The power of childhood experiences

During the past few months I’ve increasingly struggled to do the things that I know I should do. If I’m in a discussion about something specific or I have a clear task to perform, I’ve been fine. But when some planning is needed, or the way forward is not clear, or decisions need to be made, I have found myself floundering. This has become rather worrying since I have even neglected some tasks or habits that I previously enjoyed. No matter how much I told myself I must get on with these tasks, it felt like I was stuck in wet tar! Even praying had no impact on my state of mind.

Then at a recent training course, we looked at a model of behaviour that classifies reactions to positive or negative situations. Suddenly I realised what was happening internally, though not why. However one of the exercises began to reveal a clue; and a coaching session revealed one of the events at the heart of my problem – more than 40 years ago.

In describing the life of a Salvation Army officer, I’ve often mentioned that my parents were ordered to move from the Nort East to the South West on my 7th birthday. Thankfully we were able to stop overnight with some friends who gave me a birthday party. What I had never realised was how much the move upset me. I already knew that we had to move when the Army leaders said; generally I have not had a problem with the concept, it was just part of life. And I don’t resent this particular move – my memories of the next few years in three different towns are generally happy. I made some friends, enjoyed my time in the various corps and benefitted from some excellent schools. But I only realised this week how significant was the date of the move.

In The Salvation Army, your 7th birthday is very important. It  marks the age at which you can acknowledge for publicly your own personal commitment to Jesus, signfiied by becoming a Junior Soldier. This also entitles you to join the YP band and Singing Company. So as my 7th birthday approached, all of this was in the plan. And suddenly it was taken away! Of course, once we arrived in our new corps, arrangements were made to follow through. But that’s not the point: I was supposed to join a particular group of Junior Soldiers, a specific band, and it was taken away. (This also explains why, in the new corps, I insisted on being made a Junior Soldier on the agreed date, even though my mum was unwell and couldn’t attend) I expressed none of this at the time, perhaps in part because I couldn’t put it into words, but mostly because I realised it wouldn’t change anything. Yet by keeping quiet about this and a couple of other moves, I sowed the seeds of problems much later in life, in my own officer ministry.

Please understand, I do not blame The Salvation Army for moving my parents. They had made a promise to go where they were sent, and I understood even at age 7. In fact, in some ways it probably felt like an adventure. Rather, I regret that I did not speak up then, and on another couple of occasions that were equally painful. During my formative years, Army leaders were beginning to recognise that more and more officers had families, and moves needed to take account of schooling amongst other things. Ironically, the second and third distressing moves were timed to minimise interference in my education. But they didn’t take account of emotional factors.

A recent dissertation by Debbie Easton evaluated the views of officers and their children of the impact of officer moves. For parents, education was high on the agenda, whereas for the children it was much less significant than losing friends or breaking continuity in the corps. For officer’s kids who become officers, these hidden, unspoken feelings could prove their undoing.

For everyone’s sake, it’s important to encourage sharing of feelings, even when the situation can’t be changed.

The trigger for unlocking this understanding was the Strength Deployment Index. For those interested, my MVS is Blue/Green, and my conflict sequence is R-B-G.
Debbie Eaton’s dissertation is available from William Booth College library. I can’t remember the title.

About prophetable

My wife Elizabeth and I were commissioned as Officers (ministers) in The Salvation Army in 1997, and have served in appointments in England and Scotland. Since July 2016 I have been working in The Salvation Army's Scotland Office as combined parliamentary and ecumenical representative.
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