Don’t Be So Traumatic

I have two friends: one grew up in a loving, wealthy family with all the opportunities in the world. Another is the son of a serial killer. Which one of these people do you think is “traumatized?” You probably guessed wrong.

Folks can wear their trauma as a shield of armor, a black shroud, a monster mask, a clown costume, a skydiving parachute, or a three-piece business suit. We’ve all got dreadful experiences burrowed into our subconscious. The memories can be triggered by a person’s name, the sound of fireworks, or the smell of a house. Our response varies by how much time has passed and how well we’ve processed our anguish. The recollections can feel like a boiling cauldron, a punch in the gut, or a small cattail in the sock, especially after some time has passed.

We don’t have to be defined by the worst things that have happened to us

America’s Gen Z is our most emotionally expressive generation. They are fluent in setting personal boundaries and continually take stock of their mental health in a way that can feel foreign to older people trained in the ancient School of Suck-it-Up. One of my friends who owns a cannabis company shared that many of her younger employees routinely take days off because they feel “emotionally unprepared” to work. Adolescents speak of “abuse” when they are beset by requests to do simple chores or finish their homework. College students have refused to read books with specific “triggering” language or scenarios. #Traumatok—TikTok’s public forum for trauma-dumping with nearly 420,000 posts—reconstitutes many normal behaviors (e.g., thinking about one’s mortality, overachieving, mindless screen-scrolling) as “trauma responses.”

Look: we should all be grateful that sharing one’s emotions is more common today than in the past—it’s healthy and healing to realize others experience common feelings. I also recognize that there are unique challenges in our time. We’re highly divided as a nation and still processing the collective heartache of the Covid-19 pandemic. Prices are rising for kitchen staples, healthcare, housing, and education. Our government is providing weapons and billions of dollars to Israel that are being used to slaughter Palestinian women and children. Global warming continues to accelerate. Just reading this paragraph makes my blood pressure rise, and yet…

There’s always been scary shit happening in the world. The Great Depression, two World Wars, the threat of nuclear destruction, and the Vietnam draft were all causes for widespread distress. Did earlier generations complain about how much harder everything was for them than their predecessors? I wasn’t there, but I doubt those folks were “triggered” by words in a book or missed work due to being “emotionally unprepared.”

Rather than recognizing with gratitude one’s privileges, many young people are too busy counting everyone else’s blessings through the filters of TikTok or Instagram. There’s a widespread lack of resilience and preparedness for adulthood among teenagers and twenty-somethings. I wonder what role the constant navel-gazing of trauma has played. Why do so many people these days seem to crave feeling damaged, victimized, or oppressed?

The word “trauma” has been overused in recent years, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which wreaked havoc on our schools and society. I can’t be the arbiter of what anyone else considers to be traumatic, but a tendency to dwell in the worst parts of one’s past can be paralyzing or maladaptive. Engaging in the Martyr Olympics through trauma-dumping can be a total buzzkill in social situations. It might be one of the reasons young people are having less sex.

There have always been forces beyond our control, and there’s only so much we can do to exist happily among so much uncertainty. Life’s routine challenges, such as divorce, imperfect parents, and academic achievement, have created scores of “broken” people. We forget that in the past few centuries, life has improved considerably. Our life expectancies have doubled; infant and maternal mortality have decreased precipitously; far fewer people die violent, agonized deaths in conflict or ravaged by disease; opportunities for education, healthcare, and economic mobility are much more widespread. Almost every realm of life has improved by objective measures. Better isn’t perfect, but it’s still noteworthy.

An individual’s response to violence or tragedy is a choice, at least after one has developed enough knowledge of the world and the self to endure life’s constant churn of crises.

There’s one person I know who’s done this better than anyone: a dear friend of my family, Russ Boston. He was dating my mom for a few years in the 90s and continues to be an important presence in my life. He’s spoken openly about growing up the son of serial killer Silas Boston. After Silas murdered Russ’s mother (which he didn’t find out until later), 12-year-old Russ witnessed the killing of two British tourists in Belize and had his life threatened by his own father. He suffered abuse and was in and out of foster homes. Despite these horrible experiences, he grew into one of the most thoughtful, intelligent people I know. 

When I was a child, Russ always told me, “You’re given life, and everything else is a gift.” He constantly reminded me, “We’ll all be worm food someday,” and encouraged me to seize every moment and be grateful. He always picked up the phone when I was going through any relationship difficulties or breakups, listened patiently, and helped me maintain proper perspective in the face of my mundane problems. 

I wish everyone had a Russ in their lives. He’s taught me so much about staying resilient, kind, and curious no matter what life throws at me. When an incredible person like him can emerge from the most dire, violent circumstances, there’s hope for the rest of us. 

Perhaps part of our pain is the plague of loneliness in American society. We need to increase the volume and duration of our brokenness to feel heard or cared for by others who are consumed by their own struggles. But we don’t have to feel like victims. No matter who or what has injured us, the best revenge is living well and caring for each other.

5 Replies to “Don’t Be So Traumatic”

  1. Very thoughtful and perceptive. And, honestly, something that I, as an old white guy steeped in privilege, could not have the standing to write.

      1. Honestly, Jocelyn, I’ve been tempted to comment on the quality of your writing and insights several times, but was too lazy to open a WordPress account. I thought this essay was particularly good, good enough to help me conquer inertia and fill out the correct form.

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