The Gnōmic: A Traumatised Species
On the subject that the human race is fundamentally traumatised
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I spend a lot of my time observing people. I ask myself, why does this or that person behave as they do? Why do I behave as I do? The reactions are responses to conditions both in and out of our control. In that sense, Skinner was right, but in favour of a reductionist version of reality, he missed the underlying root cause. These conditions could be the most insignificant everyday occurrences, like bumping into someone when you weren’t looking or the choice of whether or not to let someone into your line of traffic. Or they could be catastrophic, like a car accident or the loss of a loved one. In all of these incidents, we show ourselves. And that self we show can be measured and pre-meditated, or it can be unguarded and reactionary. But in all of that, there is the traumatised individual. It is ultimately unavoidable and forms what Jung referred to as the shadow.
Every one of us is traumatised to varying degrees, and it stays with us throughout our lives. We hide it. Some of us hide it very well, and others not so well. Then it explodes in a fit of rage or implodes in a depressive episode and perhaps a suicide attempt. In the homeless drug addict, for example, or the dysfunctional teenager, it may be obvious. It’s easy to see on reality TV; My 600lb Life, Love Island, or any one of the hundreds of reality shows that serve only to commoditise and glorify the most acute manifestations of trauma. We don’t see it in the face of the forty-something mother of three until one afternoon she takes the lives of her three children to save them the pain of her perceived reality. We don’t see it in the everyday actions of the farmer until he kills his lover then burns her on a bonfire of tyres because she was going to leave him. Nor do we see it in the self-employed architect who drops his kids to school every morning, or indeed, in our own compulsive behaviour behind closed doors.
As Freud said, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” And so, although we try to hide our own personal trauma, it always finds its expression. Obsessive or compulsive behaviour, neuroticism, addiction, fits of rage, depression and anxiety, feelings of elitism and irrational self-confidence, the pursuit of success and material wealth; all manifestations of a self that hides from the reality of its own experience. Desperate to conceal from itself the trauma of its own past, often convincing itself of its triviality, the self goes about the business of life.
I have been traumatised, and I, in turn, have traumatised my children. If I could be a new parent all over again, I would do it very differently. However, I must also recognise that parenting, as it is with all areas of life, cannot be polarised. Too much support, and we make our children over-reliant and weak. Too much stimulation, and we kill their individuality and creative abilities. Just as the obscene is a response to trauma, so are the creative and innovative aspects of human behaviour. There must be balance in every aspect of life, and we can only ever act to achieve that balance now–not yesterday or tomorrow.
We can reflect on our actions and decide to act differently, or we can keep doing what we’ve always done. The latter teaches us nothing. There is no growth in that, so we must be willing to address our individual trauma. To learn is to change, and to change is to recognise that life has two sides and that our own personal trauma exists on that darker side. The one that we’d rather not face.
On a final note, some may suggest that the above view takes an unnecessarily negative perspective of life and ultimately doesn’t serve us. I would counter that by saying that unless we do, in fact, face that which underlies our behaviour–both positive and negative aspects–we learn nothing about our motivations. The dominant voice on matters of self-care and mental wellbeing calls for positivity, but positivity without perspective is, as I wrote the other week, merely lipstick on a pig.
“Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
Carl Jung, Psychology & Religion, 1938.
I have several books on the go at any one time. It’s how I read. It has a downside in that by the time I get back to one I started last week, I have forgotten where I was. So I rarely finish anything. It’s not always the case, though. Last summer, I finished Peak by psychologist Anders Ericsson. Although the content was interesting, overall, it was a bit of a disappointment. Maybe I was expecting some kind of revelation, or maybe I just wanted to read him take a chunk out of journalist Malcolm Gladwell for misrepresenting his research. Anyway, see what you think of it.
A Music Album
Speaking of traumatised people, here’s some of what I’m listening to now. 🤘
A Visit to The Archive
Here’s everything from the recent back catalogue of articles. Have a browse if you’ve time.
Thanks for taking the time to read the midweek Gnomic. If you enjoy this content and you’re not already a paying subscriber, consider supporting my work. I’m on Twitter if you’d like to follow me there. And there’s the Sunday Letters Podcast if you’d prefer to listen on your favourite podcast app instead.