This past week, my husband and I were watching a documentary on Netflix called The Mind Explained. It's a series of episodes about the functions of our brain. We watched a few of them, but the one that stood out to me was the episode on memory. As complex and fascinating as our brains are, a majority of the episode focused on how unreliable and inaccurate our memory can be. So as the episode concludes, they ask the audience, if our memory is so faulty what's the point of having it at all? They answered the question with the results from a study that found using brain mapping. The study found that when people were asked to remember something and when they were asked to imagine their futures, the same areas of the brain lit up.
Essentially, our memories serve as a guide line for what we can expect to happen to us in the world. They ended the episode on memory saying that with the memories of our past and the imaginings of our future, we develop a picture of ourselves, our personhood, our identities.
As the credits rolled, I said to my husband, "That's why childhood is so important, man." Soils is good for challenging or questioning quite a few of my thoughts. But this time, he just offered a brief but affirming "Mmm hmm."
If you were a child who didn't feel safe in your home there's a good chance that you'll carry that expectation of danger into your adult life. I've witnessed this with people who grew up like this. They perceive innocent interactions with defense. I've watched with shock and concern as mundane, non-threatening things truly scare them. If I'm being honest, I've even judged that fear. A lot. But the more people tell you about their childhoods, the more their "adult" personality starts to make sense.
Working in media, I've been astounded--and to keep it a hundred--disgusted by the things people say and do seeking attention, affirmation, and accolades. But as these people, often in casual conversation, share stories from their childhoods, I've noticed patterns. They're marked by parents who were too preoccupied with work, romantic relationships, or survival to give their child the type of attention they needed and are still perpetually seeking.
Women who didn't connect to their mothers "don't have female friends." Men who were disappointed by the mothers struggle to respect women in the world and the women in their beds. People who rarely have anything positive to say about themselves were the product of overly critical environments.
In her documentary, the late Toni Morrison said that when a child enters your presence, they, like all human beings, are seeking your approval. She shared that if you're always pointing out what's "wrong" with them, their cleanliness, their clothes, their posture, their behavior, you can actually see a child deflate. And I would argue that if you're looking closely enough, you can see the same behavior in adults. The only difference is that by this point in life, some of us so used to be being picked apart that even when we're being celebrated, we find a way to belittle ourselves.
My parents did an excellent job raising me and my sister. Given what I know about other people's childhoods, it's a fact I share humbly. For a long time, I kept that to myself not wanting to seem like I was bragging or being insensitive to the people who feel real pain from that period of their lives. But generally, I don't have to say anything about my upbringing for people to see it when they saw me.
As a child, if I knew nothing else, I grew up with the knowledge that my parents would ride out for me and my sister. Throughout my life, until today, I know that I can expect that support from them. But more importantly, their love, support, patience, forgiveness, and encouragement taught me how to give those gifts to myself.
So much so, that when my parents stepped out of character and said something belittling to me--as a child--I knew to advocate for myself.
When I was a freshman in high school, my mother was taking me to get my hair braided. I was in the backseat squished in between my sister and cousin, laughing loud, and long and free. While we were having a grand old time, we must have been grating on my mother's nerves; because in an attempt to get me to be quiet, she called me stupid. (I can't remember how she phrased the remark. I just remember the word.) She didn't use it jokingly because we didn't joke like that.
As much as I still respect and admire my mother, I knew that lady was dead ass wrong. Not only did I know that she was wrong, that night I told her she needed to apologize for saying that. In a real paradoxical way, the only reason I knew to do that, to dismiss negative, demeaning messages--no matter the source-- and advocate for myself was because my mother and father had taught me to do so.
Her moment of natural, human weakness was offset by years of affirmation, years of watching my parents go to war with family, friends, coaches, and complete strangers on my behalf.
It took my mother two months to apologize for that slick comment. She rationalized taking so long with the fact that she knew that I knew she didn't mean it. I did know she didn't mean it. But I had been taught, partially by her, not to accept messages like that--from anyone.
When my mother finally did apologize, I remember feeling a sense of relief and satisfaction. Not in the sense of being vindicated or even having been the one to parent my own mother. I felt relief because our minds want to make sense of our worlds. Her comment and refusing to apologize for it was incongruent with everything I believed and expected from the world.
If there is any thing "adult" about us, it's our ability to recognize the innocence and purity of children. We see and increasingly understand how much they need to be protected. Honestly, the same could be said for all of us. As older kids, there are still parts of us that are innocent, pure, hungry for love and nurturing.
If there is any benefit to being an adult, it's the power to give the child within ourselves the things we lacked growing up. We can speak kindly and lovingly to the older and younger versions of ourselves. We can extend the love we needed. We can provide the safety that was taken from us.
The beautiful thing about our minds is that they're adaptable. They're always collecting new information, learning from it and adjusting to it. Unlike the days of our childhood, when we had little say over what we were exposed to, as adults, we can choose what we feed our minds today to determine who we'll be tomorrow.