My father, pursued to his deathbed by what he referred to as his demons, suffered unimaginable abuse as an infant that he was never able to heal from. He told me as much as he was dying. “My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” he said, by way of opening our last conversation, on the last night of his life.
At that point I knew exactly what the man whose fluids were draining into a bag on the side of his hospital bed was talking about, but only because I’d spent literally decades puzzling out the painful secret he guarded to his death. His mother had been a violent, enraged, religious fanatic who literally whipped him in the face from the time he could stand. A light suddenly went on in a dark room when I learned this.
I can hear his voice now, saying what he couldn’t when he was alive and frantic to stay just ahead of the demons that drove him to act in ways he’d regret while dying. “You don’t recover from that kind of betrayal, Elie. How do you come back from a mother who treats you as a despicable enemy from your earliest memory, from before you could even talk to her?” I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, though it is worth pondering.
Whenever I raise my voice to Sekhnet, or otherwise show frustration (something I am sadly prone to), she immediately reacts with pain. She feels unfairly under attack like she did as a girl, and I understand this.
My nastiness immediately triggers painful childhood feelings from a childhood that was harsh in certain ways. All I can do is try to always be aware of this trigger and not react in a way that hits it, a great challenge in a matter of reflex. Making matters harder, my facial expression alone will pull the trigger, even if I manage to keep my mouth mostly shut. I can only apologize when I provoke this pain in her and try better to not do it the next time. My apologies, no matter how instant or sincere, only offer so much consolation, I have learned.
I don’t mean to sound like a sniveler, but disturbing issues from childhood remain for many of us, most of us, I suspect, to the end of our lives. We do our best to be aware of and overcome them for the sake of those we love, it’s the best we can do.
The subject of childhood pain is either tedious or fascinating, to be avoided or delved into, depending on your tolerance for a certain kind of discomfort and your need for a certain kind of clarity. It is tricky, emotionally fraught terrain dotted with patches of quicksand.
There is a term for constant self-punishing brooding on painful feelings from the past, rumination. There is even a psychological disorder for those addicted to this form of self-flagellation, Obsessive Rumination Disorder:
Rumination is focused on past events. It is a preoccupation with perceived mistakes, losses, slights, actions taken or not taken, opportunities forever lost. The feelings associated with obsessive rumination are guilt, regret, anger and envy.(two second google search: what is obsessive rumination disorder?)
Here’s a short piece on the dangers of rumination and tips on how to overcome the worst of it, and lift ourselves out of it, by a guy with the incomparable name of Guy Winch.
The harm of repeatedly chewing over and reliving past hurt, churning pain you can do nothing about, is not hard to see. The difference between torturing oneself with guilt, regret, anger and envy and thinking about and learning from past pain, moving toward healthier reactions, not remaining stuck in negative cycles for reasons you can’t see or grasp, becoming a more self-aware and kind person, is not as easy to see sometimes.
Our past experience, of course, is the lens through which we view everything. More crucially, it is the filter through which we feel everything. I see this paragraph from today’s news and am struck (by the part I’ve put in bold) by an immediate painful feeling straight out of my own childhood, beyond my adult horror at the larger meaning of this news item:
Judge Amy Coney Barrett would be Trump’s third appointee to the Supreme Court and the sixth conservative justice on the bench. During her Senate hearing, she refused to state her position on abortion rights, gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, climate change, family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and presidential powers in relation to the elections.source
Not answering specific, troubling questions by authoritatively turning the conversation away from reasonable, concerns, was a specific technique my adversarial father deployed frequently. I found myself on the short end of this technique over and over during my childhood and well into my adult life.
This move is the complete negation of the rights of the other, a calm, unappealable pronouncement that the thing you are so concerned about is of no legitimate concern whatsoever. It dismisses your concern as the unreasonable product of your own shortcomings.
It seems clear that a Supreme Court nominee should be able to state, without hesitation, that armed people at the polls intimidating voters is against the law, is, in fact, a felony in many, if not most, states. There is no political point of view expressed in stating the black letter law in answer to a direct legal question — this behavior, though endorsed by the incumbent president, violates rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as federal statute. It is a crime to interfere with a fellow citizen’s right to vote, by intimidating them or in any other way (not authorized by a superseding state law.)
This carefully vetted zealot nominee, about to become a sixth unappealable vote in the 6-3 majority to suppress anti-Trump votes (with or without legal justification ), refused to state her position even on this simple, important matter of voter intimidation on behalf of a president who exhorts violent resistance to “Democrat tyrrany” and vows to protect his followers from legal consequences. Instead of a straightforward answer to an uncomplicated legal question, Coney Barrett reserves all judicial options by standing on the absurd claim that she’d need, in a fact-specific situation, to consult with her interns and fellow legal scholars before deciding how to answer. She adds, in the politest possible tone, that the people asking such questions are simply partisans intent on “borking” her perfectly legal and proper nomination.
There are many reasons to be disturbed by the powerlessness many of us, a large majority of Americans, feel at the brazen and unstoppable bit of cynicism of appointing another extremist justice to cement a 6-3 right wing majority just days before an election she’ll have a vote on deciding, on behalf of democracy-averse corporations and reactionary billionaires. Add to this disturbance, in my case, a painful personal reminder of an ongoing childhood torment.
Here is the important distinction between what I always try to do and being stuck in the self-harming cycle of reliving pain from the past that psychologists call rumination. I recognize that there is a painful, personal echo in this news item for me. I can put my finger on it. I understand its harmfulness precisely. It does not send me into a spiral of negative thoughts from the past.
There is plenty negative and abusive about McConnell and company’s ugly, unprincipled move (several prominent votes in the 51-49 majority to rush Coney Barrett on to the bench took a “principled” stand, in 2016, against the very thing they are rushing to do now), days before a highly contested election, without this particular feature that strikes me so hard.
This refusal to address important concerns is one particularly personal component of this outrage for me, one I feel in my body and I understand why it strikes me that way. It’s as they say: the personal is political. It reminds me again how crucial it is for me not to do this hateful thing to people I care about.
It’s all we have when the going gets tough — the understanding of what hurts us the most, the desire not to inflict it on others and the knowledge that our concerns will not be brushed aside by the people closest to us.
We are living through historically tough times now, with the active message delivered over and over by our own government that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary American deaths, and untold deprivation, fear, hunger and other suffering, is the appropriate price of liberty, for certain powerful, unaccountable forces in our nation.
You can only look at the calculated ugliness of this and countless related daily outrages for so long, before you begin to lose hope, feeling, desire to even fight it. That is part of the deliberate design of overwhelming government-sponsored brutality like this– to emotionally dominate its victims beyond their power to resist. Resist we must, of course.
It is understandable that few, if any of us, are at our best in this disorienting moment of multi-faced crisis. It is plain that there are different styles of coping with the present horrors as they continue to unfold with such mind-numbing monotony. We all find our own ways to remain sane and hopeful, to balance the need for information and the need for relief from the assault of deliberate misinformation.
Tolerance for our differences is more important than ever. Only by hearing and understanding each other’s concerns is there any chance of emerging from this awful moment with our full humanity intact. Patience for the foibles of others is much harder under these worst of circumstances, when we are on each others’ nerves, locked up in small, isolated groups during these fearful days, granted. For that reason patience is even more needed. The reward for patience and fortitude is proportionately greater in scary, disorienting times like these.
The emergency ruling Kavanaugh authored in April, overturning two lower courts to prevent the expansion of voting in Wisconsin during the pandemic (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s short, sparkling, crystal clear dissent), was one of many recent un-argued eleventh emergency rulings by the Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly:
The Trump administration has been a major contributor to the trend, Professor Vladeck wrote, having filed 36 emergency applications in its first three and a half years. By contrast, the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama filed just eight such applications over 16 years.source