I know that most, if not all of us have been the recipient of some sort of relational trauma, I want to acknowledge that it’s painful. Really, really painful. And it can be long lasting or permanently impacting. I’ve never been abused in the classic sense of being hit or physically wounded by someone who was supposed to care for me. I suppose if you count that little best friend brawl in high school, but that left no lasting wound. But I have loved as deeply as I’m capable of loving and felt betrayed and alone. I’ve felt maligned and rejected when I expected to be understood and intimately accepted. I can still recall the pain of that and how it tore at my guts, my mind, and my soul in the most persistent, unavoidable, and hope crushing way I couldn’t have previously imagined. Perhaps one of the greatest pains we are capable of experiencing is the kind that comes from other humans.
It’s curious to notice that there is a complete spectrum of who can hurt us. In some cases, the hurt we experience comes from those we are most intimate with; close friends, lovers, children, and parents. Then there are those we are more or less connected to by context. We work with them, live near them, see them regularly enough to be familiar, or share some kind of circumstantial commonality with them. We have a reciprocal sense of who we are and who they are that we share together.
For example, I run in circles with folks that work in the non-profit realm and in education. Some church folks, some business people and a smattering of artist/writer types. I would guess, that if I mapped out my social network, there would be between 150-200 people that I maintain a light but familiar social connection to. If I ran into them at a conference or one of our shared regular lunch spots, we’d be able to strike up a comfortable conversation. It wouldn’t feel like an imposition. We’d be able to remember a few things about each other and have a pleasant moment. It happened just last week. I took Meleea to Blue Door for her birthday pastry and ran into Catherine MaCallum-Ceballos. She works for Vancouver School District as the director of public engagement for their family and community resource centers and we see each other in meetings several times a year. I think we were even on a panel together once. We recognized each other, said hello, and next time we see each other, I’m sure we’ll connect on the subject of our mutual affection for Blue Door Bakery. While there are varying degrees of interaction and intimacy, these 150-200 people are my social network. The sort of interwoven tapestry of our shared narrative has the threads of my identity in it. I am the Curtis in this group and I would think that most of them would be able to explain me in some way. Probably not completely, but they would have some impression or inclination as to what my role in the group is. From time to time, I’ll get a call or an email from one of them asking me to participate in something. This sort of thing tells me that I’m known, somewhat understood, have a value, and can expect to partake in our shared resources for my social sustenance.
Most of my relationships with the people in this group wouldn’t be described as intimate. But I’d still be pretty devastated if any significant number of them suddenly rejected me in some way. Honestly, even a few of them. Let’s say they passed the word not to support or participate in my workshops or said my writing was off base in some fundamental way. It would shake my faith in my identity and value. I would feel a painful sense of abandonment and loneliness. It would be a central topic in my heart and mind for quite awhile. Since I sense this need to maintain and sustain this connection in an intrinsic way, I behave so that it is protected. There are no literal rules but I manage myself within the boundaries of what I understand of this social group. We have no governing organization or written guidelines but we have a shared understanding of how the system works.
I’m also part of the human system in a larger sense. Because I’m a privileged white male, I rarely suffer the pain that the larger system is capable of dispensing. I’ve tasted it before though. I was a capitalist business owner that followed all the actual rules of the system for 15 years. In the end, it didn’t work for me. I lost everything and there was no built in safety net for those who failed. I didn’t lie, cheat, or steal. I worked hard, treated people as fairly as I knew how, and didn’t take chances that seemed irresponsible to me. I didn’t own a boat or take fancy vacations. But, when it all came undone, I wasn’t treated fairly. The government lied to me, cheated me, and took things from me and my family that they shouldn’t have. Even though I did everything they said I was supposed to do. My social capital was the only reason we didn’t end up hungry and homeless. I don’t think a system like that can be described as “working.” And I got off light. For people of color, those who are truly socio-economically disadvantaged, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, our elderly, our youth, people with mental illness, learning difficulties, addictions, counterproductive social skills, or anything else that isn’t mainstream, it can be much, much worse. And is. And has been for a long time. The larger system we are part of can and does traumatize us without remorse.
No one should ever be hurt by another person, by their social network, or by the larger human system we are all a part of. But it happens all the time. Continuously. What is going on?
Trauma is like a disease. If you think of cancer as the action of cells who have forgotten who they are and how they are supposed to be connected to and working with the cells around them, that’s pretty accurate. They sort of disassociate, turn on the cells around them and do them harm. They do themselves harm simultaneously. They replicate and magnify their harm. People who hurt other people and groups of people that cause harm to other groups of people are like a disease as well. Like cancer. But lest you think I’m being too harsh, there is exciting new science that makes it possible to re-orient rather than destroy cancer cells. It uses what we have learned about epigenetics to treat the cancer cells instead of using chemo, radiation, or a scalpel. Epi means in addition to or on top of and epigenetics is about the expression of genes. It is like there are switches and dials on our genes that can be turned on or off or up and down.
Cells and people get disoriented when we get disconnected. I can’t write well when I’m fighting with Meleea. When I’m worried about what people whose opinion really matters to me think about me, I literally struggle to be myself. If I spend too much time alone, I start loosing perspective and can get down in the dumps pretty quick.
Self-organizing systems and local interactions.
Trauma hurts. It is a wound to our heart, soul, mind, and body like a broken arm, a gashed knee, or a torn Achilles is a wound. But trauma can be even more impacting than a physical wound. We come to this world with the genetic influences of our parents and grandparents built-in. We are unique expressions of the people who bore us. We are not blank slates but we are certainly very ready to be affected by those who care for us; especially in the first years of our lives. It is during this time we learn how we fit it, why we matter, and what we can do with ourselves.
The learning we do is both biological and intangible. The experiences we have, especially with the people in our immediate circle of influence, build the circuitry in our brains. These interactions influence how we think and feel, what we believe about ourselves, others, and our relationships, and what we expect out of life. Our mental and emotional model literally gets wired up or constructed as we grow. We understand how we belong based on these experiences. So, if we are not cared for well or if we are neglected, abused, or subjected to dysfunction in our family, our learning produces fundamental misunderstandings about how we belong.
There is no one who escapes their growing up process without being wounded. No one who doesn’t misunderstand who they are and how they fit. We all get hurt by the people who are supposed to love us. Both anecdotal evidence and serious scientific research confirm that growing up as a human is dangerous.
But, I want to re-affirm that this [still] does not mean there is something wrong with you - or me. Being incomplete is not the same as being broken. Being wounded or trauma-impacted is not the same as being flawed. I’m suggesting that we are looking at ourselves through a lens that distorts what we see. We squint through our western European hyper-individualistic convex coke bottle glasses looking at only one person at a time. This lens does not show us the complete picture. It is not possible to measure the viability of an individual person apart from the people they are connected to. If we don’t look at the connections, of course we look broken. And no one is not connected. Even the hermit on the mountain top.
There are lots of metaphors to use as illustrations here. The blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is. It would be like one blind man, touching only the tail of the elephant and trying to evaluate the identity, value, needs, and purpose of the elephant. Impossible. Or the alien trying to understand baseball when all they can see is the catcher. No audience in the stands, no other players, only one small part of the diamond, no scoreboard, nothing but the catcher. No matter how long the alien watches, they will never understand either the catcher or baseball. Another illustration is a single ant or a single bee. Alone, they make no sense and are not capable of anything generative. But, as part of a colony or a hive, they are complete. We could go on and on.
In all of these cases, the individual part under consideration does not have to be perfect for it to have a valuable role, to deserve consideration and resources, or to fulfill the purpose of the collaborative effort it serves. The elephant tail still does good tail work if it’s dirty or bent. The catcher can still catch if he has digestive issues or an anger problem. The ant can be missing a leg and dumb as a bowl of rice and the bee can have misaligned stripes and still participate fully as a part of their team.
Our imperfections, the things we think are wrong with us (or others) fall into a couple of categories. First is some inconsistency in our design-build that we think compares poorly to whatever standard we hold up. Classic is a body shape that doesn’t compare to the body shape of the current supermodel image. Or the intellectual capacity that doesn’t match the smartest people we know. Or creativity, compassion, calmness, courtesy, curiosity, or whatever. Make as long a list as you want. You can even use words that don’t start with c. When we compare ourselves to someone who is not us we either come up short or they do. But this is so silly. They are not supposed to be us and we are not supposed to be them. It’s like comparing a fish to a monkey. They can both be smug and feel incompetent. Nature provides each of us with superpowers and superneeds.
The second category of imperfection is closely linked and has to do with what we think we can or cannot do. I’m really good at some stuff. Really just a few things that I truly excel at. Everything else I’m either moderate or poor or absolutely incapable. The second two make a really long list. I’m not an attentive bookkeeper. I don’t cook well. I couldn’t perform a surgery with any reasonable chance of not killing the patient. I don’t plumb, or fly planes, or dance ballet. I am not particularly good with small children. I don’t understand the complexities of economics, chemistry, or calculus. I’m perfectionistic, morally superior (in my head), and terribly averse to being wrong. All these are things that make me fit into the hive/colony - human system. They are evidence that I am incomplete as an individual. Not that there’s something wrong with me. I am a part of, not the whole thing.
If this is true in one instance, then it’s true in all of them. If you don’t compare well in some or many areas, it’s because we’re not supposed to compare, we’re supposed to integrate, sync up, click together like a dynamic living puzzle. Your different shape is what makes you fit together with the other different shapes. If you can’t do something well or have characteristics that are poor in your estimation, this is what gives significance and value to the other characters in your story who do those things well or have characteristics that bolster your underperforming ones. We are not supposed to perform well in every area. Only a few. Maybe even just one or two. We divide up the rest between us.
Back to the wounding of trauma. I want to clarify that just because there is “nothing wrong” with you or me doesn’t mean we don’t hurt each other. Our system is not functioning like it’s supposed to. We mostly operate as independent, siloed entities. This exposes our incompleteness and that translates into damage for ourselves and those we interact with. It can hurt a lot. Trauma is real and the pain of it is too. It can last our whole lives and influence everything that is true about us.
But trauma is not the final answer. Just like every other aspect of what makes us who we are, it opens us up to the beneficial contributions of others in our human system. Fascinatingly, there are people whose contribution, their special unique capacity, has to do with healing. They are specifically suited to make sense of soul wounds, social misunderstanding, and other kinds of hurts. Sometimes just their presence is strong enough to offer health. They listen, bear witness, and offer gifts of gentleness, peace, and hope. Every living system has a capacity to heal, re-orient, self-correct, and generate new wholeness. But that capacity only works for the whole system when all the parts are connected in the way they are supposed to fit. Catch a bee or an ant in a jar and it will do nothing useful and then die. But smash a bee’s nest or an anthill and the bees or ants will come back together and rebuild. They will not stay separate and start new hives or colonies by themselves. They cannot. For any part of your body to heal, it must be connected to the rest of your body. Remove it and there is literally no chance for anything but death. We heal when we are connected. And we do much more than that.
And that’s what I think we are supposed to be all about. Our effort is to figure out how we each belong together and to each other. To discover who we are, why we matter to the larger group, what resources we need to share, and what adventure we are in. When we do, trauma will not have the last word.
I write about belonging, storytelling, community building, prevention, trauma, resilience, neuroscience, and epigenetics.