Yesterday my brother told me I was being too opinionated when I made a comment about how he related to his adult daughter. Agreed, perhaps some things should go unsaid. I apologized for getting on my high horse and he was presumably okay with that. But the moment stung. It caused me to want to examine my reasons for being the way that I am. If, according to Socrates, an unexamined life is not worth living, then I am way ahead of the game. Years of therapy and solitary introspection have guided me on my path for as long as I can remember. I’m still not sure I know myself any better than the next person, but I do know that it always comes back to the same dusty old childhood trauma.
My parents never touched me when I was a kid. At least I don’t remember ever being hugged or kissed or so much as patted on the head. You hear about such children from time to time and it’s always framed as a dire warning to parents – show your kids affection or they will be forever damaged as adults. But I look at it this way: No touches are better than bad touches. I was never beaten, tortured or molested.
I think my father was afraid to touch us. Afraid it wouldn’t be manly to show affection. Maybe afraid that the touching would be misconstrued. As for my mother, I always thought it was more complicated. She had grown up in Nazi Germany and fled her country only after living through the horrors of World War II. Her own parents had been stern and taciturn according to the few accounts she provided. The result was that she had always been very guarded. For her, all that mattered was appearances. I don’t believe she really recognized there was anything beneath how things looked. So, my parents played their roles. The fact of my brother’s and my presence was enough to lend credence to the premise of a happy family.
With my dad wary about experiencing true emotion and my mom terrified the gestapo might come and take her away in the middle of the night, Klaus and I kept our own counsel. We knew better than to make waves. He learned to perform as required. He was good in school, had friends, smiled and kept on moving forward. I, on the other hand, folded under the pressure. I cried a lot and was painfully shy. I was morose and probably clinically depressed at an early age. As a teenager, I acted out. As a young adult, I failed to thrive. Higher education didn’t work out for me. Neither did marriage nor a career. I wasn’t searching for an alternative path. I was just out of options.
Then, as a young woman left with my own daughter to raise, it became imperative that I find ways to function. I launched myself into the art and science of competitive living. In all endeavors, I suppose I measured my efforts and my outputs against those of other people. I lacked the self-awareness to gauge my milestones on their own merits so I appropriated the goals of others. All the missing “atta-girls” from my childhood became fodder in my race to excel. And I did excel. At least by other peoples’ standards.
But that was then. And this is now. So as not to speak further ill of the dead, I will allow my parents and their failings to rest. What remains is this: A need to constantly prove to myself that I am good enough. It doesn’t please me to think I do this by denigrating others but that may well be part of the equation.
My accomplishments, my good deeds, my earned wisdom should stand on their own. They should be enough to sustain me. Instead, I have learned to turn the other cheek when it comes to praise or admiration or thanks. I cannot accept these things and I cannot allow that I may be due them. Instead, I continue to feel small and broken. And I have to say it: It goes back to my childhood. I am still that midcentury lost and unregarded girl now in the corrupted body of an old woman.
Therapy has helped. I can now rationalize my relative worth as a human being alive today on this planet. But I cannot feel it. I cannot feel good or proud or content or assuaged by any of my earthly acts or states of being. I can only look upon myself from outside of my workings and attribute any successes to happenstance. I can only look down from some random bubble floating above the functioning me, can only observe my progress through life and think, that’s just what I am doing now and not who I am.
Once I attained my AD/HD diagnosis, I was medicated with Adderall which facilitated my escape from a lifetime of dreaminess and self-absorption. I could finally operate on all cylinders. I went from lacking the drive to get out of bed in the morning to travelling the world, writing books and starting companies. Whether that fundamental shift in motivation was an enhancement to my character was not something I ever considered.
Who I am is too complex, and perhaps too ethereal, for me to comprehend. Perhaps my fault is not that I am judging others by my standards but rather looking at their actions in the light of what I think a reasonable person might do. And that’s not so bad, is it? I can’t fathom that I would hold someone else accountable for something I might well do myself in other circumstances.
The line between who I am and who I want to be is undulating within my psyche. Perhaps I inherited my mother’s adherence to the rule of appearances. Perhaps nothing really does matter beyond how things look. But how they look to whom? That is the real question.
The thing I said to Klaus, that he tended to talk to my niece as if she were a child, was possibly just an idle observation. Maybe what I was noticing was that he spoke to her gently, as though he loved her. And there can be no blame in that. What bothered me, I realized on reflecting, was that he claimed I spoke to my own daughter the same way. Gently. Lovingly. And, though the notion was jarring at first, I am happy about that. Happy and surprised that I still have the capacity to relate in love after my own emotions have been so cavalierly tossed around.
So, my flaw may not be that I think myself superior to other people or that I am overly judgmental. Instead, it may simply be that I lack the interpersonal skills necessary to decide what to say and what to leave in silence. And is it any wonder that tact is not my strong suit after a childhood held at arms-length by the only people who could have loved me? But there I return to my wounded childhood and, at almost seventy, I promised to leave that behind, in the past, where it belongs.
I shall say instead that I am not perfect. And that summation makes me more like other people than I have ever felt before. Not perfect. Is there anything more human? Is there anything more divine? I will choose to embrace it. And, if I do that, I must embrace it in others as well.
I will not promise to speak more cautiously in the future. I can only play the cards I have been dealt and try to coax them into a reasonable whole. The next time, I may utter words even more egregious. Can you forgive me? Can you look past my faults and know that I mean no harm? Or am I asking too much? Should I instead demand of myself a higher standard?
We should all be kinder to ourselves and to one another. Of that much, I am sure. So, for now, I will cast aside the wrongs that were done to me over a half century ago. I continue to atone, as I have always done, and go on.
Linda Caradine is an award-winning Oregon writer. Her work has been included in The RavensPerch, Free State Review, Cobalt Review and many other literary journals, as well as numerous magazines, newspapers and online. She has written a memoir called Lying Down with Dogs. You can contact her at www.LindaCaradine.com.