There’s a phenomenon in children which parenting author and counselor Kim John Payne calls “soul fever.” It is a state very much like physical fever, but in the emotions. The signs of the malaise are intense irritability, being “out of sorts,” hyperactivity—every encounter with parents or others seems to turn into a conflict or a fight. It is a state all parents know well, and recognize in memories from our own childhoods, if not our adult lives.
In Payne’s view, there is a simple response needed when children become over-stressed: Love them. As he says in his book, Simplicity Parenting, “When your child seems to deserve affection least, that’s when they need it most.” Creating a space where the child can slow down, rest, and feel nurtured and loved—holding her potential state instead of her behavior in mind—inevitably allows her to relax, come back into balance, and reveal the sweetness that she is.
Recognizing the parallels between the description of a child with soul fever and the state of humanity is inevitable. Humanity is overwhelmed, unable to assimilate the volume of data that pours into our collective psyche. We are alienated from the only true bearing that can create peace and balance—ourselves—and, by extension, one another and other beings. The living connection to our nature, and the natural world of which we are a part, is supplanted by a virtual reality of dogmas, media narratives, institutions, and the myriad games we play, with the result that the world is on fire with conflict and insatiable craving to fill our emptiness with unmediated consumption.
Throughout history teachers have appeared that offer a method for harmonizing ourselves, and by extension, harmonizing with one another. Their message is always the same: Transcend your petty differences, and love one another. Some even go so far as to suggest a method for accomplishing this.
To paraphrase, they say: “You occupy only the most superficial part of yourself. This is the realm of likes and dislikes—attraction to pleasure, and rejection of pain. But you need not be an ass on a treadmill, chasing the carrot and fleeing the stick. You can go deeper, and occupy a part of yourself that is beyond opposites, where the real treasure lies.”
In this direction, I offer a special text that I’ve read and pondered and attempted to practice in recent months. It sets out a program that, on first glance, sounds impossible. But, like all outcomes that are inconceivable at the outset, glimmers of possibility appear in the effort to work it out.
What follows is J. G. Bennett’s introduction to a task given to a small group of students.
To replace all negative attitudes toward the existing world with a feeling of confidence and love towards the new world that is being born, towards the still unborn child that is the future humanity.
To arouse in oneself constantly this love for mankind. Every time one has a feeling of negativity, take this as a reminder that we human beings live on this earth to serve, particularly to serve the future. And to serve with love, with hope, with confidence, so that it is possible for mankind to be born again. Such a positive attitude could enter into our behavior, into our speech. But if this is to have some force for us we have to deprive ourselves of something else. That is, to acknowledge that one really can work against negativity. To take away energy which at present flows into negative thought, postures and feelings and transform them to the other.
This is a very hard thing that I am proposing to you because in all of us negative thinking is so ingrained. In the midst of feeling compassion one finds oneself judging, finding fault. This is a disease that has overcome humankind and we are all infected by it.
Some very lucky people have escaped this disease. It is very fortunate to know such people. It is an extraordinary thing to see such healthy souls in the midst of so much disease. Very few have this robust love towards their enemies, but some have.
It is a technical matter. It is not a matter of thinking it would be nice to be like that. It is a matter of knowing how to bring oneself to that place where our attitudes are under our own control. Where it is possible for us to say: This, not That.
—J.G. Bennett, London, 1972
Bear in mind that Mr. Bennett is offering a task—not simply a matter for consideration. He offers a suggestion of something to be put into practice in our lives.
Thanks to the J. G. Bennett Foundation, Inc. for permission to quote the above passage.