Spring has sprung. As we stretch out our sleepy winter limbs and shed off our cozy layers our body image becomes the focus of our attention in anticipation of bathing suit season. And as the earth gets warmer, flowers bloom and birds sing our grass is all of a sudden equally in need of attention. I read a blog today that explores the cultural aspect of what lawns mean to the American family. And it got me thinking. But what I’m thinking about is something different. What I’m thinking about is what I like to call “house image”: the concept that we tend to internalize the image and ideas about our homes when we own them in a way that they become part of our persona, who we think we are as people and our place in the world. The perfect expression of this is our attachment to yards. When people came up with the “grass is always greener” saying, they meant it literally. We associate how well manicured the lawn is with one’s home ownership pride and often status (and dare I say mental health?). When I was looking for a house, the condition of my neighbors’ yard was very important. Now that I own the house I tend to neglect yard work (don’t really like it) which sometimes causes my neighbors to pressure me to take better care of it by meticulously and systematically perfecting theirs. I live in constant state of yard envy.
Obviously there is some actual real estate sense to how landscaping effects the property value etc, etc but that’s not just it. I’m fascinated by what our attachment to home ownership (and yard maintenance) represents from a life script perspective. Of course I became more concerned with this once I bought a house and started to wonder whose idea had it been anyway, to take on such an enormous responsibility? Had I been brainwashed by watching too much HGTV? Yes, every body wants to own something they can call their own and not “throw” their money away on rent, etc, etc. But why? Who decided that this was the way to go? What happened to my desire to travel or live somewhere else? Why be tied down? Was renting really that bad? Will I still be living in this house after 30 years? The questions that came after closing were not easy to answer. Did the home owner’s dream, really become a nightmare when the housing market collapsed?
Most importantly, who decided mortgages were cool?
In “What do you say after you say hello”, Eric Berne had the answers to some of my questions. He talks about life scripts. Scripts are based on childhood decisions and parental programming which is continually reinforced. Berne says that there are losers, winners and nonwinners based on scripts (a.k.a frogs and princes). Parents want their children to either be winners or losers. They may want them to be “happy” in the role they have chosen for them, but they do not want them to be transformed. A mother who is raising a frog may want her daughter to be a happy frog but will put down any attempts of her to become a princess (“Who do you think you are?”) A father who is raising a prince wants his son to be happy, but often he would rather see him unhappy than transform into a frog (“How can you do that us? We’ve given you the best of everything.”)
The first thing to be decided about a script is whether it is a winning script or a losing script (I’m sorry Charlie Sheen, you really should not take credit for this). This can often be discovered very quickly by listening to the person talk. A winner says things like “ I made a mistake but it won’t happen again, now I know how to do things differently” A loser says “If only…” “I should have…”and “Yes, but…”There are also nonwinner scripts, near misses, scripts that require people to work hard, not for the purpose of winning but just to stay even. These are “at leasters” who say “well at least, I didn’t end up like so and so”. A winner is defined as someone who fulfills his contract with the world and with himself. That is he sets out to do something, says that he is committed to doing it and in the long run does it. A winner knows what he’ll do next if he loses but doesn’t talk about it; a loser doesn’t know what he’ll do if he loses but talks about what he’ll do if he wins.
Winning or losing, a script is a way to structure the time between the first Hello at mother’s breast and Good-bye at the grave. This lifetime is emptied and filled by not doing and doing; by never doing, always doing, not doing before, not doing after, doing over and over and doing until there is nothing left to be done.
OK, so what does that have to do with the mortgage? Well, the story goes a little like this.
In order to put himself to the test Joe decides to take on a mortgage. Where he’s from he’s not a man until he takes a down payment on a house, goes heavily into debt or “mortgages” his working years to bring up his children. Those who have no mortgages are regarded as carefree, beautiful or lucky people but not real winners. The banker’s TV commercials show the “great” day in Joe’s life: the day he mortgages his earnings for the next twenty or thirty years to buy a house. The truth is, the day he’s done paying and is out of the mortgage he’s ready for the old people home. This can be avoided by taking on a bigger mortgage for a bigger house. In other parts of the world, he can mortgage himself for a bride. Most societies provide a structured way for young people to “mortgage” themselves and thus give meaning to their life. Otherwise, they might just spend their lives enjoying themselves as they do in a few places. In this way, there is no real way of telling real winners from losers. With a mortgage system, the population readily divides themselves. People who never have enough guts to mortgage themselves are losers (at least according to those who run the system). People who spend their lives paying off the mortgage, so they can never get much ahead, are the silent majority of nonwinners. The people who hold mortgages (i.e banks) are the real winners.
“Then there are the addicts who have a lifelong mortgage on their bodies which they can never pay off so they are always playing for keeps.”
Sometimes in therapy the sole goal becomes allowing someone to transform into a winner regardless of what the parents would have wanted and regardless of what society has decided for them. There is something very empowering about getting clear about what you want, making a commitment to accomplish it and then doing it.
And really, aren’t we all winners in some way? Even when we’re losing?