Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
What We Owe to the People Who Loved Us in Childhood
If we’re alive and more or less functioning, if we’re capable of taking joy in things occasionally, if we can be kind and grateful to others, if we’re not addicted or very drawn to killing ourselves, then it’s likely that someone somewhere, early on, loved us very much.
They may live quite far away from us now, they might share none of our interests and could in many ways be a little boring to spend time with – and yet we will continue to be deeply loyal to them and know in our hearts that we owe them everything.
When we say that someone ‘loved’ us, what we’re really referring to is the acquisition of a set of skills. These were not transferred in any formal way, we imbibed them in the ordinary bustle of daily life. It might have been in the kitchen, on a walk out in the woods or at night-time in the bedroom after a story. It would have been easy to miss what was really going on, the vital nectar that was being imparted, all the life-sustaining goodness we received when it looked like it was just another conversation about homework or the plans for the weekend.
But in the course of being loved, we got an encyclopedic emotional education nevertheless, in which some of the following was learnt:
Sometimes, it all looked very bad indeed. We were in a state, soaked in tears, or red with fury. We felt the world was coming apart and that we would not survive. But they kept the tragedy at bay until we could breathe calmly once again. They may not have had all the answers, but they promised us – and they were right – that a few would eventually emerge. They held us through the night and guaranteed that there would be a dawn. And ever since then, it’s become just a little easier to keep catastrophic dread at bay.
They lent us a sense that we were of value to them and therefore could one day be to ourselves as well. If we made something or had an idea, we could share it with them – and though it wasn’t perhaps entirely accomplished already, they were guided by our underlying intentions and promise. When we entered the kitchen, not every time, but enough times to form a protective layer over our ego, they looked up and lit up. They might have had a name for us: little champion, button chops or sweet sheep. At one point in adolescence, we certainly didn’t want that name used any more, and it would be mortifying if colleagues knew it today, but it remains a secret symbol of an emotional bedrock upon which all our later poise and confidence was able to rest.
At points, we did something very wrong: we forgot a book, we scratched a table, we were nasty to someone or exploded in fury. The punishment could have been very strong, and yet it wasn’t. They came up with reasons that cast our misdeeds in a generous light: we were tired, everyone does that, no one is perfect. They taught us about mercy, towards others and ourselves. They let us know that we would not have to be perfect to deserve to exist.
We didn’t master much immediately. It took us a while to get long division, it was ages till we found our way with the piano or learnt to make biscuits. But they didn’t shout or mock or get irritated. They taught us the art of waiting till the good could emerge. They didn’t demand immediate results – and so spared us the need to panic or bluster our way through life.
There were some very bad scenes. They said nasty things and we did too. We felt we hated them a lot. But they stuck around. They took the anger – and thereby taught us about repair: how things can go very wrong and yet can be fixed, how resilient people can be, how many second chances there are when love is involved.
With some of these lessons and more, we grew up into people who could be kind to ourselves, tolerant of our faults, sympathetic to others and capable of keeping going. We weren’t just ‘loved’, we got an education, whose presence we can feel every time we can care for someone else, address a kind word to ourselves or feel strong enough to face a difficult tomorrow.