This morning I was reading The Sun, one of my favorite magazines. This month’s issue features an interview about love with Barbara Fredrickson, the director of the “Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology” Lab at Chapel Hill. I was struck by one interview question and her answer in particular:
[interviewer]: Some Children never experience good emotional bonding with their parents and caregivers. What special challenges do they face later in life in regards to experiencing love?
Fredrickson: I think it’s possible to learn to seek out love at any point in life. In my own life I made a major turnaround as an adult when I discovered how to relate more with people instead of remaining isolated. People can wake up at any time to what they need as human beings regardless of where they started. Positive emotions are our birthright, and we all have access to them. It could be that the families we grew up in didn’t help us to feel them, but the people who raised you can’t take away your capacity to resonate with others. They mag have reduced your skills, but the capacity is still there.
Then this evening, I participated in an “Evening of Exploration” surrounding the theme of “disorientation” at The Academy for the Love of Learning, an organization here in Santa Fe. After all, I have an awful lot of change and disorientation going on in my life right now. This is the second time I’ve been up to the academy, and I’ve found it to be a remarkably rewarding experience both times. From their website: “The mission of the Academy for the Love of Learning is to awaken, enliven, nurture and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages.”
What I find most interesting, though, is their pedagogical approach. It starts with an experience (experiential learning). Then you reflect on the experience. Then you try to make meaning from it. You look at critical models. Then you apply what you’ve learned.
OK, so where could I possibly be going with all of this? Well, the leaders of the workshop took us through this process. They had us remember a disorienting event in detail and write about it. Then they had us reflect on it with a stranger. Then we inquired into the different stages of our experience with this event. And then they gave us some critical reading materials to take home.
This was a richly rewarding process. It helped me understand something I’ve been struggling with for weeks. And through the group reflection on the stages of dealing with disorienting events, I realized that even massive trauma is not inherently a bad thing. Some people described divorces or life-threatening illness. They described their initial shock and then anger. But nearly everyone in the long-term in dealing with these events eventually came to acceptance, growth, understanding, strength . . . good stuff.
Death, mistreatment at the hands of a loved one, illness, pain, uncertainty . . . these are what make a life. Not all that make a life, of course, but folks in the room generally agreed that these are the experiences that ultimately tend to cause the most growth and forward movement. But all these benefits of pain, the greater awareness, the growth . . . it struck me that they only come when the event is reflected upon in a meaningful way, such as the academy’s approach.
I think most people have a kind of built-in reflection process when they talk to their parents, their families, their friends about the hard things in their lives. But it struck me that talking about trauma, especially childhood trauma, is not the same. We have a cult of normal and everyone is trying to fit into it. Serious childhood trauma does not fit into that cult. We all know people who can’t stop talking about trauma. Most of us feel a little queazy around these people and, even if unintentionally, we kind of avoid them because we hope we don’t sound as crazy and spazzish as they do. And we almost feel like their psychological not-OK-ness might be contagious.
But seriously, is there any right way outside of a therapists’ office to talk about your childhood if it was dominated by trauma? And the problem is way worse if you are a kid because chances are your parents aren’t going to put you in therapy for a problem that they are probably part of the cause of.
What I’m driving at is, yes, everyone has the capacity to love, to seek out synchronicity, to recognize what is missing in their lives and seek it out. And yet, we live in a society that is probably even harsher and more stigmatizing towards those with mental illnesses and those who have survived serious childhood trauma than it is even towards women and minorities. I think kids living through trauma (and adults who have) are uniquely denied the tools (of reflection and inquiry) with which to contextualize these events and grow from them.
And I think that’s maybe why books about painful situations are so important for these kids. Because they provide a point of access for reflection into their own life experiences.