I now understand what it means to be triggered, to respond in a negative way to the stories of other’s trauma. I now see that I had been triggered many, many times in my life but did not understand what was happening the way I do now.
Two days ago my son flared his nostrils at me for something rather insignificant, betraying the fact that he holds anger towards me, and it leaked out. I do not blame him for having it or for expressing it in such a indiscriminate manner. He has his reasons. And my response also makes sense. I flared back, but only for the briefest of moments, then tucked it back where it has been hidden for five decades. The ensuing mood that I fell into was dark and hopeless and angry. I was completely derailed from my life-long facade of calm. I was very upset.
As the hours passed I started to see a strange rhythm in this event. It took some time before I was able to see my response for what it was. My son’s outburst had reminded me, it had triggered me just as if it was my own father’s anger flashing out at me over five decades ago. I felt once again a frightened little boy. I reacted for an instant and then stuffed it down again, much like I did when I was a child when expressing resistance was to inflame the son-of-a-bitch.
This is a stark reminder of my father’s deathbed behaviour towards me almost 20 years ago. Early on in his decline, delirious and strapped onto a hospital bed, his angry eyes flashed around the room until he saw me. He fixed his gaze, sat up and thrust his pointed fist towards me and bellowed “don’t think I don’t know who you are …. you’re my father!!!!”. I was the target of his anger my entire life and this was his final opportunity to make sure the lesson took.
Today, after this event with my son, I see the 20 year old event quite differently. I didn’t recognize his behaviour for what it was, a release of intense pent up anger towards his father, the one who injected into him a lifetime of hate. I thought his outbursts were solely for my punishment and it turns out he was crying out his own lament.
The only difference between the hospital scene and the one with my son is that I wasn’t delirious and dying. My son’s behaviour had raised in me an anger towards my father, just as I had somehow raised my father’s anger towards his father. Incredible.
It is as if the vultures of history pick away at the carcasses of generation after generation. The only change is the carcasses. Are we really destined to repeat our inherited traumas generation after generation? Am I sentenced to re-enact the misbehaviours of my ancestors, to enable the darkest of forces to take root in my offspring?
My father failed miserably at even beginning to try and understand life. All he managed was to continually lash out at life in some very nasty ways, and later in life to shrink away from the opportunity to take any responsibility. Right to the end of his life he never once spoke truthfully about his life, the largest of failures that I can imagine.
That I have blindly fulfilled my role in this ridiculous drama staggers me. It also makes my blood boil to think that I have committed the life I have, handed down pain and anger to those in my life, god damn it!
I am aware that there are better ways of encountering life, that I do not need to re-enact the past every day and that I can be present and witness what passes before me as if a play on a stage. And I guess that is what I am doing as I write these words here, witnessing myself in the drama. Yet I have been surprised at the strength of the undertow, that it could pull a somewhat self-conscious man under so violently and quickly. Somehow I have been able to pull myself up and gasp another mouthful of air.
I will continue to bear witness and to move with the currents instead of thrashing against them.
It is the resistance that seals my fate as another victim, the acceptance that sets me free.