Trauma has two parts. The first part is created when you experience events that exceed your emotional capacity.
You can be one month old and accrue trauma when you don’t get fed in time. It is true; that does fit the definition. You can accrue trauma when you are one year old and you don’t get to eat that entire chocolate bar despite your biggest wails. This isn’t to diminish trauma survivors experience, rather it is a place to start making sense of the mechanics of trauma. As we grow older the opportunities for trauma typically grow in diversity. All of those events result in the same aftermath; retaining the event within our nervous system.
Our nervous system is the storehouse for trauma. It works differently than a memory. Memories are recalled in a slightly diminished form. That doesn’t make them pleasant, but it does make them palatable. Those memories exist without the shame, sharp edges, and vivid brutality. Often they are accompanied by observations that come in the form of “And now there are better times” or “And I remember the people who helped me… God bless them” or “If you could meet my friends who helped me get though it… they are the salt of the Earth”. Those observations and softening of the memory are a dead giveaway because they reveal that the survivor’s internal state has change from re-living the event to sharing something new that came out of that event. For (those who identify as) men though, that process of transformation, the second part of trauma, is next to impossible because modern men have one emotion allowed in their emotional vocabulary: rage.
Rage is an important emotion. Rage’s limited scope conveys shock, horror, anger, compassion, and an urgent call to action. By definition, it’s scope makes for a painfully limited budget of expression. When your only currency is rage though, there isn’t a lot to buy with it and it often has comical results.
When you only have rage, and you notice that you forgot to turn the light off when you are already heading out of the door, you see the light-switch and say “you bastard”. Hilarious, right? We’ve all had it happen. Think of another example of how young men relate to each other with nothing more than “You m*****f*****’er” and “F*** you…” for the most simple and mundane interactions like when one of them is upset that the other didn’t take the trash out. Ever heard a conversation in that context like “When you didn’t take the trash out, I felt disappointed because we have a plan of alternating that responsibility and also I’m under the weather and…”. Probably not. Men get one emotion to express things: rage. This turns into a double-edged sword.
Wanting some range for emotional express, they’ve only got two other options left: either turn the rage down to one or turn it up to eleven (guitar amplifier analogy of output volume). Here is how it usually goes:
First, men become indifferent and disinterested. This is a common complaint. They just don’t seem to care or get engaged. This is a major symptom for young men today. It is almost blown off as “teenage doldrums” and “that is just what young men do”. No way, I don’t buy it. I grew up with some of the most thoughtful and kind young men you could find anywhere. Same goes for those young men who grew up who became disinterested men, too. It doesn’t add up. Nothing good seems to come from this approach, but it part of the only emetional range allowed for them.
When you only have on emotion, you have to funnel everything into that. Men get rage. They get either the minimum or maximum. The minimum makes them go numb. Numbing means that they don’t have access to anything useful information from their experience. This is typified (or symptomatic) of being “Out of touch, disinterested, and not present”. Now compare that with turning to the opposite extreme.
When they want to feel anything they have to push that rage further. Numbing results in pushing things to extremes just to attempt to feel anything. You have to go to extremes to even feel anything; causing more problems.
The actions sports gotta be more extreme. The horror films gotta have more gore. The music has gotta be harder. The porn has to be more taboo. The sex has to be riskier. Those are the easy ones. It is the words that are the worst because the words have to be more hurtful and destructive. The words have to be so strong and abrasive in order to say anything. All of those words add up to just about zero. Fortunately there is a place that on the path that exists beyond those words where the journey to wholeness can begin.
When a man shares his trauma he is inviting you into a sacred place. It is a three dimensional place that is more secret and private then you could ever phantom. First of all, he is barely OK being there himself. It is ground-zero for all of his shame, and guilt and failure. When you go there, reverence comes to mind. Not reverence for the traumatic event, but rather, reverence for his courage. He is laying bare to you that part of himself that he cannot accept. It is the part of himself that has no home, that is incapable of being loved, and simply has no justification for existence. When you have this opportunity, often the best response is silent thanks and attention because you are unlikely to ever be there again. That is for a good reason, and unfortunately leads to a secondary problem.
When trauma is shared, it is a private and wholesome thing. It is part of grieving and it is part of acceptance. Often the guest is a participant in that healing by accepting this, as believed by the survivor, unacceptable human being. The whole event is wholesome and helpful. It contains an unintuitive property though in that all of the value is contained within that first sharing and every sharing after that not only diminishes the value of it but also makes things more difficult for the survivor. The first time it is shared, it helps a lot. Every single other time it is shared makes things worse, fast. That is where the opportunity lies: when you are invited to that place don’t bring your dirty shoes onto that sacred ground and just be there. That is all it takes. That is what helps the survivor start walking a new path. Part of being a friend is walking with them on that path free of judgment and imagined shame. That is the path that leads the survivor back to wholeness.
Yoga means “union”. That is one of the most popular definitions of it. It is often presented in grandiose, glorious, and frankly magical terms. Most of the time that makes it inaccessible to ninety-eight percent of us and that is a shame. It is a shame because the union to which it is referring is the unification of the disparate parts of ourselves that we cannot accept.
That part of ourselves that did the despicable. That part of ourselves that did the unthinkable. That part of ourselves that is worthy of death. That comes off a bit strong, doesn’t it? Let me share with you what it means to be a man though.
A story comes to mind here from Hemingway’s In Our Time. The story titled “Indian Camp”. In it the protagonists father, a doctor, is called to a Native American reservation because a woman is going through a breech birth. Dutifully the Dr. assists the woman despite her horrifying screams that are horrifyingly revealing her brutal pain. The husband lays in another bunk. The whole passage initially reads oddly.
Dr. performed the C-section with basic tools and it went well; the baby was delivered, survived, and so did mom. Dr., despite the horrible situation and brutal cries was truly a great man and was commended as such “you’re a great man, all right”. Contrast that with the husband. Called on to see his new child we find that he has slit his own throat. Shock and horror struck me here and I couldn’t make sense of this for twenty-eight years. Now I do though and I can thank Brene Brown.
Brene Brown is a genius. She shared a story about a man who attended a book signing. He asked her to sign four books; one for his wife and three for each of his daughters. She did and then he asked her “So, why don’t you every deal with men’s experience?”. She replied something to the effect that she hadn’t and there was no malice in it. He replied something like “Well, that is convenient, because let me tell you how it is for me expressing my feelings: my wife and daughters would rather see me die then fall off my high horse, their shining knight in armor”. That floored me.
It is twenty sixteen. The old days are supposed to be gone. Hemingway wrote about men who would rather die, then cry. This man bared his soul for exactly the same pain that all men face: either repress all emotions, or die; that is what it means to be a man.
I object, my friends. There are more options. Great friends are options. Kindness is an option. Embracing more emotions than rage is an option. They are all part of it. For me yoga is an important part of it in a way that I never expected.
Yoga today is popular and I am glad for that. I am child of “The New Age” (did you hear that it ended, I was shocked!). It was always about eating right and meditating and doing hatha and studying. Great stuff, and none of it ever clicked for me. Maybe I was too lazy? (I am). Maybe I wasn’t a good student? (I’m not). When my world came crashing down though, it was there for me.
All of the little things like diet and meditation that seemingly don’t amount to much give you breathing room and hold your head high above the water. Those things let you take immediate and direct action with your own body and mind to directly treat the trauma stored within your immune system. It gives you something that is always with you and that no one can ever take away from you. It is always there for you. On your path you will find people who help you in the same way.
The people, too, who never leave. Those people who never pull you toward them; but never push you away when you ask for their help. Those Yogis are not limited to the ones from the tradition into which you were initiated. They are everywhere. They are friends and family and even strangers. They are people who come from the unbroken lineage of the Yogic tradition that expands deep in the limitless cave of our heart which can never be broken. That care deep in our hearts is universal and united with everyone, and it makes it special to be alive as a human. They expect nothing. Just like our nervous system expects nothing, same goes for them. All of them and everything exists to give you a little space; a little room to breathe. Maybe you grow; maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that you heart comes back together from the millions pieces into which it had been shattered. It is never too late.
It is never too late to be whole again. It is never too late to be happy again. It is the birthright of every human being to fulfill the reason why they came to this Earth. If you can serve another human being in that mission, whether they ever know it or not (it’s better if they don’t), then you are doing that which ought to be done.
Hear, hear! Now is the time do it for yourself, too!