Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Shadow

So what is your earliest memory?  Is it happy?  I'd like to tell you mine.

No, that's not quite correct; I don't really want to tell you.  But I need to record it.  And this seems as good a place as any.

I was maybe, four or five.  This was early 1970's.  A time when small-town parents still allowed their children to wander unattended.  And that is where my lifetime of memories begin.

Late one afternoon I was out roaming the neighborhood with my best bud, kid next door, and frequent bully, Steve Cashwell.  And right in front of my house, we found a pack of matches in the street.  Big stuff for pre-internet five-year-olds.

Steve, who was bigger and stronger, took custody of the newfound afternoon possibilities.  And against my urgent protests, he immediately went looking to put the pyrotechnics to use.  I stumbled along, as bullied kids so often do.

He settled on a solitary bush just off the street between our two houses.  As I am sure he'd never before struck a match, it took a little doing.  But before long, he had the dried leaves beneath the bush alight.  And then very quickly, he had that bush ablaze.

Well, that was too scary for me and I took off for help.  I ran through our front yard, past the front door, headed around the house, toward the back door that we actually used.  Unbeknownst to me, my father had arrived home, and saw the burning bush from his bedroom window.  We met just beyond the front door.

He yelled at me to go inside while he went and dealt with the Cashwell's flaming shrubbery.  Steve, by this time was no where to be found.

Afterwards, my father came inside the house and beat the crap out of me.

I tried to tell the story.  Of course I did.  And even after the beating, I denied that I was responsible.  So my parents, my well-educated, liberal parents, did what they considered appropriate and sufficient due diligence:  They phoned over to the Cashwell's, to find out what had actually happened.

And when they were informed during that telephone conversation that ... I ... was the actual culprit, they beat the crap out of me for a second time that night.  For lying about it.


Like all of us, the most basic needs of children are food, water, and shelter.  But Maslow taught us that right above these physiological needs sits:  Safety.  Even before love, children need to feel safe.  This is the primary job of parents.  This is the primary purpose of a home.

And I learned very early that my parents and our home were not reliably safe.  My greatest fear as a child was not the dark or getting lost or whatever it is that children typically fear.  Rather, I feared the volatile and capricious nature of my parents.  All too eager to find fault; all too willing to strike with unpredictable abuse.  Physical as well as venomous verbal assaults.  Abuse used to insure preternatural behavior and obedience, and to protect a warped view of their own reputation.  For my parents, fear was the tool of choice in their burden of childrearing.

I did not feel safe with my parents.  How could I?  I was scared to death of them.  Trust is a vital element of safety and we are all born trusting.  But if you learn at the age of three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and beyond, that your parents cannot be trusted, do not be surprised if you have trouble trusting anyone, ever.  How does such a child find mental and emotional stability?  You can expect trouble forming and maintaining relationships, distrust of authority, and other symptoms of the maladjusted.

And if a child's home is not safe, he may never feel home anywhere.  He may spend a lifetime seeking a home that he lacks the emotional capacity to find.  If a child does not feel safe, how can he possibly develop Maslow's higher-level pursuits of belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization?

My parents did not give two cents about the self-esteem of their children.

But that is not all.  Abused children are likely to grow up to be angry adults.  And this internal rage affects everything they do.  And all of their relationships.  How could it not?  I wonder what percentage of our prison population were abused as children?

So angry and unfulfilled.  And unable to find happiness.  Yeah, that sounds about right.  But Jordan Peterson says that happiness is not the goal.  It is rather, a mere byproduct of moral venture.  So I guess, there's always hope.  One muddles onward, searching and hoping.  What choice is there?  The question becomes:  Can abused children transcend their anger and their lack of self-esteem to live a life of moral venture?  Here's hoping.

In any case, there was nothing special about the abuse described above; it was just the first incident that I remember clearly.  My parents were always ready, even eager, to find fault and assume the worst about their children and act on those assumptions.  They knew that Steve was bigger and stronger and a bully.  But they found the idea, that their kid was the one responsible, irresistible.  This was the defining element of my childhood.  Imagine what that does to the psyche of a little kid.  I don't think I ever got over it.

Now I know, plenty have it worse.  Far worse.  Some are hospitalized; some go hungry.  But parents should provide all that they can for their children.  Once they've been fed, it is the parent's job to make them safe.  And yes, feel safe.  When children do not have this, it follows them, like a shadow, into adulthood.  Where it lingers...for a lifetime.

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