We have so many questions about violence: Why do we have so much violence in our world? Why does it seem to be escalating? Why aren’t our efforts to end the violence working? What can you and I do to help end the violence? What stops us from doing our part?
Let’s explore each question.
Why do we have so much violence in our world?
The violence in our world erupts out of the pain and trauma we experience in our childhoods and bury deep within us. We bury the pain itself, along with our feeling responses to the pain—fear, anger, hurt, confusion, sorrow, hopelessness, and more. For most of us, nobody helped us build our capacity to feel our feelings when we were children and in pain; so if we felt the pain or our feeling responses, we wouldn’t know what to do with it. It might just feel unbearable.
We need a parent to hold us literally and emotionally when we’re youngsters in pain. To hold us with compassion, love, understanding, and a place in them where it really matters to them that we are in pain. We need a parent to accurately name our feelings for us even before we can talk. We need a parent to teach us what to do with our feelings. “That’s ok, you cry it all out.” Or “Use your words. Tell me ‘I’m mad.’ Don’t bite or punch or kick me.” And we need a parent to teach us when to act on our feelings and when to just talk about them. “If I won’t buy what you would like in the grocery store, don’t scream and scream and scream to get me to buy it. But if someone is hurting you, you can scream and scream to get me to come protect you.”
But most parents don’t know how to do that for their children. Most were not taught that by their parents. Most did not receive that from their parents. So a cycle is created:
John’s parents were hurt as children and buried their feelings.
They grew up and had John.
When John had feelings as a child, it triggered his parents’ buried feelings that they didn’t want to feel and were afraid of feeling.
So they lashed out at John to stop him from feeling and stop their own feelings as well.
If John doesn’t have the help with his feelings, he will grow up and do
the same . . . with his children, perhaps with his partner, perhaps with
his friends, perhaps even with strangers.
If the pain we feel as children is unbearable to our child self, and if we’re too young to understand yet or be able yet to do what a parent teaches us to do with our feelings . . . we will find a way to get away from the pain. One of the ways children get away from pain is to strike out—to kick or hit or bite reflexively. And if, as we grow, nobody teaches us how to simply feel the feelings, how to talk about and express our feelings safely, how to know when it’s safe to act on those feelings . . . we will continue to strike out when our early feelings of pain are triggered again. This is true whether our child feelings are evoked by here and now pain or they are evoked by something that isn’t really painful in the here and now, but the current event is triggering the young pain. For example, 9/11 was a painful event in 2001, but it also most certainly triggered early pain for people, usually without their having any awareness of it. On the other hand, I could be talking very seriously with you, and without your knowing it you may be looking at me but having memories stirred of when your mother yelled at you when you were very little. The current event itself is not painful, but it is stirring up memories of a past experience that was very painful. If your response as a child in any of these situations was to strike out, you might very well strike out today or in the future in response to situations like these.
Another way children might have responded to unbearable pain when they were young . . . they might have turned their response inward. Instead of striking out—kicking, hitting, biting—they might have pulled their hair out, scratched themselves up, or banged their head against the wall or even their crib. If nobody helped them with those feelings, they might have grown up lashing inward, even to the point of hurting or killing themselves.
This is the root of violence . . . our not having been taught how to feel and respond to our own pain when we were children and our developing ways to defend against our own pain that weren’t good for us or others. One of those ways was to strike out—to be violent with others. And one of those ways was to strike in—to be violent with ourselves.
Then when we grow up, we still have those early feelings buried and those feelings can be triggered by things in our adult lives. In addition, we still have those same ways of defending ourselves against our feelings . . . only now we’re in adult bodies with adult personalities and the ability to create far more active violence and harm than when we were in a child’s body with a child’s personality.
This is why we have so much violence in our world.
NOTE: See Judith’s article next month to continue learning the answers to the questions she’s helping us ask about violence.
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