Tuesday, June 19, 2018

When You Were Small

Imagine you are small.

Everyone, even the most cold-hearted among us, was a child, once. Each of us holds memories of what it felt like to be young - to be new in this world. We remember the first moments of love and the first moments of pain, the comfort of a soft blanket, the agony of a skinned knee, the shyness of new friendships, the longing for an embrace.

I remember lying in bed with my dad - I was about two years old - while my mother showered in the bathroom, my face pressed against the wall and feeling the vibrations of water cascading over her hair, my father's face with its red beard as he smiled at me. I was safe; I was content.

I remember the day when my parents decided to get divorced, not because I understood the conversation which had taken place, but because I saw my mother crying, and I was helpless in the face of her grief.

All of those memories live inside of me; childhood memories live in all of us and inform the people we become. I will always love the sound of running water, and I will always feel hot sunshine and remember the golden afternoon light on my mother's hair as she cried. I will always love them both, in pain and in joy, and that love will remain in me for all of my life.

If we are defined by anything it is by our memories and how we cope with them. Abuse, affection; loneliness, love; despair and deep contentment. Studying post-traumatic stress reveals how fundamental recollection is to our identities - to have traumatic memories is to relive them. To be unable to escape in panic, to be dizzy with trauma we cannot erase. Those memories become a core part of who we are, and without proper care - therapy, medication, self-analysis - we may not emerge from their shadow.

Imagine you are small.

Imagine your mother, father, grandparents - imagine the people you love most in the world and the only people you truly know - suddenly ripped from you. Imagine being four, or two, or eight months old, with all the helplessness of your small body and your developing brain, and imagine what it would feel like to be alone. To be jostled and nameless and unloved, to be imprisoned with other unloved children. To be hot, hungry, dirty. To be confused, to not know how to speak, to be denied what all children need - touch.

To be locked in a cage.

We were all children, once.

How do we permit this kind of suffering?

We learn everything we know about human emotion by the time we are five years old. Much of that growth happens before we are three. And so much of that education happens through the touch of loved ones; so much of our development comes from human attachment. We learn from the people who are charged with our care - we know how to love and how to self-soothe because of the roles our guardians play in our lives.

I've watched my brother- and sister-in-law raise their children, and I've been continually impressed by how happy those children are. They know they are safe, and loved, and cared for; they know their creativity and individuality are protected and encouraged; their every day routine is built on a foundation of security and respect. Having worked with small children, knowing how delicate early development can be, I watch my niece and nephews with incredible joy and gratitude.

And it galls me, it is agonizing, that right now there are children - human beings - who are not given the opportunity for the same happiness. It is stolen from them, and that kind of denial is without doubt a form of torture.

These small people are going to grow up some day, and they will hold within them the trauma of their detainment, their separation from their parents, their hunger, their pain. For the rest of their lives they will live and relive these cruelties. They have no security, no rights, no love. They cannot yet speak and advocate for themselves. They are untouched by the gentle hands of their families. As they mature, they will experience post-traumatic stress, mental illness, even physical maladies - because we are allowing them to be tortured. By our government. By our representatives. By our votes, our inaction, our American and nationalistic cruelty.

I've often thought that in order to support the current President, one would have to be stupid, selfish, or cruel. Stupid, to believe the administration's lies; selfish, to not care about the suffering of others; cruel, to revel in that suffering. I've seen in the past weeks the joy of conservatives as they lock up children, as those children are irrevocably harmed. I've seen the apathy when it is brown children who suffer. I've seen massive stupidity as the administration scrambles to justify or deny its atrocities and as those lies are believed.

Imagine you are small.

You don't care about politics, you don't understand why people hate you, you don't know why this is happening, and you don't know where your mother is.

Imagine that these are your first memories of the world. Who will you become? How will you ever feel safe? How will you heal and re-learn what it means to be loved? How will you cope with being an abused child? The abuse may end, but the legacy of being abused will be in you forever.

We have allowed this. On our watch - in our names. Children are being tortured, their sense of self stripped bare, their futures stolen.

We were all children, once. And while our childhoods have ended, we must remember what it felt like - because the cure to stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty is and always has been enlightenment, empathy, and compassion.

Imagine, now, that you are an adult - the kind of adult you needed when you were young.

Protect these children the way you needed to be protected. Speak for small people who cannot speak for themselves. Be loving, be kind, be safe.

And fight. Because childhood is worth fighting for. 

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