Sunday, May 14, 2017

Can we change those early messages of rejection?

       A while ago I posted a quote on Facebook and asked for thoughts/comments.  The quote was "By the age of five you've either learned that the world is good and everything and everyone in it stretches out toward you with love.  Or you know that you're a reject.  No one ever unlearns that first lesson."
       The responses to the quote varied though there was universal questioning of the absoluteness of the sentence. "No one" is a phrase that is almost always problematic.  A few people were distracted by the author of the quote, making comments about who she was and whether or not her opinion was important or to be valued. (Notice I'm not naming her here... it is, again, distracting.  It was the idea I was interested in, not who said it. And while who a person is does affect what an idea means or the place of orientation that dictates the idea, sometimes an idea is worth considering for its own merit or lack of merit, distinct from the person who said it.)  The people whose first lessons taught them that the world was good tended to respond by saying the idea was patently false. I understand that. Their early experiences were positive.  They want that positive world view for everyone else.  They are hopeful that it is something all of us can obtain.  They learned the world was good, so the idea that it might always remain a bad, scary, or rejecting place for some folk is not an idea easily accepted.  But it is the responses and thoughts of those who learned otherwise, who were taught that they were "rejects" on whom I would like to focus this blog post.
        People whose early training inclined them towards feeling unsafe in the world were not all in agreement.  Some stated that with a great deal of work they were able to work through those early training sessions and to come out on the other end.  Others said they agreed with the sentiment on the whole, and that, despite the work they'd put into it, their initial reaction to most situations tended to be one of defensiveness, mistrust.  These folk, all very thoughtful, insightful, self-reflective and deep people, said that they choose to act in the world as if it were a safe place, a place of grace and compassion. They choose that way of behaving, despite the fact that the internal alarms yell something different to them.
       Children are very resilient.  We know this.  We also know that early events impact us more than anything else can.  They become part of our DNA in a sense, part of our make-up.  As brain studies show, path ways in our brain thinking and chemistry get emphasized, cemented even, early on in our life times.  Once a path way is formed, especially one that is a response to trauma of any kind, training our thinking to go a different way, to respond in a different way, to follow a new path way can be very, very difficult.  Depending on how deeply those early path ways were carved, re-training those thoughts to not automatically follow the deep gullies dug through out thinking can sometimes be near impossible. We all receive many messages as children, from different sources and in different ways. We know the value of a good care giver and role model for children who are living a hellish home life or who have survived a trauma of great proportion: it can make all the difference in the world, turn a life around, change the way a child moves into adulthood when there is something positive, someone affirming, when an adult takes the time to offer a different possibility, a different world view.  We know of stories of kids who have lived through hell but turned out okay because of someone who took them under their care and reflected back to them a different image of who they are than the one they had originally been given.  But we also know of kids who never have that alternative reflection, who don't ever have someone to tell them that things could be different, that they could be different, that there is good and love out there.
      When the early messages of rejection are strong, many kids' reaction to that message is so negative in itself that they begin to create and recreate the unsafe world around them. They become the bullies that first victimized them.  They act out the violence or abuse that they have experienced. Then it becomes even harder to change that initial message. They end up in gangs, and later in prisons, in a cycle of abuse and abusers, of violence and rejection.  This is the reality for too many of our kids, though truly, even one kid living through a hellish childhood is one kid too many.
      The bottom line is that trauma and early rejection are hard to overcome.  For some it is harder than for others.  And for some it is nearly impossible.  I'm reminded of a story in the book Leaving Northhaven by Michael Lindvall in which a pastor is reflecting on the life of a young man who was adopted early on but who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome.  Jason had lagged behind his peers, had been completely impervious to direction, was not changed or impressed by any kind of discipline or correction because he could not live beyond the moment.  He had no internal moral compass, but coveted approval from anyone, which eventually led him into a bad gang of kids and finally led him to a lifetime jail sentence.  The parents who had adopted him loved him but could not overcome the condition he was born with.  The story continues, “Ardis, Jason’s adopted mother, had told me that some shocking percentage of FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) kids end up in prison, that they still loved their boy, but had come to accept the hard truth that they could never have heard when they were young, namely, that their love – unbounded and powerful as it might be – could not conquer all….The boy was an incarnation of all the things that cannot be fixed.  Perhaps his parents love had somewhat deflected his heedless course, but it was never enough.  Jason was Jason.  He was the emblem of that which we may fear the most; not evil, not even death, but the terrible truth that love cannot conquer all.  Like Jimmy and Ardis, Jason’s parents, I once struggled to believe that this was not so, namely, that love – faithful enough, deep enough, tireless enough, bottomless love – could not but win.  Now I sat in an eight-by-eight room in a prison across the table from what looked for all the world to be a loss….Some broken things just cannot be fixed.  There are broken people who cannot be healed in this world, neither by our love nor our cleverness….Some wounded souls heal; but some go to their graves pulled into the earth by darkness no mortal love can ever lighten.”
      We all carry scars from our early years.  Some are easily worked through.  Others are more serious.  Serious ones can prevent us from living the lives we would choose to live, whether that scar be a lack of self-worth, a message that we can't do better, a belief that the world is against us no matter what, a vision of the world as evil and violent, a message that we are rejects, not acceptable, not okay, that we can't do what we want or whatever that message may be. There are sometimes (often based on economic and national privilege) opportunities to fight these early messages, to work through traumas and to strive to live a life not controlled by our early experiences. But not everyone has those chances.  And some people's genetic make up mixed with those early traumas make a true recovery extremely difficult if not impossible.  I understand that we don't want to believe that there is anyone beyond healing. But the stories of our world show us otherwise.
       Personally, I imagine I will continue to work my entire life against early negative messages.  And while I would hope for something different, I have come to accept that I will watch my children spend their entire lives fighting their early experiences of trauma as well. We do the best we can do. And we hope to learn how to avoid imparting these messages to other children.  Faith helps.  But it doesn't fix everything.  Love helps.  But it too, has limits, at least in this world.  The early years of our children are so important.  Spending time working to make those early years the healthiest possible for each child will go a long way, not only towards healing individuals but in healing communities, nations and the world.  We have a long way to go.  But looking towards the children is an important start.