We refer to life’s obstacles as “formative experiences” or “trials” when we’re mature enough to process the challenges they present. We may succeed or fail but we are emotionally prepared to accept the consequences. And when we are not emotionally prepared to deal with the experience, we often refer to these as “traumatizing.” I’ve never heard trauma contextualized in this way before, but it makes a certain amount of sense to me. It affords my younger self a little bit more grace in the face of trauma. To see trauma as a relative condition, based on emotional maturity, rather than some absolute, gives us perspective and perhaps helps us organize the myriad feelings associated with life’s difficulties. What is traumatic to one person, in one stage of life, may be a trifle to another. Let me point out, however, that if a person says they are traumatized, we must accept that they are and respond accordingly. It is not for anyone else to judge what is or is not traumatic for another. Trauma and PTSD are serious conditions from which many, including myself, suffer.
The question is who determines whether a person can handle such obstacles and at what age? The teacher/parent/authority can easily become an abuser by playing God with His/er subjects. If a priest is predispositioned to like little boys, he may rationalize that his favorite little boy can handle childhood sexual abuse (CSA). The place of authority is the most advantageous relationship from which to groom children for all types of abuse. Authorities in my life, and unfortunately in so many others’ lives, have too easily crossed this line between disciplined nurturing and abuse. Therefore, we as a society must retrain ourselves to recognize authority as a sacred covenant but not a blind trust. Limits must be set on those with authority, conventions put in place to protect everyone concerned. Just because someone has attained a degree, or taken an oath to “do no harm,” does not guarantee that we can trust them not to do so.
Unfortunately, many less than scrupulous people are drawn to authority roles because they think they alone can tell when and how hard or far to push those who look up to and trust them. Their position provides cover for sometimes horrific acts. Sexual predators are often gregarious, likeable people, the kind of people kids naturally look up to. But they are more often not as trustworthy as they would lead us to believe they are. Authority does not magically come with a moral imperative, any more than it comes with omniscience. “Old school” teachers often apply the same verbally abusive admonitions they received in their training, whether or not the student can “handle” it. They often simply can’t tell what affect their teaching “style” is having on their pupil. My Clarinet teacher in college fell into this category. His old school approach was a trigger for my early abuse and led to my giving up my music career altogether.
As a child, I was sexually assaulted by a doctor at Children’s Hospital in Detroit. CSA is most certainly a tragic, traumatic, life altering experience. I can’t stress enough how CSA changes the entire trajectory of a person’s life. It colors everything thereafter. I think of all these movies about the millions of metaverses, where if one thing changed in one metaverse, it affected the entire future of that metaverse. Would that there were another metaverse, where CSA did not happen to me, as it has in so many others. I can’t help but wonder how my life would have been different if I hadn’t had this terrible experience hanging over me. I suspect, I may not have been as desperate to “make a name for myself.” For me, there was a deep desire to vindicate myself, somehow cleanse myself of the dirtiness I felt. It is important to understand that it is something that happen TO us; it was not something that was meant to be or any such BS. Children do not cause or deserve abuse of any kind. It was bad and it destroyed a certain potential in me, something wonderful that might have been. Of course, wishing it hadn’t happened is a dead end, because nothing can change the fact that it did. How I have responded, my path of survival is something I can and do control. I caused a certain amount of hurt along the way, for which I’ve tried to make amends. But I have managed it and accomplished much, in spite of it.
As society seems to be moving toward more authoritarian political structures, these old paradigms of abuse become even more relevant. No one person should be able to dictate what is best for everyone, simply because they have earned more money, won an election or become a doctor, etc. Instead of becoming more skeptical, society seems desperate to blithely trust a strong leader figure, deferring their “better instincts” to their leaders. The cult-like devotees of Donald Trump come immediately to mind. We should have learned by now that blindly trusting our leaders is a recipe for disaster.