Vn107.1 Self-Understanding 10/22/77
My cousin’s wedding has been a day of reconciliations, of growing
closer to family from whom I had been long and much estranged. After a
late breakfast, we attended the wedding. I felt proud of Robby later
when he told me the nicest part of the wedding was a piano-organ duet
(‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’) even though my engagement was other.
As I later told my cousin, the groom, in a scene reminiscent of the end
of The Madwoman of Chaillot wherein I stuttered several times
then spoke clearly, I came to bear witness that marriage and paternity were
the two great blessings of my life.
At the reception, as we arrived early I took a table for 8 and then
asked my brother, his family, and my father to join us four. There, and
at a later party for the immediate family, we spoke much with Dave (my
brother) and his wife. As their daughter has gone through school they
have become appalled at the quality of the “education” to which she has
been subject and indignant at the pretense of knowledge ignorant
teachers make. (We spoke freely because I told them my difficulty in
foreseeing an academic future was that I could not endure the pretense
of knowledge with its implicit deceit and manipulation of other people
that the professorial stance systematically demands.) I explained to
them parts of our newly completed project: one of our goals was to render
a child more articulate, to give a child better control of his own
mental procedures and knowledges.
Miriam was playing chase outside with Robby and Peter (a second
cousin, her junior by nine months). When Peter last tagged her, he hit
her in the back of the neck and pulled her hair (thus her story goes).
I found Miriam outside, sobbing and very much out of breath. I would
have judged she needed a dose of her wheeze-suppression medicine at
that time. I loaned Miriam my handkerchief and speculated that his
unkindness had been an accident, or perhaps a thoughtless act, but
surely not a mean one directed at her as a person. Inside, my brother
sat down with Miriam, who was still wheezing heavily, in an out-of-the-
way place. As he subsequently related their conversation to me, Dave
told her of his severe childhood asthma, a difficulty he suffered when
the practice was less sophisticated and medications fewer than today’s:
he had found that through conscious effort, he could stop an impending
asthma attack, bring his breathing and his emotions under sufficient
control that his bronchi could recover from the particular assault they
suffered in a given incident. Miriam tells me they made friends. Dave
said if Miriam comes to visit him, she can play in the large playhouse
he made for his daughter (almost 7 years Miriam’s senior) and could
watch for the deer which visit at his four apple trees.
Later in the evening I accosted Miriam outside. She was again
breathing heavily, engaged once more in a game of chase with the two
boys. “Come walk around slowly with me.” When Miriam refused, I
pointed out how she was breathing so heavily and that I didn’t want her
to end up wheezing. She explained to me, “Daddy, I have a very good
trick, to stop it when I have trouble breathing.” “How’s that?” I asked.
“I just think about it [pointing to her head], and after 5 minutes, or
maybe even 15, I won’t be breathing so hard.” I left Miriam playing tag.
I reported Miriam’s reply to my brother, who said this was
substantially the advice he had given her and filled in the information
I noted previously. Dave remarked further that he didn’t really under-
stand my description of our project’s work at Logo but volunteered the
judgment that he had never met so young a child so well able to under-
stand the idea of controlling her own processes.
This incident reports one example of how Miriam’s work on this
project has developed a perspective on self-control which may be
profoundly valuable for her in an entirely separate area of her life —
controlling her allergic reactions.
Some more detailed notes. My brother is an engineer, not an
educator nor a psychologist, so his exposure to young children is limited
to his daughter and her friends. His daughter is in her school’s pro-
gram for ‘gifted’ children, which fact I cite as witness that he is used
to having a bright girl child around. Further, he is a design engineer
for microcomputer-based milling machine control systems; by this I imply
that he is used to thinking in terms of procedures and control.
I would not claim that Miriam understands herself in the profound
sense of placing herself coherently in her world. It is clear she can
talk with and comprehend the ideas of a mechanistically-oriented but
sophisticated 40-year-old engineer in his attempt to explain what he
views as a milestone of self-understanding. It is very likely that her
ideas of herself in this respect are influenced by our work at Logo (cf.
Vignettes 87, Turtle Tactics, and 88, One or Many Minds). It might be
more direct to say that Miriam can establish a theory of herself as an
object. (For a discussion of whether that is a good thing, see Vignette 81,
Imitating Machines.) If one criticizes a culture or subculture for
leading people to think mechanistically about themselves, one criticizes
an approximation to the actual human condition — and are not approximate,
wrong theories a first step toward the truth? Contrast a theory I might
impute to Miriam, wherein she sees herself partially as a coughing robot
who can be commanded to stop (by another agent’s insistent
will), with an alternative conception — that of a small creature wakened
in the dark of her bedroom at midnight by coughings which fall her way
through ill luck, whom nothing can help. The wrong, mechanical theory
may be the lesser evil.