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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Childhood Matters, Unfortunately!

One of the more distinctive, and at the same time irritating – even maddening – habits of the modern world is its repeated suggestion that the explanation for who we are must in the end always come down to what happened to us in our childhoods.

No other age beside our own has thought in this predetermined way. No Ancient Egyptian or Sumerian or Inca ever entertained such a prescriptive notion – which they would probably have considered as peculiar as we do their beliefs in the sun god Ra or the fertility goddess Viracocha. No mediaeval knight or Phoenician trader was likely to have paused their activities to mull over a slight at their hands of a mother or father when they were five, and no pre-modern monarch or poet is on record supposing that their adult challenges might have been the result of incidents of disapproval or neglect in the nursery.

It’s not hard to see why one might inwardly bristle at our modern story of childhood as the source of all of our identities. How insulting to our many adult achievements to have to believe that our characters might be decisively moulded by a past we can barely remember – and whose impact cannot easily be altered. How disheartening to hear that the course of seven or eight decades of adult life should be masterminded by events that predated our acquisition of reason or speech – and that to stand any chance of shifting the early legacy, we might need to go back and explore it in exhaustive detail over many years. A childhood focus seems to strip us of agency, hope or will.

Painting of a collection of children's toys – a Russian doll, two balls, a rabbit and a guinea pig – on a green tabletop.
August Macke, Little Walter’s Toys, 1912

It asks us to look with suspicion at the behaviour of people who may be ailing or departed and who probably did their best, all things considered. Families are seldom in the mood for an in-depth audit of their emotional functioning. It feels natural if we might prefer to lean on the evidence of photo albums, with their record of boisterous birthday parties, picnics and foreign holidays – as opposed to those darker times when everyone may have been sulking in their rooms or shouting, and no one felt like picking up a camera.

Our vulnerability to childhood events has been as hard to learn to see as has our exposure to aspects of microbiotic life. It took until late in the nineteenth century for humanity to take on board the extraordinary suggestion that a whole city might be poisoned by a wholly invisible bacterial element that might be lurking in an ostensibly clear jug of water – just as it has taken us a similar number of centuries to appreciate that a whole life might be thrown off course by a belittling approach from a parent or a few moments of inappropriate touch by a care-giver. It remains both appalling and surprising that so-called ‘small things’ could have such power to destroy us.

For most of history, we were shielded from recognising the impact of childhood by the sheer harshness of existence. We could – most of us – expect to be dead by thirty. Survival was the priority, not flourishing or happiness. There wasn’t much energy left – in the unending struggle – to notice that the fishmonger’s wife could not trust anyone, that the cobbler’s son was anxious around authority or that the downcast knight might be incapable of intimacy. We lacked the strength, calm and patience to work out the elusive dynamics that were tearing us apart. It was only once life had found a degree of stability, once there was running water, enough to eat and lighting along well policed streets that we could start to look up from our immediate perils – and in a new district of Vienna outside the old city walls, under the guidance of an especially thorough and determined middle class Jewish doctor, learn to appreciate some of the less obvious origins of the screams inside us.

Now that we know, our particular responsibility is not to forget, to keep in mind the vulnerable truths that have been uncovered. We have to have the courage to incorporate our true susceptibility into our picture of ourselves. It may well be the case that we have been thrown off course by shortfalls of care and affection; it may just be that our anxiety or despair have their roots in early neglect. If we have to suffer, we should not – to compound our miseries – pretend that we are simpler than we are. We should make a graceful accommodation with our emotional knottedness and take all necessary measures to address it. We should gird ourselves for our fussiness and our fragility. We shouldn’t be shocked if we need to divert an unholy degree of time to unpicking the early years. Our difficulties are par for the course: they are what we should expect to befall the most complicated and sensitive animal in the universe. 

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