Trauma: Did Your Childhood Mess You Up, Man?

American culture has has created, popularized and amplified a great many wonderful things. But one of its bastard children is decidedly unwonderful. And, no, I’m not talking about fast food, although that was a good guess.

Trauma. Specifically, the idea of trauma as being indelible and definitive. We take the idea for granted now, but this is not an idea that has currency anywhere else in the world.

Next time you’re hanging out with your monolingual Japanese friends, and you screw something up and begin to explain it in terms of a painful childhood experience you had, watch the blank stares you get back. Living with Japanese people is usually fun and easy, but at times like this it isn’t — it’s infuriating and character-building 😀 . Nobody cares what happened that time at camp; your trigger warnings are revoked. The tough love is real.

Or witness Richard Dawkins’ cavalier shrugging off of the things he endured as a child…the lack of shrillness is almost inspiring. #legend #cyrilfoxgivens

There are two kinds of tough love. The main kind is just rebranded cruelty. The real kind, the Japanese kind, the Old World kind, is based on respect for you as an individual with dignity, autonomy and responsibilities.

As my peculiar vocal habits will attest, I didn’t grow up in the US; I didn’t live there until my late teens, and I can even remember a period in early childhood when my exposure to American culture was so minimal that I couldn’t actually understand spoken American English. Those days are long gone; I’m soiled now (lol) but I do remember The Before Time, and what it was like.

And I can remember the transition, when an endless cavalcade of pop psychology programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show led me to recontextualize childhood experiences that I had actually started to find amusing, as traumas that I would never, could never and should never recover from. Moving on was repression; mental toughness was wrong; we were all supposed to be fragile, saccharine and “sensitive”. It was the era of the Nineties Man.

This isn’t to blame those shows or Oprah herself; she’s the cat’s whiskers — self-made billionaire, 凄いね (すごいね, sugoi ne, awesome)! It is, however, to blame the ideas they espoused. Radical disempowerment dressed up as sensitivity. Irresponsibility dressed up as healing. Condescension dressed up as sympathy. It’s the bigotry of low expectations (not low standards, which are good, but low expectations — expecting permanent failure, permanent debilitation), and we’re all along for the ride.

Do we really want pity? I don’t think we do. I think what we really want is permission to fail repeatedly on our way to success. Permission to try again and again and again. Permission to be human.

Were your parents imperfect in raising you? If they’re human, they almost certainly were. Recounting their errors, though useful as an academic exercise, is not a way of life that we are built to enjoy. It is not a place from which we can thrive. Plus, if everything you do wrong is their fault, then is everything you do right to their credit? Why or why not? Are we supposed to take personal credit for our successes but assign all the blame for our failures to the people who raised us. That’s awfully convenient. Success has many willing fathers but failure is an orphan, huh?

Do you remember that time you went to a restaurant and it was just utter schyte? Now imagine if you told that story to all your friends every time you went out to eat? Imagine how that would make you feel about food? About life? About trust?

However fine the line between therapy and self-harm, between self-discovery and pathological rehearsal, we, Americans and Americanized alike, crossed it long ago. And now we’re just hurting ourselves. We’re arguing for our limitations. We’re wearing victimhood like a badge of honour: ironically, there’s no effective way to sugar-coat that statement.

Is stoic repression and stiff-upper-lippedness the solution? Well, that’s like asking if drinking bleach is the solution to strep throat…the point has been missed.

The point is this: We are all much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Much more resilient, more intelligent, more cunning, more capable. It feels good, once in a blue moon, to collapse in a heap, but striving and scheming and tinkering feel even better. Nobody really wants to be a bawling, medicated sadsack, but the utter drivel that passes for modern psychology and social justice would have us believe that not only should we all be bawling, medicated sadsacks, but that anybody who isn’t is crazy or an -ist or a -phobe or a closet -sexual or all of the above.

Really, bro? Really? Honestly, GTFOH.

We don’t need to take ourselves or our problems seriously. It seems like a good idea but it backfires. We can approach matters with a much lighter touch and still win — we’ll win even more, in fact. We’ll win so much, we’ll get tired of winning (lol).

How many bones do Olympic skiers break? Am I supposed to hate hot milk now because I burned the skin off my left thigh when I was twelve? 1 Should I have pasteurization PTSD? Should I be afraid of wooden trays? What if the injuries we’ve endured are even beneficial to us? Where is the line?

It is certainly possible to come to be in the thrall of — that is, to literally and figuratively be enslaved by — a bad idea 2 from any age to any age. But that simply proves how flexible, how malleable our minds, characters and personalities are, not the reverse. If you can play a bad mental DVD, you can play a good one as well; it’s all just information, bruv. The very same mechanisms that allow you do bad (destructive) things will allow you to do good (constructive) things.

Many years ago, in the early days of Kindle, I read a book by an American guy who was a physician for some Saudi royals. Something he said about Saudi society stuck with me: Saudis who were clearly the descendants of immigrants and/or slaves would deny it up and down: they were just Saudi; painful family history was not something to wear with pride. Now, is this psychologically unhealthy? Probably. I dunno. Maybe. But whether or not it is, there still a deep lesson for those of us who live on the other extreme, who have so little drama in our lives that we have to manufacture it.

Victimhood is not a badge of honour (looking at ‘choo, ‘Murica). But it’s not a badge of dishonour, either (Saudi folkways notwithstanding). It’s just neutral, like a puddle on a rainy day — there it is, now what? The dishes still need washing. The trash still needs to be taken out. There is no dishonour in being knocked down, only in staying down. There is no dishonour in starting low — where else are you supposed to start?

The best revenge is living well. And I mean that literally. Turning the other cheek is just a lie we tell people to keep them down. Anger and hate can be very useful emotions, but like nuclear energy, they must be directed to constructive uses with care, discipline and vigilance. Being angry or hurt is not a license to suspend emotional control — ironically, it requires that we exercise more emotional control.

Nothing stands in the way of your Japanese awesomeness. No error in child-rearing has permanently closed the doors of greatness to you. You can walk the heck through right this instant; you only think the door is locked; it’s open right now. You’re not damaged goods, you’re just warmed up; you’ve got some city miles on you now; you’ve got some character now; like a good pair of sneakers, you’re broken in, not broken. How do I know? Because you’re still alive, reading this.

Notes:

  1. Yes, with hot milk — it was epic! (lol)
  2. “Definition of thrall 1a : a state of servitude or submission in thrall to his emotions 2a : a servant slave : BONDMAN also : SERF b : a person in moral or mental servitude” [Thrall | Definition of Thrall by Merriam-Webster]

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