There have been three major traumas in my life: witnessing spousal abuse, the death of a parent, and the onset of a major illness. All three occurred in that order, and as a result, all three have determined the trajectory of my life.
But I believe I’m not alone.
Of all of my “good” traits (because therapy has confirmed for me that good and bad are relative terms defined in relation to one another), the one I’m proudest of is my ability to make friends. I have found that many people live in a constant state of distrust, believing that enemies are around every corner. I tend not to do that. I do tend to overshare, which I will admit is not the best tendency to have, but it’s one I’d rather have than living in the cynical belief that everyone I meet is looking to screw me over. Call it naive if you must, I just don’t think that most people you meet and directly interact with are out to get you. I know that makes life less sexy, not as exciting, and is bad for ratings, but having lived in five different cities by the time I was twelve, and ten by the time I was forty, encompassing four different states, that just hasn’t been my experience. The vast majority of people I’ve met over these years have treated me well. As for the others, I believe that what I experienced were traumatized people like myself. Worst of all, I believe that trauma has made it very hard for people to connect.
And I want that to change.
I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of what causes trauma; for that I recommend reading Peter A. Levine’s Waking the Tiger. Though I don’t agree with everything Levine says in that book (because Levine has a specific theory on how to heal trauma that he’s arguing for), I do agree with his observation that negative things that have become commonplace in America today – increased violence, distrust, conflict, fatalism and fear – may very well be the result of widespread individual trauma. Our extremely partisan politics? Trauma. Increased preoccupation with sexuality? Trauma. Anger and violence? All trauma, and forms of trauma I name specifically because I’ve seen them all at work in me and nearly every negative person I’ve met, whether in real life or online. What to do about it I don’t know for sure, but I know a couple of things that don’t help, and am writing this blog posting in hopes that we all try to avoid them and endeavor to connect with others again, like I felt people used to when I was growing up. So if you agree and before it’s too late, let’s all try to stop…
- Assuming your way is the right way – Of all of the things that annoyed me about my father growing up, this was easily #1 on the list. My father felt like he was the authority on everything, Archie Bunker style, and that there was no way anyone else’s viewpoint could possibly be right. Why? Because according to him, he read a lot, was a good student growing up (untrue, as I later discovered), learned from people who knew (or so he thought), and had common sense. As it turns out, he was wrong about nearly all of it, and ended up having to be cared for by his children in his old age, despite coming from a huge family of fairly wealthy people who all claimed to love him dearly, but were at most willing to visit him sometimes. I’ve heard it in our media since the way I was born too, of course. “[Insert gender here] are always [something unfavorable].” “[Insert culture here] tend to be [something unfavorable].” “Your best bet is to listen to [someone rich and or powerful], because clearly their [wealth / power / material success / appearance / past achievement] proves that they know what they’re talking about!” None of it is true if you study law or even simple logic, but to the person who assumes they’re right all the time, it’s just a big circle – “because I believe it, how could it possibly be wrong?” Or worse, “that’s the way it’s always been.” Self-validations without some kind of proof or argument to back them up rarely amount to anything I’ve found, but so called “common sense” seems to be validation enough, and an excuse to push people away. The result? Loneliness, disconnection, and in the worst cases, terrorist attacks and school shootings.
- Needing to protect one’s ego – If you want to see a discussion of any kind come to a screeching halt, watch what happens when someone feels their ego or identity is being attacked. If you want to thwart your chances of connecting with somebody, say something to challenge their ego or identity, and watch the walls go up. Notice that I’m not commenting on whether somebody “deserves” the way they’re treated because you know, the whole good / bad thing. Most of the conflicts I see fall into this category though, and I believe that the reason this is so prevalent online is because without the person standing in front of them, people feel empowered to jab at anybody. Way back in Elementary School I learned that it’s hard to hate somebody you know, so through the “miracle of technology,” I feel that we can now “safely” hate from a distance. The problem with that? We ultimately still hurt others, because we also learned in Elementary School that words can hurt. When you live in a society that’s not in direct contact with others though, as is not the case in Elementary school, how do you even know whether you hurt somebody unless they tell you? And if they’re protecting their ego, why or when would they do that? So much easier to just stew in your pain or hurt others back, perpetuating the cycle and possibly leading the target to believe that people in their immediate sphere are that hurtful too. Why even bother to connect at that point?
- Judging others – Related to #1, I find that people have a tendency to form an opinion about others and their behavior, and then assume that this opinion must be right, because they’ve assumed that their way is always the right way. The reason I think this hurts us as a society is because it gives us a justification to avoid rather than connect. Without connection, I don’t see how you can teach or help anybody. I think it puts us all in that constant negative space that has made life so unbearably miserable for many of us. Worse, I feel like we’re not sharing direct information anymore either – if you’re not connected to an actual person who can hear and respond to your actual, specific, personal experience, I find that your natural (and marketed) inclination is to seek guidance from an impersonal, electronic, second hand source. While I see the value in that impartiality (you avoid judgment, after all), to me you’re losing “care,” that quality people extend to people they’re connected to directly. In absence of that, I believe that people are left to their own, thoroughly biased assumptions, often to their detriment. When people start judging themselves in this way, without a care in the world as they say, I find that they tend to be reckless at best, and overly harsh at worst. If there’s no one that cares to talk you down from believing that you’re [label], your own worst instincts can take hold and make you do things you might later regret. If you’re suffering from trauma, I believe that’s like throwing gasoline on an open flame.
For me, the upshot of all this is a society where I don’t see many people truly happy with how they’re living and who they are. Sure, we’ve got a lot more stuff, but stuff and people (and keep in mind, dogs are considered property or “stuff” under the law) are two different things. Without people in your life to care that you’re even alive, I find it very hard to function. I know that in my case, it’s always been the people in my life when I was at my lowest that have kept me going, no matter how bad I got. I do not know what I would do without them. What scares me is that I meet people a lot these days that claim not to have that and also claim not to care. They may be absolutely right about that – they may be alone and happy that way, and I may be judging them too harshly for being so. I find however that whenever I show kindness to others, those same people who claim they’re alone and loving it cling to me the most. Yet for me to connect with them, it’s usually me making the effort. If that’s not a sign of trauma, I think I clearly don’t know what is. And I just can’t help feeling like the version of America I’m living in now is not living up to what I was led to believe it could be, not in terms of our institutions, but in terms of the people I meet – or fail to – every day.