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Object Permanence

Posted by Rev. Pat Grace on

A very long time ago, I was an education major. I ended up graduating with a psychology degree, but enjoyed my education classes, especially the ones which dealt with developmental theory…the study of how human beings grow and change.

One of my favorite authors was Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist and expert in children’s cognitive development. And one of my favorite notions of his was the concept of “object permanence.” Object permanence is the ability to understand that an object still exists even when it can no longer be perceived in any way.

We all know this when we see this. It’s the reason that babies cry when you hide their dolly or toy behind your back…since they cannot see the object, they believe it is no longer in existence. Object permanence is the reason why kids like to play hide and seek…but actually can’t enjoy it until they move closer to the stage where they understand that when you hide your face, you are still there. It’s the reason they look so surprised when you reveal that face – and why some babies cry when you play this and some shriek with laughter!

Object permanence develops in six stages over the first two years of life – and is a major contributor to the future abilities of that child in the realm of cognition and imagination. There are also psychological benefits to reaching this milestone…as baby matures and learns that mama and papa are just in the next room, not gone forever, his or her ability to trust and feel secure grows strong.

I think object permanence is also part of the developmental process of growing in faith. As a young child, and especially as a teenager, I can remember wondering if God was actually real. In times of trouble, it sometimes felt like God was nowhere to be found. As I have grown in my faith, through some very hard times, I have come to learn that, although God’s purposes may elude me – and even a sense of presence sometimes…at some point I have become aware of God’s action behind the scenes. One of my most challenging spiritual practices is to wait upon the Lord, with sure and certain hope, when things look bad. But again and again, I have experienced grace in my life, which could not be accomplished except for the steady intervention of God’s Holy Spirit…seen and unseen.

For many of us, it feels right now like things are hard and it is difficult to understand how God is acting in these uncertain days. But here and there, I can see some signs…in the commitment of medical and public service personnel, who face personal danger, yet agree to serve; in amazing examples of generosity from people who are quietly paying someone else’s mortgage, donating food and money for food for those who need it the most; in those who are making the hard decisions of leadership that we are so in need of, but which carry a definite cost and are a heavy burden. And in gifts of unearned bounty that have come to me, both of a physical and spiritual nature…in the kindness of friends and also, strangers.

During these times we have a choice – to retreat to a less developed spiritual place or use what we are experiencing to make our faith stronger. Paradoxically, it is such a time as this, when God might reveal God’s self in new ways; in ways that strengthen our ability to trust; in ways so amazing that they surpass anything we might could ask for or imagine. My prayer for myself these days, and for all of us, is that we don’t miss the signs; that we don’t shy away from a deeper faith that can enable and empower us to endure. God is still there, even when God seems to be missing or hiding. As Carl Jung, another great Swiss physician would say, “Bidden or unbidden, God is there.” Be watching; be waiting; be assured, we have not been left as orphans.