On Becoming a Personal Scientist: Beginnings

September 10, 2017 - 9 minutes read

Referring to the process of writing, Donald Barthelme once said, “Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but hardest of all is to begin, to begin.”

A new beginning implies a change, a switching of gears.

The new year is an opportunity to do something we’ve been wanting to for some time, yet we’re waiting for the ‘right’ moment.

But is there a right moment?

Change may involve departing from our comfort zone for a bit.

It is easier to do when we know we can return to the safety of the familiar.

It is easier to do when we are not alone, and plan with someone that they will be there with us.

Are you ready?

As we approach the new year, I would like to encourage you to become curious about yourself, perhaps about a certain habit or trait you have, such as the propensity to become easily discouraged or overly optimistic, to procrastinate or avoid certain situations or feelings. Perhaps there is something you simply want to change, whether in yourself or in your life situation.

While it may be tempting to try to change others, a pitfall many of us fall into at one time or another, is it impossible to do so. We must accept them as they are, in their otherness, and to see how we can be compatible – at work, at home, socially, romantically. We can ‘only’ change our relationship, not an easy thing to do.

The prototype of a beginning, which implies change, is the birth experience, when the foetus departs from the familiarity of his (or her) mother’s womb and lands in a wholly unknown world. He tries desperately to cling to something familiar in this new world, something that will provide a sense of continuity with that which is familiar, such as his mother’s heart beat or voice. He clings to the familiar in order to feel safe. According to Dr. Ronnie Solan in her heart-warming book, The Enigma of Childhood, from birth onwards we safeguard that which is familiar to us, and tend to feel threatened by that which is alien or strange, whether within us or in the external world.

Similarly to the biological immune system that protects against the alien, explains Dr. Ronnie Solan, the baby is born with an emotional immunological system that safeguards the sense of self-familiarity. Via the shared experiences with a caregiver the baby is close to, he becomes emotionally immune to invasion by unfamiliar sensations of strangeness. The parent bridges between familiar and non-familiar, and can mediate in such a way that the infant/child is able to befriend aspects of the unfamiliar or alien, and record them in his immunological memory. The next time he encounters these sensations, he will also remember the shared experiences with the calm parent vis-a-vis that which was strange and frightening for him. Dr. Solan illustrates with an example of a baby learning to deal with thunder and lightening. His mother takes him in her arms and stands next to the window, singing a familiar song he has heard before. Between the lightening and the thunder, she says calmly, “Boom-boom, the thunder says, Boom-boom.” The next time, when this memory resonates with the current thunder, the infant may mumble, “Boom-boom” and will be less frightened by the peals of thunder.

As the baby gains enough safety and security via his attachment systems with the significant people in his life, he is able to identify and then befriend the familiar within the strange. 

As his sense of self-familiarity and identity begin to crystallize, and he can identify himself as familiar in an ever-changing environment, the beginnings of constancy and continuity provide an antidote to the sensations of strangeness—he can begin to be attracted to a familiar non-self, while differentiating between himself and that which is strange to him, maintaining a sense of separateness. According to Dr. Solan, “Along with the baby’s interaction with the non-self, his inborn narcissism is constantly triggered to preserve the sense of a familiar self as wholeness, a process enhancing self-esteem.” (2015, p. 350).

Despite certain similarities that may exist between parent and child, it is natural there also be many differences. Already as foetuses in the womb, and throughout life, each of us has his or her own rhythms and biorhythms, proclivities, sensitivities and temperament. The process of differentiating between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ and learning to recognize one’s own needs and desires continues throughout the lifespan. This separateness forms part of jointness, of togetherness. While innate, in moments of intimacy between mother and child (or any partners), the boundaries are temporarily blurred.

As parents, it is important we recognize, accept, validate, and respect these differences. This will allow us to love our child the way they are and to provide validation. This is especially important during the early, formative years, but also throughout the lifespan, with all our partners.

When there is an acceptance of the other as is, it is not necessary to adopt a false self or persona so as to be loved, and it is possible to welcome and celebrate differences.

Many people become anxious when faced with the not-I, especially when they do not feel safe enough. This anxiety is at the root of racism and xenophobia—the fear of the stranger, such as that of people from other countries or cultures. As we know all too well, many have trouble respecting others when they belong to a different ethnic group or religious affiliation, a different generation, or perhaps, even a sub-culture.

But some people are able to revel in and celebrate their differences: yin and yang, male and female, femininity and masculinity, cautious and daring, carefree and controlled, etc. Many couples complement each other in these ways, yet all too easily assume that their partner is like them in their tastes, needs, desires, dislikes.

Couplehood is an art, says Dr. Solan, and it requires a constant, mutual tending of the relationship by both partners.

Perhaps you can start the new year by fine-tuning your ability to befriend the otherness of those around you—as expressed by your children, parents, family and wider circles. To be able to do so requires your being able to accept yourself as you are—including less familiar sensations and feelings—and being compassionate and loving towards yourself—including earlier versions of yourself, as you were growing up.


Solan, R. (2015). The Enigma of Childhood. The Profound Impact of the First Years of Life on Adults as Couples and Parents. London: Karnac.

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