Why Soup and Bread

With only a week left before the presentation (or book launch) of Soup and Bread, I want to write a series of posts to explain some of the happenings in the book as well as discuss its social and psychological background. This is the first of these posts.

Soup and Bread, a novel for teens to adults, deals with two of the most pressing problems our children are faced with today: bullying and eating disorders. The book respects the idea that young teens are equally capable of understanding these complex issues and it also addresses the emotions of the involved adults, because neither adults nor kids can solve these problems alone. In that respect, the book is about children growing up, not in the “coming of age” sense – which, in books or movies today, is invariably about young teens having sex for the first time – but in the sense of taking on adult issues and taking responsibility for their own behaviour. That is what growing up means.

At the start of the book, Vonnie, in her final year of primary school, is a happy girl with a “lucky body”, a best friend and a tolerant family. Sure, there are some things she doesn’t like, such as Mum complaining about what she eats at every meal  and the teacher always scolding the whole class for what only the bullies do – but she’s very good at ignoring them. Vonnie is a bystander to the bullying. She doesn’t think it is right, but the bullies are a group of popular kids, and Vonnie doesn’t believe there is anything she can do about it; bullies simply belong to school, like PE, and just like Mum complaining belongs to dinnertime.

But then two things happen that upset her happy routine: Mum’s had enough of fussy eaters and starts making soup and bread for every meal, and a new boy, Frank, comes to Vonnie’s class and he starts to confront her about being a bystander. Suddenly Vonnie finds that she has no choice but to respond, so she rebels at home – she goes on hunger strike – and through Frank she meets a number of other children with health and food problems, which makes her wonder whether it is right to call herself “lucky” and look the other way: Is doing nothing the same as supporting the bullies?

During a climactic weekend outing with a group of kids, Vonnie learns that she doesn’t need to be a bystander; that she is strong enough to make a difference, not only by standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, but also by standing up to the adults and initiating a change at school.

I should start by saying that, although the book is critical of the current approach to these problems and the way the education system handles them, the book does not put blame with any individual children, parents or teachers. In each of these three groups, there are some negative characters and some who are (sometimes after consideration) more tolerant. The main premise of the book is that every person wants what is best, that nobody is to blame and that the way people respond is a result of their experiences, which, in turn, are a result of their inborn personality type. The problems therefore, are problems that come from the way people live together; they concern all of us and can only be understood (and solved) in the light of group psychology – which I will discuss in the next post.

Now, psychology is highly abstract and the unconscious processes that influence the way people respond to each other or feel about each other, are invisible. So, how to explain to readers as young as eleven that these unconscious differences in people exist and that they form the underlying causes of bullying, eating disorders and all of today’s ‘mental’ problems?

I hope to have done that with the use of metaphor and analogy. As Vonnie puts it: “Looks don’t matter, but there’s something inside people that can’t be seen, but it’s why people feel attracted to each other or not – like falling in love, I guess, only with bullies it’s about hate.”

Soup and Bread is not just the title, referring to the object of Vonnie’s rebellion, but it is also a metaphor. “Soup” is not one specific sort of food. Depending on the ingredients you put in it, the soup will taste differently and have a different nutritional value. So with people; we each have different ingredients, our inborn psychological tendencies, and those make for the variety we see in people. And just like once you put something in the soup, you cannot take it out again – that particular soup will have that taste – so every person is born with their ingredients and those cannot be changed by will or on advice of teachers or counsellors. But soup and bread together make for a wholesome meal and so all people together make up the variety of skills and insights needed for humanity as a whole to progress.

A third metaphor I use is the idea of soap bubbles. I also use this in my other books, but in this case, the children literally play with bubble blowers and so learn to ‘see’ that concrete objects and words resemble the soap of a bubble – they are more or less identical to any observer – but abstract words and inner senses are like the air inside the bubbles and cannot be taught or understood exactly the same by different people.

Understanding the unconscious is usually a question of an intuitive grasping and not of intellect and therefore much less dependent on age or education than on personality type. This means that some children and some adults will “get it” and some will not (yet). Some people will not accept any of this until an authority agrees with it. This authority can be the popular opinion or the academic experts, neither of which acknowledge personality types at the moment.

But as Carl Sagan so famously said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Just because there is no scientific proof, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Scientists cannot find what they are not looking for, and, currently, they dismiss inborn personality types in favour of observable superficial behaviour, hormones and neurology, because those are simpler.

Let me draw a comparison to medical science. Most people today accept the “holistic approach”. The vast majority of people are agreed that we can no longer treat people as a collection of detachable organs in order to heal them, which was the twentieth century reductionist approach; we need to treat the whole person.

Yet in psychology, the trend is going in the other direction: the study of psychology is becoming more and more a ‘hard’ science, focusing single-mindedly on the brain or the neural networks and with very little regard for the whole person, which would mean dealing with the uncountable variables that make us human. The reasons for that are explained in The Music of Life and are too complex to repeat here. Suffice it to say that everything people do is a result of their personality type and that includes the jobs they choose and the way they go about these jobs. This applies to those studying human behaviour as much as to any other field and as long as they dismiss their own personality influences, these scientists are unconsciously judging the people they observe from their own inborn biases, and medicating or labelling them accordingly.

And as a result of this general attitude and our blind trust in “scientists”, virtually every book that has been published about bullying in the last ten years has focused either on the bully or the victim – blaming upbringing, bodies or superficial behaviour. The same causes are assigned to eating disorders, suicide and other acts of self-harm, the incidence of which are expressed in younger and younger children. Clearly, the current approach is not working and we desperately need to wake up to the reason for that or we’ll lose even more children – that is why Soup and Bread is written.

The book provides as many as possible examples of the different responses (both positive and negative) to the individual “being different” and shows that this difference is not related to external traits. The children in the book talk about “insides and outsides” – the things you say, do, or choose versus those that are part of you; what you are.

There is nothing in this book in the way of actions or words expressed by teachers, that I have not personally either heard or observed a teacher do or say – I am not saying all in the same school, or even in the same country – and similarly, the behaviour of the bullies comes from first-hand accounts of those who were witness to such behaviour, either as a victim or a bystander.

The messages of Soup and Bread:

  • that bullying is based in natural (instinctive) behaviour, but it is not okay
  • that bullying is not a problem of individual kids; it’s a problem of a judgemental society
  • that no external features, race, religion, behaviours or physical traits are either the reason or an acceptable excuse
  • that other problems (such as eating disorders) are rooted in the same core differences and therefore immediately related, but not the cause
  • that nobody is to blame, but that we can nonetheless change our collective attitude and reduce the problem
  • that values education and advice such as “get tough” or lessons to that effect, cannot work and have made the problem worse, because it introduces double bind situations that leave the victim no way out
  •  that trying to deal with the symptoms is missing the bigger picture and the underlying causes
  • that most schools are bystanders and in some cases even accommodators and that “good advice” is covert bullying
  • that teaching the right and wrong of behaviour is ineffective unless accompanied by actions that demonstrate it
  • that teaching adults or children to deal with the problem can only work if they also have an understanding of the depth psychology that lies at the core of interpersonal relationships

In light of that, the book asks

  • schools to take responsibility and not point the finger at brain chemistry, disorders or other easy excuses that make the child feel ‘faulty’; we need to attack the behaviour instead of the person
  • children and parents to stand up for their rights, to get honest about the real issues and not accept patches, blame or being dismissed for not being experts
  • bystanders to get actively involved and collectively stand up for the victims
  • those types of personalities that naturally end up on the receiving end of bullying to connect together and support each other
  • politicians to listen to the voice of all people and not hide behind votes or bureaucracy

It is simply not good enough that in countries that are not at war, thousands of children have to be afraid for their life, harbour thoughts of suicide and self-harm, or feel not worthy enough to eat.

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