Only a week out from 30, I am reflecting on how deeply my childhood has had a role in shaping who I am today. I assume we all downplay the effects of our childhoods, especially the bad and the traumatic, on who we are today. But of late my childhood has surfaced, and maybe in the sovereignty of God, it is time to resolve and face certain things – things that have played a role that inhibits the life that Christ would have for myself and maybe for you too.
Lobsters and Pathways
Much buzz has revolved around psychologist Jordan B. Peterson of late. I have recently started reading his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and found the first chapter to resonate and unravel some of my own life. It first chapter explores our association with Lobsters, especially in terms of our brains and in terms of social hierarchy. When Lobsters vie for territory, they fight each other. Once a victor is declared, the loser’s brain chemistry creates a hierarchical ‘posture’ towards others, or in other words, a submissive posture of defeat. Such also is the lot of someone – a human someone – who has been beaten down into submission: new neurological pathways are created. This makes a lot of sense of what may have happened to me.
I can recall two major events – or major traumas – that occurred early in my life that were essentially betrayals. The first, when I was the ripe age of 8 or 9. I was consistently harassed and bullied at school by a group of boys. I remember being winded before class and staggering in unable to breathe, and the teacher doing little-to-nothing. The bullies seemed to always get away with it. Unusually at that point in my life, I found myself the one getting in trouble for minute things and the perpetrators of bullying always got away with it. (In fact, my mother recently explained how in detentions, I was receiving the same punishment as others that had done worse. My crime? Throwing rocks at horse poo. Even at the age of 7 or 8 or whatever I was, I recognised something unjust in the way things were handled). Nonetheless, I was really troubled at home and found myself tearing up my homework in a fit of rage and wishing that my bullies would die. My parents did what they could, but it appeared that the forces of discipline were weak or prejudiced against my silly actions rather than catching out the true perpetrators. It was truly a hopeless situation.
I found myself a two allies who had also been the target of harassment and became accepted, although these allies were not necessarily the best influence on me (we ‘found’ ourselves popping bike tyres with thumb tacks one day…). However, it did mean I was not alone in this anymore. I do remember becoming somewhat of a bully myself; causing other kids tremendous pain. It wasn’t till a while later when the betrayal actually came.
Those two turned on me and began to harass me. Whatever those chemical or neurological pathways that were created from beforehand kicked in, I engaged in the ‘fight’ rather than ‘flight’, and beat both of them up in a fit of rage. My mother, who was honestly out of ideas in terms of what to do with me, decided to plea with a local school to take me in for the next term. So the next term I switched schools and the new school was the best thing that could have happened to me. I truly blossomed there and also found healing.
The second betrayal came once I was in high school. I was about 13 or 14 and it came from someone from my previous, ‘better’ school. I’d just taken up skateboarding and found myself harassed by a group of my friend’s older brother’s friends. They kept on harassing me about my skate deck, saying that they wanted to have a look (to be honest, I don’t recall the details thoroughly) and they’d made fun of some things I’d done a few years prior that were, admittedly, quite stupid. One guy in particular kept harassing me, till finally that ‘fight’ mode kicked in and I stood up and started swinging. I landed a few and stormed out in tears. I skated home vowing that I’d become a great skateboarder (I didn’t) and prove them wrong.
There existed in me a burning anger and resentment that poisoned my high school life for years following this particularly traumatic event/betrayal. Whenever I could, I would gather friends to play pranks on this guy and those that harassed me that day. It felt good. Yet you can imagine how horrified I was when my parents decided to move literally around the corner from this guy! The story of what happened with the skateboard had spread to others and I would occasionally harassed when I walked home from the train station.
Then Christ Came Along…
High School was a mostly positive experience (although there were moments of bullying thankfully met with justice). I managed to climb the social ladder quickly and made a name for myself as a bit of a class clown. When I had my braces removed and lost a ton of weight, I was then popular with the girls. This popularity I fought to maintain year after year – I drew much of my identity and meaning from being on top. I even made it into the popular group! But if you follow the narrative of my life following this occasion, much of what I made of my self was drawn from what others perceived of me, not really of my own independent self or of God. I occasionally did well academically (specifically in Mathematics during years 9/10), but never fully applied myself. In school reports, teachers always wrote that I was someone with potential that was wasted on pranks and stupidity.
I had a few reasonably long relationships which were met with disappointment. The first, was met with heartache that led me to about a month of sickness. It was an unusually strong reaction for a 15-year-old to a relatively short, high school relationship. I then dated a girl for about 7 months, but broke if off when I realised I was no longer interested. (This was also a time when pornography was becoming more easily accessible online, and most of my friends were regularly viewing and sharing it). I found myself feeling guilty from viewing porn and also how I handled the relationship, but I had no way to get rid of the guilt.
At the time a friend of mine had undergone a remarkable change in his life – he had become a Christian. He went from morose and depressing, to selfless and obsessed with Jesus. I started to read the Bible with the new youth pastor, who was not as lame as youth pastors in the past. (You see, I’d never enjoyed Sunday school or youth group. I was a troublemaker at both, yet I honestly just wanted to hear what they wanted to say in plain English and not dressed up in what I perceived as forced Christian fun). He read Psalm 1 with me and would encourage me to read the Bible and ask questions. At that point, I was moving towards more independence in terms of church life; I wanted to know about it for myself and started to seek God. Then, one morning, I woke up and I was a Christian. I was completely convinced of the existence of Jesus Christ, both as a historical figure and as someone who was alive today. I started to change.
This moderate detour shows how Christ’s entrance into my life enabled an enormous burden to be removed – that of the anger and rage against bullies in the past. The animosity was completely removed. It no longer existed. I can only account this to Jesus taking it from me and onto himself, and I was freed from bearing the pain. I even started to recognise the need to apologise to those I’d hurt (such as previous girlfriends) and I started to live with purpose and joy. Jesus was that ‘thing’ I was always after. Jesus removed the true cause of my trouble (my sin), but he didn’t remove everything.
Living With The Residue of Trauma
Despite the glory of Christ removing spiritual trauma, sometimes the physical aspects of trauma are not completely removed. I noticed this when I was playing basketball recently with a group of strangers at the local public courts. For whatever reason, there was a ‘trigger’ – a kind of action or behaviour that the other players exhibited – that suddenly placed me in a feeling of ‘fight’/survival mode. Now, to be sure, these guys were far and away better than me – God did not make me gifted at sports! – but for some reason there was a way the game went that set some kind of default off in my mind. I felt the same as I did when I was younger, at the age of 8, being tormented outside the classroom. The trigger is accompanied by a sudden burst of energy and aggression that results in an over-compensation of defence, targeting certain players. Why am I so triggered by these sorts of people?
I’m sure as others with childhood trauma would agree, recognition of bullies and their traits can be snuffed out quickly. These forceful individuals can be found at basketball courts, or Churches, or in the workplace (and I’ve found them in all of the above). At every setting those same neurological pathways open up and result in the same survival instincts. But how do you stop these reactions and do something different?
Some New Thoughts
I didn’t realise this until semi-recently, but taking anti-depressants actually slows down thinking. I had started taking them over a year prior as a result of depressive episodes. Where a certain line of thinking may take one to self-destructive or unhelpful places, the drug assists you to take a ‘meta-view’ of your thoughts, a kind of meta-thinking. Why am I thinking like this? Have I any good reason for these thoughts? (It is also a good idea to pray, however sometimes as good as prayer is, it can exacerbate the thoughts).
Maybe if you’re relatively balanced in terms of your mental health, you don’t have to give much thought to these kinds of things. Maybe you may be someone who could be a little more self-aware. Yet for those with depressive symptoms, or a proclivity towards melancholia, it is necessary to assess your thoughts. For myself, I used to obsess over why I would think certain things. I put perhaps too much stock into my thought patterns. This kind of thinking would take me far from God, especially when the thoughts and ideas were regarding my sin and regarding God’s love for me. Now, I feel I am able to reflect on these thoughts and disrupt their tendency to dictate my reactions. This is both a process of medication, but also a soft version of mindfulness. It is what Martyn Lloyd-Jones says in his book Spiritual Depression says:
“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”
Such a discussion with your self is necessary to rewire and create new pathways for your thinking. Like the Lobster analogy, if true (I don’t entirely agree with Peterson’s evolutionary premise), then we need to find new ways to reflect and cope with the suffering that will enter our lives. As our childhoods move further into the distant past, they should not shackle us, but be healed.
Christ enables us to use wisdom and medicine to understand physical illness that may, in term, result in spiritual or psychological issues. The fact that there are many helpful things that will bring healing to our bodies is something that Christians should not feel ashamed about using, especially if they desire to live a fuller – or clearer – life for Christ. To be submissive for reasons founded upon childhood trauma or abuse caused by others is not what I believe God intends for us. God calls us to submission out of fear for him, not timidity and fear towards others (2 Timothy 1:7). We are not lobsters vying for top place against others, but we should not accept defeatism!
God wants to give us joyful submission to him.
The Healing To Come
The depths of the healing that occurred for me spiritually is something I praise God for. My trust in Christ’s atoning death for my sin has broken the power of sin, therefore enabling me to forgive others as I share in his divine nature (1 Peter 1:4). The reality of sin and the depravity of man provides the understanding in why we each exploit power positions to the destruction of the vulnerable. Our ability to create traumatic experiences in others through our own acts of evil should never be underestimated. (To be clear: I am not writing this only as a victim, but also as one who has been the perpetrator).
Despite Christ’s forgiveness, the symptoms of the fall – the almost PTSD-like reactions to others outside myself – are not something that may be totally healed in this life. Every wound turns into a scar, each a reminder. This is not something to despair over, but something that may grant us hope in things to come if we let be so. An approach to trauma that understands the role of neurological pathways, medication, and acknowledgement with our past will help us to service Jesus. I hope you can see how I am working through this myself and it has been wholly beneficial to me in my relationship to God.
Essential to all of this is remembering that Jesus himself still bears the scars of his crucifixion – that physical trauma on Calvary – which was turned into something redemptive for us. Through those scars we will go to a place where ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).
Sounds good to me.