All In the Family

Like all the rest of us, I’ve got a pretty diverse family background. Both historical and modern characters range from mystical and holy to so damaged that they became hands-down evil to those unlucky enough to live in their realms. (Thankfully this latter group has mostly died out or had their worst instincts blunted by the advent of institutions like Child Protective Services, though the damage they caused can still be clearly seen and felt.) Some of the really stellar people, especially if they happened to have been women, don’t have their greatness recognized until much time and reflection later.

Pieces of these characteristics get either passed down or ignored in strange ways. Mystical mothers do not necessarily beget mystical sons, and fathers who seem filled with evil do not always beget abusive daughters. It’s all so much more complicated than that. We think we’re patchwork quilts, but really we’re a million moving pixels arranged “just so,” always on a slow, lava lamp-like move with an occasional earthquake jolt to scramble things up a bit and make life more exciting, or more terrifying. The possible results of those combinations may seem endless, but they’re probably a lot less surprising than you’d think.

I’ve been thinking about my own family a lot over the past few days. My therapist recommended I see someone called a “psycho-traumatologist.” She says their job is to uncover any hidden trauma in my past that is affecting me now (and she apparently highly expects there’s quite a lot to be dug up). It’s a short treatment, and patients she’s referred, she says, have shown remarkable improvement after the 3-4 typical treatment sessions they go through.

To be honest, I feel a little embarrassed to admit I’m spending money on this. With so many problems in the world, going to such great lengths to “fix myself” feels ridiculously indulgent. What combination of early experiences and subconscious messages planted that belief in me, eh? It calls to mind my friend and department coordinator where I taught high school for a few years doing her best thickly-accented Frued impression: “Tell me about your mother…”

Two days ago I had my first “evaluation,” as it’s possible they’ll determine that I, in fact, do not have any significant trauma that needs to be unearthed and dissolved.

My reaction to the beginning of it, though, I think says it all. The evaluator was very kind, and not at all threatening. But I thought my therapist would be there (it was in her office), and she was not, and I was unexpectedly alone in a closed space with a strange man, something that has always scared me on a primitive level and that I have often actively sought to avoid. Where does this fear come from? Sure, I’ve had my butt grabbed on the street a few times, but I’ve mercifully never had to endure the horrors of rape or physical assault.

My own unprofessional conclusion is that my mother’s scars somehow got embedded under my own skin, making me jumpy and untrusting as a result of the knowledge of how much damage can be done; I grew up with a front-row seat to that damage and its resulting long-tailed sorrows. She did have to endure those things, throughout her entire childhood, and if that doesn’t really, really mess someone up, I don’t know what will. I also know that if she were alive today, she’d let out the most painful and heartfelt howl if she thought that her own experiences had damaged me in some way. So much of her intentional parenting, after all, was focused on keeping us safe from the monsters she knew for a fact could lurk in any human heart.

She was always in pain, but she was always so kind. How did this happen? Her parents were monsters, but she must have had angels somewhere that managed to get to her beautiful heart first (I feel pretty sure my namesake, her grandmother Sarah, was a primary one).

Because of the abuse, she mostly kept us away from her family. My sister and I don’t know many on that side very well. Heroes and villains of the past have been lost to memory. We’ll all be forgotten eventually, but damn if those shreds of what was don’t get passed down. “Look, you just made apes with anxiety!” an exasperated angel complains to God in a cartoon.

I like to think of myself as staying “above the fray,” a notion I recognize as a laughably unachievable solution. Taking a global view has its merits, but there’s a tendency — at least in me — for that global view to erase the importance of the individual. Yes, I’m special. But so is everyone else. So if everyone is special, how can anyone be special? And if none of us are, then we’d do good to stop engaging in so much naval gazing and embrace our dependence on one another and the joy that that can bring. I’m a sociologist, not a psychologist. I’m concerned with the big picture. So what right do I have to over-value myself, just one little tiny portrait?

But take the mirror down, and my delusion is exposed. Is my daughter special, and deserve every advantage that I can possibly give her? Oh, no need to even ask. My partner? Definitely. My sister? The list goes on, and recognizing these important people in my life and how much they matter makes my thesis crumble to the ground. I know my blind spot, I just can’t focus on it because it’s, you know, a blind spot.

My therapist has repeated to me often: “The message you give yourself is, ‘I’m not worthy;’ but why do you think that? You’re very worthy.”

Let’s just see what the psycho-traumatologist has to say about that.


Pessimistic Optimism

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

I’ve been thinking about this since the first time I read it a few months ago in a Nicholas Kristof opinion piece, and how it connects so well to my natural tendency (and everyone’s, I suppose), to see history — broad history, as well as our own individual ones — strung up like garland around a Christmas tree, moving in a similar fashion and in a similar not-far-off place that looks like the last but isn’t exactly the same.

What do we have to do to get out of our silly little patterns? Will we ever reach Nirvana? Suddenly the religions that view life cyclically, the ones where we all come back over and over again — as individuals, as groups, as societies — make a lot of sense to me. Why wouldn’t we be like everything else in the world, after all?

Most people think Mark Twain said that quote about history, which is entirely possible because he was brilliant and witty. I sure wish he’d actually written it down if he did so we could know for sure. I’m not too concerned about its source, in any case: wise words are wise words, and I’m an irreverent and unapologetic life-long scavenger of good verse.

We humans are pattern-finding creatures, after all…it’s simply the way our brains are built. The clouds are just clouds with no meaning behind them, but we see a dragon, we see Santa Claus, we see a suspiciously-accurate Last Supper. The French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” We’re naturally superstitious in spite of ourselves, wired for belief. I’ve called myself an atheist in the past, but that’s not really true. I never stopped reading my horoscope, or praying. And I’ve mostly lived my life with frequent bouts of cosmically peeping over my shoulder with narrowed eyes, sometimes with a slight smile and nod (bro-style), sometimes with a hurt scowl.

There are so many ways right now that we’re being asked to hold on, to wait and be patient in our suffering (my smile-to-scowl ratio right now is at a rare 50/50). There’s promising vaccine news, but not yet: we need to wait a little more. My dad wants to travel to Mexico over the Christmas holiday, and I want to say “oh yes please come” but I can’t, because there’s actually an end in sight and waiting sucks but we should wait. Biden won the presidential election, but we can’t have him yet: Trump, like the virus, is stubborn in his effort to stick around as long as humanly possible and prevent any fun at all until he’s absolutely forced out.

Pandemics faithfully and predictably throb their way through history, as do leaders of the current Trump-Bolsonaro-Duterte strain.

And not everything will be perfect once we get these lowered levels of intensity. We’ll still need to be careful and cautious with our health, despite the vaccine; those who lost others, those who lost livelihoods, and those who lost both will have to pick up the pieces, which is just completely unfair (I’m scowling at you, pandemic gods). President Biden will still need to deal with $%&/ยท#@% Mitch McConnell and the ravages wrought by obstruction-as-strategy from a resentful and angry political party that will still hold quite a bit of power. Whether those resentments are justifiable or not isn’t the point; they’ll need to be dealt with and somehow neutralized all the same.

But we can find light where we’d never expect it. Good and beautiful things can happen mid-apocalypse. Your daughter’s eyes can shine with pride. Mind-blowing love can pop up out of the blue. You can bite into the perfect, sweetest strawberry you’ve ever tasted. So hang on, people. Be ready for it. We’re on a rocky part of the spiral, but it won’t always be this way. Even if you don’t survive this part, who’s to say you won’t be washed, transformed, back for another round on the flip-side?