Our parents are the first people to give us anything. This is not meant as a heartfelt platitude. Just as we say life can be taken, it is also given. The giving of life is our first gift from another human. Our parents are the first to give us many things — gifts, warm memories, love. They’re also the first to give us pain. They give us our fears, harsh memories, our traumas. They give us the flawed personalities we spend a lifetime working to improve.
This is not unique to our generation, our parents, or our society. It’s the human experience to be shaped in some way by the people around us and our parents are the first people around. We like to think we’re the arbiters of our lives and the origins of our selves, but spending decades with the same person as we grow through different life stages can mold us more deeply than our conscious efforts later can.
I’ve found it hard to hold within me these contradicting gifts. How do you reconcile joy and suffering given side by side? With self-reflection I’ve been able to uncover the patterns in my own behavior that add empty weight to my burdens. Living with these hidden patterns is like listening to a new record, unaware it has a few scratches, and thinking the song itself is flawed. It’s not always your life, but from what mind you experience that life, that makes it harder.
Finding and mending the scratch conjures questions. When did it happen? How did it happen? Bear with my psychoanalysis, but a lot of those scratches happen early — it’s of course, much easier to scratch something that’s still soft and moldable than rigid and guarded.
I’ve had wonderful parents. And thanks to their dutiful and near perfect parenting, one of those scratches I carry is a deep and un-resolving need to repay my parents. But that’s the point here — you’ll always be scratched when you’re soft. Even the pan you pour a cake batter into, safe and appropriate of a vessel as it is, still molds the cake.
Some of us are not so lucky to have had parents wielding a mold that is just right for us. They leave us with more scratches than are defensible, some even intentional. These children grow to suffer the deepest; it’s much harder to accept suffering when it’s given from the same hand that gave you the gift of life.
I thought about this experience and what parallels it might have. Humans are not the only species so deeply molded in youth. Puppies are only legally allowed to be sold after 6-8 weeks of age because this is when they’re weaned off their mother’s milk. The best breeders keep their puppies longer, around 12 weeks.
While a puppy can be weaned at 6 weeks, the learning it experiences with its siblings and mother has just begun. At 5 weeks and on, they learn when a bite is deserved and when it isn’t, when to heed a growl, how to have fun without hurting their playmates — lessons that will make them better adjusted to life in dog society. From 8-11 weeks a puppy experiences the Fear Impact period — anything that frightens them can become a phobia for life. Much to Freud’s credit, even a dog’s issues can stem from youth.
Yet, some of us may never notice a suffering we experience as stemming from childhood, and maybe it doesn’t. Others of us are familiar friends with our burdens and their origins.
It’s natural to look at our difficulties and resent their creators, but they should always be framed within the full picture of who we are. You might have anxiety, but you also have a unique sense of humor through which you see the world. You might be depressed, but your compassion and care lighten the lives of those you know. Being hyper-focused on our flaws is water on a seed, they grow and grow, only to become more overwhelming. They become the only thing visible in the frame; it’s no surprise this creates feelings of pessimism, lethargy, and self-doubt. Without a balanced view of the fight, we see ourselves as surely defeated.
I struggled to accept my own gifts of suffering as still being part of myself, not a thorn that if only removed would let my truest self come forth. I felt conflicted; how can my parents who have selflessly gifted to me also have taken from me? Yet, my parents can ask this same question of their own parents and their parents can ask their parents too. It’s knowing I was not unique in this paradox that helped me make peace with the contradictions within. We all live and have lived; whole people, individuals, lives of both beauty and pain, but lives nonetheless.
Instead of trying to surgically remove the parts of ourselves that are discolored, only substituting incisions for bruises, we can take a step back from the mirror and appreciate the body as a whole, bruises and all. Appreciate the shades of purple and blue, consider how the body heals itself as blood collects under the wound. Appreciation for even the darkest of circumstances reframes the picture beyond just the pain.
And who has never had a bruise? We are fetishists for perfection; humans have always tried to hide their flaws like a herd animal hiding its wound, fearful to be attacked or exiled. Ancient instincts do not always serve us in modern society. Now we close ourselves off to the members of our packs that can heal us. We take insult at the idea we might have hurt another or might be ourselves hurt. Instead we conceal the wound, conceal what the animalistic brain deems a weakness and struggle on, festering and risking infection.
Certainly, living in societies means we benefit in some ways from acting as a herd, but remember that the group will never prioritize the individual’s life. It would be a danger to the group’s survival as a whole. How much are we willing to bleed silently in service of the herd? Look at your bruises, don’t hide them. You only further convince yourself that perfection is the standard from which you’ve fallen and you are uniquely flawed. Every human body can sustain a bruise. Yours are not proof of an unusually weak one. Instead, let them serve as a reminder that your body is whole, living and though some parts are bruised, others are not.
Think of all the dogs you’ve met. The majority of them will also have been burdened with needless challenges that their more pedigreed neighbors were not. Yet, are these bad dogs? Is the dog that plays a little too rough, barks a little too loud, and irrationally fears innocuous situations unlovable? There would not be 90 million dogs living in homes cross this country alone if it did. Their families make exceptions for them where needed, a walk on a route that specifically avoids a menacingly colored car or extra comforting during a thunderstorm. They go on to live happy lives within a family that loves and protects them. How many of us have not joked about switching places with a pampered family pet?
We are given so many things by other people that never take a material form. We live through infinite generations, each one shaping the next, both for better and worse. Ugly as they might be, you are still of your bruises and they are of you. Just as we are given to, we are taken from. Just as the sculpture requires the addition of clay, it also requires the subtraction. I’ve realized our parents don’t give and take, they give a single gift with two halves; you cannot be given joy without something with which to compare it. You cannot be whole without two halves.
A dog may never be able to overcome the challenges puppyhood burdened them with. It can take years of compassion, effort, training and retraining to give them the same thing other puppies had from the start. What happens in the formative years of life becomes so entrenched in the animal that it can become indistinguishable from their very personality. The puppy can remain fed, clean, and safe from harm during puppyhood, but it can also have been burdened with a severe phobia. The puppy is given a future of both joy and suffering simultaneously. As are we.