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Adopt an Adult Orphan

Jean Liedloff

Anchu, the Yequana chief, in keeping with tribal custom, had been adopted as an adult orphan. When the same Yequana family jokingly adopted me, I was surprised at the pleasure and faint sense of longing it gave me. Although I was not technically an orphan, I had never felt accepted by my mother, and although she and I both lived in New York at the time, I did not live with her. Nor did my sister, who lived alone, also in New York, with her daughter. My father, long since divorced from my mother, lived somewhere in Maine, I knew not precisely where.

I was embarrassed by the Yequana women’s bewilderment at these living arrangements. They could not understand why my sister and I did not live with our mother. How could I explain to them that members of my tribe were so alienated that we expected people to want to live separate from their families, and even to feel put upon if, as adults, they had to live with their parents. More than bewilderment, the women had shown signs of fear, as though these solitary creatures, of whom I was one, were a cause for anxiety.

And of course, they were right. We are a cause for anxiety. The maintenance of good feeling in each individual is insurance for all. The unquestioned assumption that every child is innately social sustains a cultural atmosphere in which each person naturally wants to cooperate with the customs of his people. He is not suddenly thought to be bad if he breaks or loses something, accidentally hurts or inconveniences another person, makes a disturbing noise, or behaves in any of the many ways that can bring a withdrawal of acceptance in Western civilization.

In Yequana society there is no equivocation about what behavior is undesirable, inconvenient or “not done,” but neither is there any doubt that the child is what she ought to be: good, right and social, a human child behaving like one. Like all children she may create occasional inconveniences as she learns what is expected, but there is no question that she wants to do what is right. And quite rightly, for we are innately social animals.

Children see very quickly that soiling or breaking things in their homes causes dismay in their people, and are therefore to be avoided. Why do we assume that children will be destructive if not made afraid of punishment? The knowledge, alone, that a valued object is lost or damaged, and that the sense of loss is shared with one’s own people, is enough. Punishment by exclusion from acceptance, or by some other form of suffering inflicted on the child, would be counterproductive in sustaining his social feeling. The breakage or loss is considered “bad” but not the child (or adult) who caused it. His motives are undoubted.

A child who has been included in community life from birth by the members of her society, and associates with them constantly, has a profound familiarity with what is done, what is valued and how people and things are to be treated. By the age of three or four, the transition from individual to be cared for by others, to contributing member of the family workforce, is complete. In the meantime, a toddler is trying; practicing, discovering and refining her abilities to fulfill and be fulfilled by the positive expectations of her people. There is no need for persuasion, it is her nature.

Many customs of the Yequana are directed toward meeting the requirements for emotional well-being that will keep people feeling social. Their maintenance of what we call law and order does not include law, only internal, individual order, based on the assumption that man only becomes anti-social when deprived of the support appropriate for all humans.

Illness, pain, bereavement, hunger, isolation or humiliation, if allowed to become too intense or too enduring, can exhaust a person’s powers of adaptation, of resilience. The result is a measure of bitterness, resentment, jealousy, frustration, anger, despair or loneliness. The natural inclination to protect and further the interests of one’s people will become strained and distorted. A sense of natural justice will suggest that a person withdraw his endeavors from the common cause and put them toward his own interests, as the support of others is withdrawn from him.

The Yequana are careful not to allow this to happen by providing for any eventuality that puts a strain on the individual’s ability to take such stresses in stride. For instance, the best hunters and fishermen share their catches with everyone so that hunger and jealousy cannot build up in their neighbors. Grief is mitigated by appropriate demonstrations of solidarity. People do not ever try to persuade one another to change their minds by using emotional pressure. Humiliation is sensitively precluded, and no one is expected to live alone. Thus, the “adoption” of orphaned adults.

In this rich atmosphere of respect and provision for these human needs, not just the gross ones of food and shelter but the complex social requirements, the Yequana enjoy their high state of well-being.