We grow up by inches. The pencil marks on the wall measure our lengthening.
Or perhaps we grow up by pinches: the painful squeeze some adults perform on us, unasked. They reach for a cheek, grab skin between thumb and curled index finger, then tug. They smile and say something complimentary. Confusion follows. The friendly face and the pain are at odds. What we make of the event informs our understanding of love.
Did anything similar happen to you? A young person can miss how language sometimes disguises the infliction of injury. The smiling words say, in effect, nothing is wrong. Stress results. Some children reduce their anxiety by ignoring the contradiction between words and deeds. A blind spot is thus born.
Too bad. The immediate relief of your worrisome thought (“He doesn’t love me”) sets you up for greater harm. You become unable to distinguish those who hurt you from others who are genuinely loving. You’ve been conditioned to accept that an excruciating squeeze signals something good, at least occasionally — even though your nerve endings tell you otherwise.
Life requires us to make sense of nonsense. Our youthful minds are confounded. Who and what are we to believe?
I was probably under 10-years-old when my dad first took me to a White Sox game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He found a space for our Chevrolet on a street near the stadium.
A small boy about my age rode up on his bicycle.
“Watch your car for a quarter, mister?”
“No, thanks,” answered dad.
We walked toward the giant steel and brick amphitheater.
“Why would we need our car watched?” I asked my father.
“Protection. He was selling ‘protection’ — that something would ‘happen’ to the car if we didn’t pay him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He or one of his buddies might damage the Chevy.”
“Are you afraid they will?”
“No. Don’t worry.”
The car survived unscathed. Remember, though, we lived in Chicago. I learned my town was a place where mobsters once sold shopkeepers an adult-sized version of protection: pay us every month or we will wreck your business, destroy your merchandise, break your legs. What I’d seen was a mini-version of an Al Capone universe, all disguised as a proper business deal: standing guard over dad’s property, providing him a service. A contradiction again. Like the squeeze your relative expects you to believe is a sign of love, the protection offered was no protection.
You wet your bed. The parent screams at you.
“You’re too old for this. Look at the mess you made. Now your mom has to wash the sheet and covers again!“
Mom comforts you.
“Dad didn’t mean it. He was frustrated. He did it for your own good. Your father really loves you.”
Really? Love = screaming? Since the math doesn’t work, you choose one or the other. Love feels better. When you are yelled at again will you believe you are loved? The worse for you if you do. Especially later.
By adulthood, friends are puzzled.
“How can you let him do that to you? You’re too good for him. You’re beautiful and smart. Why do you stay with him?”
We are misled by those whose unkindness is hidden by smoke and mirrors. They can be understood only by a fog-piercing X-ray vision we don’t possess. If blinders to inconsistency are put on early, they turn invisible, but still restrict our sight. Incomprehension becomes automatic, unconscious.
No wonder we go to therapists. No wonder they say, “Tell me about your childhood.”
The top image is Scolding by José Ferraz de Almeida, Jr. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.