I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.
My parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.
Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.
Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As we learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.
People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.