Archives for January, 2012
Too many of us grew up in families wracked with pain. Emotional wounds accumulate in settings of neglect, abuse, bereavement, molestation, violence, and misery. As adults, these ancient injuries undermine our happiness. We often choose poorly in relationships, careers, and pastimes. Even if we don't make gross mistakes, we lack the confidence to endorse our own choices. We feel uneasy in good times and overwhelmed in bad. This is the legacy of childhood trauma. At times we shut down emotionally, closing ourselves off from the affection we crave. Other times we act out and hurt the ones we love or destroy our own reputations. Still, healing can happen after even the worst of upbringings. It takes time, and backslides are unavoidable, but eventually we stabilize in greater maturity and emotional openness than we ever imagined. In the last post we highlighted the body's gentle wisdom and how often we ignore it. As I move further along the path to peace of mind, the importance of befriending physical nature becomes ever more obvious. The injuries of the past are stored in our biology, where they affect every aspect of our lives.
Imagine someone asks you this question: "What are you?" We seldom get queried in this way, since the more typical questions are: "Who are you?" or "What do you do?" So take a moment to answer the question of what you consider yourself to be, first and foremost. Some of us will answer with our careers: "I'm a physician." or "I'm a writer." Others will state an important social connection: "I'm a mother." or "I'm an American." A few will refer to religion: "I'm a Muslim (or Atheist, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc)." But few of us will reply, without forethought: "I am a warm-blooded animal that walks upright on its hind limbs and possesses an enlarged brain." And yet, that is probably the most central and accurate description we could provide.
Language has enabled humanity's success, but it has also caused many of our problems. As a result, and even though I like to think of myself as a writer, my relationship with words feels conflicted. On the one hand, they're fun to work with and they communicate ideas, but on the other they lead to big conflicts in society, relationships, and the human mind. One problem is that language is unconstrained; you can say or think almost anything, whether it is helpful or not. Furthermore, a single object or event can be described in a multitude of ways, which invites disagreement. This leads to intense discord because we are programmed (either by evolution, society, or both) to take words very seriously. As people we attack our neighbors for saying 'forbidden' things, and we attack ourselves for thinking them.
Life promises us nothing but the experience of living until we die. We cannot expect our dreams to be fulfilled. We cannot avoid hardship and loss. These principles apply to all. But even though no one can squeeze guarantees out of fate, there is great unevenness in our fortunes. Some people simply seem luckier than others. They enjoy families that provide more resources of love and support. As a consequence, or maybe because of inborn personality factors, they grow into confident, resourceful, and resilient adults. They suffer little self-doubt and have no sense of self-loathing. Their lives unfold relatively smoothly, and as they enter the later stages of adulthood they can look back with pride at how they built success. They may have achieved career acclaim, raised happy children, and/or simply radiated good cheer as they walked upright through the world. Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way for everyone, and we all know of human situations that fall short of such comfort and success. First, there are the large populations across the globe that suffer under extreme poverty, chronic warfare, and oppression. We see the images of shantytowns and war-torn cities in which stunned and dusty children wander wide-eyed and alone. We observe their innocent, wounded faces and wonder: what can these orphans possibly hope for in the future? And yet, they seem far away and unconnected to our affluent societies. We try to reassure ourselves that these kids don't suffer like we would in the same situation, because they don't know what they're missing. It's a vain and selfish hope, of course, but sometimes it's our only defense against feeling overwhelmed by the unfairness in the world.
At some point in every life, hardship threatens. For some of us it starts in childhood: we suffer the death of a parent, unspeakable trauma, or grinding neglect. Others feel protected until adulthood or even middle life, but sooner or later sterner fates intrude. Perhaps a child gets sick, or a marriage ends, or a career fails. Maybe illness strikes and the end of life comes into view. When fear, loss, or setbacks shatter peace, we seek answers. We turn to friends and relatives for support. Some of us consult mental health professionals. Some of us enter houses of worship or meditation. Finding relief proves difficult. All too often, life delivers new hardships even as we scramble to cope with the old ones. We may begin to question whether life offers enough enrichment to make its agonies worthwhile.