Nick and I just had a conversation about those incidents that scarred us in our youth. The crazy thing is that to adults — even to us as adults — these things seem trivial. Yet they’re the kind of things that shape our lives.
Fear of success
When Nick was in third grade, the church camp (Drift Creek) began to offer a week for kids his age. Nick wanted to go more than anything. At Bible school that summer, kids could earn a sort of scholarship to Drift Creek for accumulating points by memorizing Bible verses, etc.
Nick worked like crazy. He needed 1500 points to earn the scholarship, but he wanted to be sure. He earned more than 3000 points, far more than any other kid in Bible school. He was excited — he’d get to go to Drift Creek Camp!
But on the last day of Bible school, he found out that no scholarships were being offered to third graders. He’d done all that work for nothing. He was devastated.
As a result, Nick says, to this day he finds that he’s afraid to put all his effort into something. Somewhere in the back of his mind is the expectation that there won’t be any reward for the effort.
Dazed and confused
When I was about ten or twelve, our family made a visit to one of Mom’s aunts or uncles or cousins in Beaverton. We didn’t see Mom’s family very often, and both my parents were on edge. I think Dad always felt inadequate around them, as if he were being judged.
The house seemed like a mansion to me. I grew up in a run-down trailer house, and this place was enormous, filled with all sorts of expensive furniture. Jeff, Tony, and I ran around with the other kids while the adults sat in the living room, talking about adult stuff.
Because I was beginning to feel older, at some point I decided to join the adult conversation. In my memory, I went into the living room and sat down on the couch. I’m sure, however, that as most kids do, I plopped down on the couch. In any case, when I sat down, I dislodged an enormous painting that had been resting on the back of the sofa, causing it to fall to the floor.
Dad was livid. He took me outside and spanked me, probably one of the last times he ever did so. He was irate because I had embarrassed him in front of these people around whom he felt uncomfortable anyhow. I was dazed and confused. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. In my mind, I had just tried to sit down on the couch. I had tried to do something good: join an adult conversation.
“I think about that incident several times a month,” I told Nick. He was shocked. “I’m serious,” I said. “All my life, I’ve thought about that incident several times a month. It is a deep part of who I am.”
Lie down on the couch
As an adult, it’s a challenge to cope with all of this baggage from my youth. Looking back, it seems so inconsequential. I know that Mom, too, fights some of this. She has often shared stories about the things that happened to her as a girl, the things that messed her up. When I hear the stories, I tend to dismiss them as trivial, just as you’re probably dismissing my story above as trivial. But they’re not trivial. These little things do lasting damage.
But how can a parent or teacher actually know which trivial things are going to do the lasting damage? Is it possible for a person to grow up without any sort of psychological scarring?
“People are strange,” I’m fond of saying. “They’re no such thing as normal. Every person is strange. But we’re each strange in different ways.” It’s not just my family that’s messed up — Kris’ family is messed up, too. So is every family. So is every person.
As of this moment, I am technically debt-free except for my mortgage. I haven’t actually paid the final debt, but I have the money in the bank to do so. This is an enormous step for me. Defeating my debt is akin to defeating the demons from my youth. It’s a sign that the adult J.D. is asserting himself, is denying that the things that happened to the young J.D. will actually control his life.
I’m not out of the woods yet, of course. I may have my financial life under control, but I’m still a fat middle-aged man who eats like shit and who never exercises. I have some very real social anxieties. For some time, I’ve considered seeing a psychologist to discuss some of my poor behavior patterns. Maybe it’s time to actually do so.