or ... we should have it.

The swing of the pendulum. The change of the tide. Left, right, left, right ... this is how the world works. We breathe in the air we need for our lives, and we breathe out the extra air to carry the toxins that would kill us if we harbored them. We find our depth of vision through the use of two eyes, and we both wake and sleep. Back and forth, back and forth, we proceed through our human lives, and along the way this back-coming and forth-going forms and molds and changes us.

If we watch our small, young people, if we will just pay attention for a minute, we can figure out how it works. We can, it seems to me, get a clue about ourselves as people - grown people work the same way as not grown people - they're just bigger.

In cycles of about six months at a time, the youngest among us will expand their worlds, and experiment, and try things, and find the edges of their own small places. This expansive time is the time when the parents of young children find themselves picking up the pieces of things and saying, "How did she even see that? And when did she get tall enough to reach it?" This is the season of being stunned at sudden frustrated aggression and, sometimes, full-blown outraged tantrums rise up and bother everyone in the room - including the tantrum thrower. ... And one day the tantrum thrower mellows out and becomes angelically contented. Poof! The tide turns, the mood shifts, the season changes. It's enough to wear a loving parent out.

But don't blame the kid! He didn't make the setup. Just like you, he has to work within what is, and while he's little, he's figuring out just what that means. And, for all his occasional outbursts, a child is really quite meek. He depends on people older and bigger than he is, and he will believe the version of the world you make for him. Maria Montessori was right. It's easily observed. As she was fond of saying, "Look at the child." Those first six years or so are most certainly a time when the developing human has an "absorbent mind."

The human person will believe his childish impressions at least until he gets to be a teenager, when the time (now much longer than six-months in a cycle) of disequilibrium nearly makes him and his parents nuts. And after that ... well? Ask yourself. Do we "grow out of it"? No. We don't. We keep doing the back and forth, back and forth, and the cycles merely get longer and deeper and harder to get in and out of. We get bigger and less flexible, but the tides we're in keep changing.

Lately I have been watching people who are in their 70's and 80's, and I have been listening to them, and I have been getting a bit concerned. Does the cycle get stuck in such stubborn equilibrium that only the grownup versions of security blankets and naps on time are allowed into a person's conscious life? Am I headed into a world in which my version of reality is as unique to me as it was when I was three years old? Are all old people destined to become large wrinkled toddlers? Ack! What a horrid idea!

But wait a minute. I know old people who did not "lose" their grip at all. I know old people who stay conscious in their lives. They did - they do - most certainly (consciously) let go of things, but they don't lose anything except the flexibility of their own bodies - and sometimes not even too much of that! Aunt Nita walked upstairs to her bedroom the night she died, and she laid down and went to sleep - in the Orthodox sense. She fell asleep. She kept house and read books and cooked legendary foods and enjoyed the extended family right up through that very last day. If she were the only old person in the whole world who stayed flexible in her life, that would be proof enough that it could be done. But she's not the only one. I know a lot of people who are both interested and interesting.

So where is the difference? What happens to some people - inside of some people?

I think what happens is mostly a matter of this rhythm of equilibrium and disequilibrium - rootedness and ability to bend - breathing in and breathing out - and it is a matter of our ability and willingness to stay connected to the rhythm.

We each started our lives like some small underwater plant spore, tossed in the currents of the tide, completely and utterly helpless in the forces of gravity and the effect of the moon on the oceans. We were very small.

If our parent plants did their jobs, we found a rock to touch. We learned to cling to our rock with our sticky little feet, and once we figure out how to cling, we learn how to grow. Growing feels the tides and changes and other things in the water with us, and so then we learn to bend and wave and flex in a changing world. We learn the rhythm of the tides.

And if we don't learn all of this, we can be ripped from our rocks and tossed onto the beach to dry in the sun. Or ... if we learn only to root but not to flex, we break in the force of the storms or we are broken by larger and stronger beings. Life needs both rootedness and adaptability.

So how do I intend to reach my own old age in a state of both wise strength and meek adaptation to reality? Well, I'll tell you.

I intend to be honest with myself about my own versions of the deadly sins. I intend to tell myself the truth about my own lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride, and I intend to get better and better at this through practice.

I intend to be grateful for the truth of the blessings in this life, and I intend to list them to myself with conscious words. I intend to name them. I intend to say thank you for friendship and family love and shelter and flavor and sound and color and rain and sun and seasons.

I intend to deliberately seek after the virtues of love, worship, reverence, diligence, discipline, kindness, self-control, honesty, truthfulness, and contentment. These are the virtues of the Ten Commandments.

And, most of all, I think that it seems to be necessary to be aware of the tide. Someday, when my body is nearly worn out, I want to be so aware of the tide that it will cause me no more than a moment's hesitant fear each time I need to let go of one more thing. At first, we had to learn to stick, and sometimes to cling. In the end, the task reverses and comes back to its own beginning. In the end, I think we un-stick. We de-cling. We let go. And that it how we get finally to find The Beginning and The Ending, the Alpha and Omega, the One who teaches us the truth by making all the world an expanding and contracting, night and day, season upon season, gloriously living, tidal rhythm.

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