At the Start
May 25, 2011
In his grand new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, Julian Young speaks of “the earliest terrors of an imaginative child.” There’s no doubt that childhood does involve some terrors. A number of psychological therapies -- most notably, I suppose, psychoanalysis -- are based on the idea that facing and overcoming these fears are keys to a healthy adult life. I have no quarrel with digging into the memories of childhood, or asking what they mean. But I am skeptical about a leaning which seems to inform many of the therapies, an inclination towards the notion that terrors and fears are more significant than wonder.
If we proceed through life believing that our main purpose is to overcome things buried within ourselves, then the best possible outcome is simply reaching neutrality, or a sort of placid existence whose main feature is absence of discomfort. The basic life message becomes: try not to suffer much before you die. That strikes me as less than an energizing ideal.
A friend some years ago told me she wished that she had not grown up as she did, that she wished her childhood experiences had never occurred. So I responded, “Then you’re saying you don’t wish to be you, and if you don’t, you’re faced with the problem of finding someone you do wish to be, which strikes me as very hard.”
Early in Young’s biography, he quotes a letter the young Nietzsche wrote to a friend, which included the comment: “In themselves events are empty shells. It depends on our disposition: the worth that we attach to an event is the worth it has for us” That strikes me as a pretty good estimate of things.
I don’t want to be mistaken. I’m certainly not saying we should seek suffering in order to make something big out of it. People who advocate that approach also tend to argue that experiences which seem horrible to us are all part of God’s plan to make everything work out for the best. If that’s what God is up to, then I’m not on God’s side.
Good sense tells us we should avoid all the suffering we can. But if that’s what we’re trying to do, I don’t see the use in construing events in a way to make them worse than they need to be. And that, I’m very much afraid, is what certain brands of analysis achieve.
History, and the changes time brings, help us to imagine how this can work. Take, for example, something I have seen written about frequently lately: school yard bullying. Again, let me protect myself in advance. I do not approve of school yard bullying. I think adults should prevent it as best they can. Even so, in the past it was considered to be just a thing that happened, and that children who were victims had to deal with pretty much on their own.
I recall when I was in the sixth grade there was a boy in my class named Emil, who had been held back twice because of bad grades and so was two years older than the rest of us. Two years at that time of life gives considerable physical advantage, so it was easy for Emil to become a bully. One day he and I had a falling out about something I can’t remember, and Emil vowed he would find me after school and rub my face in dog poop. When school let out, I took a different route home than I normally did, but Emil still caught me and proceeded to try to carry out his threat. I resisted with enough effect that he wasn’t able to impose the promised indignity on me, but still he beat me up pretty good. I was left with a bloody lip and an eye that was beginning to swell.
It was an unpleasant occurrence but it really wasn’t any more than that to me. I wasn’t humiliated because I knew he was two years older than I was and, therefore, had the advantage in strength and size. I thought he was a jerk, and that was about it. Yet it’s not hard to imagine an atmosphere, one that would be more likely to occur now than then, which could have transformed the ordinary into a kind of trauma. I might have been led to believe I had suffered something dark and terrible rather than slight physical injuries. And if I had, I don’t know what the gain for me would have been. Truth is, I don’t see any.
I think we need to be careful about messing with people’s minds and, particularly, the minds of children. It has never once occurred to me that I would want to erase anything that happened to me while I was growing up. Nor have I wished there had been someone around to cause me to think of those events differently than I did. I was always happy, of course, to welcome any consolation I could get. But, all in all, I pretty much had to figure out for myself what things had meant. I was required, in effect, to assign them meaning, so that’s what I did. I’m not saying it didn’t require some struggle, and some evenings in bed when I felt miserable. But I really don’t how I could have been spared those feelings, given where I found myself.
Everything that happened has figured in my memory, in some way or another, and consequently worked to make me who I am. And though I may not be the most glorious product ever brought forth by humanity I’m not in the fix, like my friend was, of wishing I were someone other than who I am. Also, there’s this: my childhood, benighted as it may have been, bequeathed to me thousands of curiosities and perhaps even more enthusiasms. Although I can see, pretty clearly I think, that it was deficient in some ways, I really don’t have any big gripe against it. I can imagine a better education for a child than I had. I could have been introduced to complicated ideas earlier than I was. But even that drawback had a kind of bright side; it left me with more interesting things to do as I aged. I don’t have any sense of ever running out, even now.
Childhood can be wonderful if we let it be wonderful. That’s what I would like to see us do for all children, helping them out when they clearly need help, but also having enough sense to step back and let them shape their lives for themselves.
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