“If we were in a war, I’d want you beside me in a foxhole,” he said.
In a past life, I did informal family counseling. That particular afternoon was tense. His wife was loud and emotional, but I kept calm, cool, and collected. Despite her attacks and complaining about my supposed failures in this long-term situation, I directed the family to stay focused. That long hour-and-a-half left us all focused on how to make the most loving choices for all involved so I took his statement as a compliment.
“But,” he continued, “I don’t think I’d want you dealing with my platoon in the aftermath. You were pretty linear and factual. You dismissed her feelings and emotions, not to mention mine. This is the relationship between a mother and child, and a husband and a father. There is passion and pain involved and you kept pushing past all of it. You may have given us a strategy—and a good one, at that—going forward but I’m pretty sure she feels like you don’t really care. I know I feel that way. You might want to work on your bedside manner, Brent.”
I didn’t argue.
Honestly, I couldn’t. He was right.
I’ve been fantastic and disengaging from my emotions since I was about 8-years-old. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s over four decades of choking back all the good things and bad things that life has thrown at me.
See, my mom and dad were born behind older siblings. This meant that their graduations, weddings, home purchases and baby-making were all at least 10 years behind. All the grandparents got their nicknames by older cousins and family traditions were laid down before my parents got married.
This also meant that death came into my life earlier than it did for my relatives. My grandfather had achieved mythical patriarch status and died when I was 8. Later, it was great aunts & uncles. Then my dad’s heart attack five years later. By the time I was 25 I didn’t have a grandparent living. By the time I was 40 my sister and I were adult orphans. I got a nice callous regarding death.
Add to that whatever it was that I told myself about being the man of the house and needing to be strong. Nobody asked me to do that. I somehow assumed that was what I was supposed to do. My mom cried a lot and I guess I felt like I shouldn’t give her anything to worry about so I just bucked up.
Mix in some degree of whatever passed for Southern Manhood strength and teenage testosterone and late-70’s/early-80’s movie tough guy and, well, there’s that.
Combine that with a teenage broken heart and you can add another layer of callous. Don’t ever say a teenager can’t be in love or dismiss those relationships as “puppy love.” That pain might be age-appropriate but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
As an added bonus, we had a steady slew of coaches who were telling us to control our emotions. Have short memories. Stay in the moment. Win the next play. Even when something good happened, there’s a lot of game left. Act like you’ve been in the end zone before. Stay poised. Stay confident. Keep your head in the game.
Lastly, throw in my mom’s two signature responses to life. First, she was like a Dane by nature. You know, from Denmark. The Dane’s are generally regarded as the happiest people on earth because they have such low expectations from people or life that anything positive that happens for them sends them over the moon. My mom was an expert at keeping the bar of expectation low. “Don’t count on making the team. There’s lots of good players at your school.” If you made the team, you were happier because you had already resigned yourself for the worst.
Second, her drug was staying busy. She woke me up the day after my dad’s funeral by saying, “Wake up. It’s time to get ready for school.”
“We’re going to school today?”
“Yes. We have to get up and get moving. If we don’t get going, we’ll stay here.” She said “stay here” so that the only possible interpretation was negative. My guess is having something to focus on—besides figuring out a way to pay the bills and raise two kids on her own–kept her from her own personal mental death spiral.
So, I’ve got a nice little recipe of externals that make for quite the emotional robotics.
Supposedly, studies have been done on adolescent teenage brains after traumas that show that the areas of the brain that deal with emotions don’t develop in whatever ways “normal” is supposed to be in teenagers. My sister sent me a medical study once that listed all these semi-abscesses and their resulting behaviors. Most of what I remember is that you’re out of touch with your emotions.
And, that’s even in the good things.
We had sports success in high school and I remember thinking the wins were pretty cool and high-fives all around but we have to work on getting ready for next season starting Monday.
Seeing my wife on our wedding day for the first time (back when you didn’t see her until she came down the aisle and made everyone wait a half-hour for your picture taking session)? I made a dumb joke about angels and how low they apparently flew.
Birth of kids? Stayed busy even though they both took my breath away. Focus on Tracy and if she’s okay and getting food after labor. Take the baby to the baby aquarium so the grandparents can get their first look. Call all the friends. Keep moving.
My kids had plenty of success in their various childhood extracurriculars. Kid1 started a rally to upset a great team and they won the city rec-league championship. They were jumping around and going crazy and I smiled and winked at her but that was about it. Kid2 stole more than one show in ballet and got standing ovations from people who knew why she was good and got into prestigious summer programs. Same reaction. Sure, I’d tell them I was proud and give real hugs but when it came to my emotions they were subdued.
A university graduation with honors for Kid1. Hugs and winks. Same for the Kid2 giving the valedictory address at her school.
Wedding day? I had a game of catch with Kid1 so I could stay loose. There was an open bar which certainly kept me on an even keel.
Stand in an internally displaced people’s camp in Congo? Spend an afternoon with young women rescued from sex trafficking in the Philippines? Stay busy. There aren’t words and there are too many emotions, so you just listen to the guide or find some neutral activity to enjoy so you don’t have to deal with that kind of emotional impact.
My team makes the world series and a home run in a crucial moment and I’m there? High five my wife and friend and say, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” My college football team kicks and field goal on the last play of the national championship game and I hugged my wife and smiled. They lost the national championship on the last play three years later and I said, “Their kid made a great play. What can you do?”
Never too high. Never too low.
It’s a great survival skill and all…no matter if it’s learned behavior or even has some brain wiring gone sideways.
But try going through life being the guy that’s wanted in a foxhole…
…but can’t empathize with folks who are going through the real stuff—the good and the bad–this world can dish out. And you know if you fake it, well, that’s even worse, IMHO.
Want to be that guy? Didn’t think so.