Though I decided at an early age to never hit my children (or support such an action), I only recently addressed this experience. After I became a father, the past became harder to ignore, especially as my children reached the age that I was when I first realized this didn’t happen to everyone else and was, actually, very wrong. Then, something similar to my initial reaction to “Born in the USA” happened while watching the television show, The Walking Dead. In the episode, “Them”, Rick Grimes continues to lead a group of survivors through a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America. Rick motivates his team by recalling his grandfather’s response when asked if the Germans had tried to kill him during World War II:
“He said he was dead the minute he stepped into enemy territory.
Every day he woke up and told himself, ‘Rest in peace. Now, get up and go to war!’
And then, after a few years of pretending he was dead, … he made it out alive.
That’s the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do, and then we get to live.”
There it was, again. The unintentional leakage of tears after hearing a male character preach resilience—another unexpected piercing of my armor. The monologue exactly summarized how I felt. I was trying to protect myself, as a kid, but still feeling the need to be on point. Wholesome tears fell when I opened up to my wife about how ‘it’ made me feel utterly petrified and ashamed. It felt, markedly, different.
My wife held me, as I cried. She said ‘it’ couldn’t possibly change the fact that she would always love me. I had never shared that experience with someone who loves me, unconditionally, before. More importantly, I received the validation I needed: It wasn’t wasn’t my fault. This catharsis came from believing the war was over, I made it home, and that I was, finally, safe.
Now I understand why I walked around “on alert” for so long. I hoped the feeling that something was wrong would disappear. If it could magically go away without talking about it, then even better. An individual’s account of their trauma is always important. It is worth pointing out that waking up each day in a war zone, waiting for the spoon to strike, or fighting a horde of zombies are identical stresses to your autonomic nervous system. The shell-shock I deal with and my experiences growing-up (‘moral injuries’) feel more similar than one might think. Based on the work of the psychiatrist Dr. Brett Litz, Wikipedia summarizes moral injury as:
[A]n injury to an individual’s conscience, resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression that produces profound emotional shame…distinct from pathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event.
Irrespective of the precipitant, the affected person finds themselves in an environment or circumstance, where they have little influence or control, with a singular mission–to survive. The same neurotransmitters, pathways, and brain storage areas activate, regardless of the precipitant.
Trauma affecting children, however, is unique in two ways. First, children are dependent on caregivers to deliver their most basic of needs: food, shelter, and safety (physical and emotional). Any actual or perceived disruption of these needs is a substantive threat. Second, many adults who are reconciling childhood trauma often experience an expressive aphasia when asked to describe their experiences. It’s like you are stuck in a parlor game, where you have to explain the plot of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath with the vocabulary of an 8-year-old. As an otherwise high-functioning adult, such as myself, it is frustrating when, after feeling frozen in your body, “I am bad” falls out of your mouth.
Thanks to professional help, I now can describe things in clinical terms. I would say, “I can relate to the idea that I, like other affected children, convinced myself that the only possible explanation for such behavior was related, somehow, to my own inherent “badness.” Of course, this was an incorrect conclusion but not unreasonable given the inability to view my caregiver’s behavior, objectively. As a result, it was easy for me to view myself as unlovable and extrapolate. Based on my limited experience, all love must be conditional. However, now I know and accept that none of it was my fault.
The opening verse of “Born in the USA” helped me see a world outside my bedroom, where I felt trapped. The end-result was bigger than the song, itself, because of the role it has had in shaping my life’s path, introducing something I refer to as a ‘pocket of grace.’ This was my first interaction with this type of event; however, in time, I learned ‘a pocket of grace’ inserts itself, unexpectedly, and reminds you there is still good in the world.
I believe grace functions like a buoy. Through it, we can find the strength to fight the overwhelming sensation of sinking below the waves. We just have to commit to hold fast and pull ourselves up to the surface. Following a very confusing Sunday school lesson about “turning the other cheek,” I began to question the popular perception of a higher power. However, I don’t question the influence of grace. As a doctor, though, this leap of faith is incompatible with the clinical problem-solving skills I typically employ.
Mr. Spock (from Star Trek this time) would disagree. He would see my experience as the result of random events, assigned a deeper meaning due to humans’ innate tendency to seek out associations, so the world won’t appear to be such a chaotic mess. Perhaps more applicable to my childhood experience, it was a way to overcome trauma by appealing to an injured ego’s ideal sense of social justice. There is no question our nervous systems default to finding correlations that organize our perceptions of the world, connecting causes to their effects. At the same time, however, it also remains vigilant for signs of negative and threatening circumstances. Financial advisers call this strategy “zero-risk tolerance.” Therein lies the critical weakness of responding, hastily, to correlations based on fear.
When your prime objective is survival, though, this can be perceived to be the equivalent of a lay-up shot for your nervous system. However, strictly limiting oneself to an analytic perspective, focused on self-preservation, is where Mr. Spock’s approach would create a real-life embodiment of his character: safe(ish) yet seemingly cold and distant.
In the original series, Captain Kirk was more than just a dashing foil to Spock’s flat affect. His character was an embodiment of Starfleet’s purpose. Kirk exemplified the kind of higher-order thinking that reminded the viewer of their own humanity. He outranked Spock because he continued to seek a deeper understanding of others. This was achieved by his focusing on the greater good, even in unfamiliar circumstances. Nonetheless, Captain Kirk couldn’t afford to ignore Mr. Spock; he relied on him for his objectivity. By the conclusion of the episode, their dichotomy typically found Captain Kirk successful. This was due to his belief in the innate goodness of other beings. Spock’s lack of achievement, however, highlighted his fixed beliefs around hope, (to him) an inherent flaw in the human condition.
Ultimately, the show taught that Kirk (we) would always win even if idealism, temporarily, placed the people and things around him in danger.
Listening to “Born in the USA,” as an adult, empowered me to take on the feelings and experiences of my childhood. I have moved them from the recesses of my brain through the alchemy of writing. The process of “digging this up” was grueling and anything but magical. Now, I can passively resist the unsettling memories. I do this by telling my children, “Nothing can change how much I love you.” Overdramatized eye-rolls typically follow. Regardless, I know they’ll realize hearing this from their dad, regularly, was never a bad thing.
Drawing on well-known connections from popular culture shouldn’t hijack these writers’ intentions or borrow from their credibility. So not the point. They are but metaphors. I see the first verse of “Born in the USA” as the “first rung of the ladder.” The steps taken to break through this, however, were all my own. Coincidentally, the conclusion my “pocket of grace” guided me toward was in the positive affirmation of the song’s closing line —“I am a cool rocking daddy in the USA.” Springsteen’s delivery with its perfect balance of empathy and bravado, punctuates the song’s enduring message: In spite of everything I just told you, I have not been broken.
If you didn’t get a chance to read Marcus A. Boyd’s first installment, ‘Born in the USA” – Part I, click here to view.
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