This is Part Two of a 3-part series.
Welcome back to our conversation on empathy.
Last night, I re-watched the movie, The Green Mile. My response to this story was totally different than the last time I watched it. This has to do with new understanding.
As part of my current training in medicinal movement, I am studying the effects of psychological, emotional, and physical trauma on the brain and body. It’s been enormously eye opening, and I’ve come to have compassion for human behaviors which I previously condemned.
All forms of trauma (not just physical) change the functionality of the brain. Certain parts of the brain become deactivated while other parts of the brain become hyperactive. This can lead to extreme behaviors such as recreating situations which mirror past trauma, irrational rage or mood swings, hormone imbalances, dissociation from environment (and one’s own bodily sensations, and emotions), the inability to distinguish the details of present life from the time in which trauma occurred. Other symptoms can include addictions to substances, sex, video games, food, etc., self-harm, and violence.
There’s something else that takes place that I found pretty fascinating: When a child feels unseen or lacks intimate connection with people in his/her environment, their mirror neurons are impaired. These neurons are required for a child to mimic its environment, to learn social cues and values, to cultivate empathy, and to develop emotionally.
Some folks reading this article are aware of this information. I write this not to demean your intelligence, but to ask if perhaps there is something more that we, as a capable and compassionate people, can do to offset the issues facing our community?
As a medicinal movement guide, I have learned how physical movement can be used to restore healthy neurological process in the brain and body of persons who have mental health concerns. I began first by using these processes to restore myself after trauma. The methods work.
Despite all the methods available to individuals, from one-on-one psych therapy to medicinal movement, and beyond, there is a piece of the restoration process which requires community involvement.
As a capable and compassionate people, we are the ones with the power to provide the social support needed to soothe and heal the wounds within our community.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. is a Harvard University alum, former professor of psychiatry, and mental health pioneer. His written works provide insight into the psychology of children.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, he describes an array of extreme behaviors in children who have felt unseen, undervalued, or scared of their environment. In these situations, the neural pathways in the brain are deeply altered.
One single confusing or otherwise devastating event as a child can change the brain forever – in ways which disrupt one’s perceptions of reality and which skew the victim’s concept of boundaries. In these cases, social support is one of the only things that can help these kids begin to trust the world, to establish boundaries for their safety, and to develop a moral compass.
In no way do I write this to shame parents, for I know most parents are doing their best, and that’s all any one of us can do. The world and the human condition are volatile, and we cannot control much of it. This is not a statement about better parenting. It is a statement about community unification.
As a society, we tend to judge whether others are justified in their actions. Maybe one child grew up in a seemingly loving and privileged home, but his brain was altered when he watched his dad come home from work tired and irritated one night and speak angrily to his mother. Some folks may look at this situation and say, “Oh, that’s not a traumatic experience.” But to the senses of a four-year-old, this could be a very frightening experience, forever influencing how safe the child feels in the world (this is the subconscious mind works).
Another example is the child who develops anxiety and asthma because he lives in a constant state of fear of not living up to his parents expectations. He never feels loved because even after scoring the winning goal, or getting into the best college, the parents’ expectations never stop. He feels he must do more to be loved and valued. He fears that following his own desires could result in him feeling alone in the world, without his parents’ love and approval.
This is not the parents’ fault. It just is the reality of how our subconscious minds are conditioned (the subconscious accounting for 95% - 98% of our lifelong perceptions).
Isolation, pain, and trauma are a matter of the subject’s perception, irrespective of an outsider’s judgment of the situation: a child feels the way he/she feels, and our judgments and opinions of this are not going to change that.
If the child’s trust in the world is not in some way restored by his immediate environment during these formative years, then deep psychological changes can occur, and they can be detrimental.
The more we assert the power we have to provide a feeling of belonging for each other (whether biological family or the “snot nosed kids down the street,”) the bigger changes we begin to see.
I’m not advocating for a world in which pain does not exist, for pain can have an equally wisening effect as it can a harmful one. (I’m living proof). I am not asking everyone to be some biased definition of “perfect” all the time.
I am emphasizing the importance of recognizing that every single adult out there is living life through some emotional blueprint that was established early in their lives. There is nothing for which to shame ourselves. There’s just simply more of the human condition to illuminate and honor.
We know more than we once did, and now we can apply it. A lot of souls gave their lives as catalysts for change on this planet, and we can honor them through unified growth.
When I watched the villains in The Green Mile last night, I did not feel disgust, anger, nor judgment towards them. I felt immense sadness, for their behaviors were exactly as Dr. Van Der Kolk had described observing in children’s psych hospitals.
I know we cannot save everyone and everything, and this article is not suggesting we try. I do wonder how our communities may evolve if instead of judging and ostracizing “disruptive” children, we attempt to establish bonds with them – bonds which invite them into a safe zone where they can be accepted just as they are in the moment, bonds which let them know that any thought or feeling they have is worthy of attention - bonds which do not pressure them to live up to someone else’s definition of “good” or “respectable,” bonds that don’t frighten or embarrass the kids.
I wonder how our children would support their very own peers if we, as adults, demonstrate this type of social support indiscriminately for all?
What if we quit measuring one another’s worth by what we do or have?
If we wish to apply this information and intention in our lives, we’ll have some big shifts to make in our own behavior. No more gossiping, no more judging certain families as being “bad,” or “good.”
Instead, being united with all of our community brothers and sisters, with the understanding that we are all just big kids trying to feel as secure as we can in the world.
This week, may we look into an acquaintance’s eyes and silently say, “I stand with you in this roller coaster of life. I am you.”