Both of my parents were damaged souls, as are my sister and I. It is a struggle to do certain things, because of the damage. To resist anger when we feel unfairly judged is hard for everybody, harder for me and it was harder still for my parents, whose struggle with intense frustration only ended when they died.
My parents were severely damaged because when they were young, instead of a soft hand on them when they were hurt, they got harsh blows from a mother who was very damaged and physically aggressive when angry. In the case of both of my grandmothers, I have no idea what damaged them. They were beating their children long before their entire families were murdered by other damaged people, following the lead of a charismatic uber-damaged person who told them to destroy everyone like my family.
Trauma is, sadly, a common part of our experience as humans, it is also part of our shared experience and history. Lucky are those few who grow up without experiencing any trauma. A girl can have a wonderful childhood, grow up to be a fairly happy young woman, and one day, minding her own business, fall victim to a vicious predator, which will traumatize her, no matter that her life has been so kind to her so far. Her trust in strangers will be snatched from her forever, she will never walk alone down a street again without fear.
Knowing that people who act like destructive assholes are acting out of their damage is little help, of course. Being damaged confers no right to damage anyone else, but it is also sometimes irresistible, to someone in great pain, to inflict pain on somebody else. I’m not just talking about whipping a baby in the face, breaking a sturdy wooden stick over a child’s ass or throwing them on the ground and kicking them over and over. You can inflict exquisite pain merely by refusing to extend mercy when it is asked for. The beauty of this form of sadism is its subtlety.
“You assume my silence means I am refusing to extend mercy, because everything is about YOU. I am very busy, I am thinking about a lot of other things, I have responsibilities and things I have to do every day, I have people who depend on me. Unlike you, I do not enjoy the leisure to sit and brood, and write, and draw, and play the piano, and cook, and imagine, while doing so, that I live in a better, higher world where creativity for its own sake is of great value. I live in the real world, and in that world you suck up your childish personal feelings, you forget about things you say ‘hurt’ you and you just move on like an adult, instead of being a pathetic, dependent, needy little worm. I am strong, you are weak, why would I surrender to you?”
Of course, you will seldom get this kind of detailed response unless you press someone for it. Once you get the indignant summary of their total innocence, and your utter unworthiness, you will know the story in better detail. The damage done to them made them ignore you when you needed understanding and sympathy. That’s easy enough to follow, but what do you do then?
I wake up thinking about this quite often. Friendships seldom last a lifetime, and when they begin to fray this is the kind of thing I wake up thinking about. Why is it so hard for a friend to just acknowledge that it was wrong to do something that hurt me, wrong to tell people an untrue story about our respective roles in the death of our friendship?
I consider the cycle: we are all sometimes hurt, develop defenses, get hurt again, build walls, try different strategies, get hurt again, fortify our fortifications. I think the only way out of the cycle, if we care about the other person in the conflict, is extending the benefit of the doubt, having an honest exchange, reaching mutual understanding. I also realize the vulnerability required in this process is impossibly threatening for some people. Too painful for those who insist they are what they are, take it or leave it, nothing fundamental can change about them, plenty of people love and admire them and that it’s your problem if you need more than they are capable of giving you. On one level this is absolutely true.
My father, a man who stuck to that formulation of life, had deathbed regrets about living that way. “I think now of how much richer my life would have been,” he said in that raspy dying man’s voice, “if I hadn’t seen the world as black and white, if I’d been able to see all the nuance, gradations and colors that are actually life…” Then he died.
Personally, I think making the effort not to die that way is important. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. It is much easier to act like you’re not damaged than to live with the damage done to you and trying to heal it. That there, to me, is one of the great tragedies of the human world.