A few weeks ago I met someone who’s never been broken. It was a novel experience; most of the time I tend to naturally attract and be attracted to people who have been broken and came through it. In fact, although that’s by no means my only criteria for determining whether I want to get to know somebody, it’s in there. It’s an unspoken, unconscious (or semi-conscious) question I ponder when meeting a new person: were they broken? How and how well did they get fixed?
I always thought in the past that people who’ve never been broken weren’t really my jam. There are valid, logical reasons for this, first and foremost the fact that it can be so hard to communicate with them. You do or say something they don’t grok, and you have to explain your reasons. Then you have to actually explain your reasons – as in, you have to explain the formation and meaning of your reasons, the reasons why your reasons are as they are. Then you have to explain it all over again, because most of the time whatever it is you said ran full tilt into a paradigm wall and bounced right back. Those times when something makes it through, it often ends up hurting them. People don’t like to be shown that the world is uglier than they thought. I don’t like to be the bringer of pain to people who don’t deserve it, or to feel like a freak at a show. All in all, it’s easier to stick with your own.
This guy, though (this isn’t a romance, btw; the dude just happens to be a guy), seems to be different from the “normies” I’ve met in the past. He’s not oblivious; ugly things don’t happen around him without him noticing. He’s not so timid that trouble can’t find him. He just got lucky, I guess: he happened to grow up in a place that valued his individuality and nurtured his talents, a place that offered him challenges and the resources to meet them at a matched pace. He can do at least as much as I can, though our fields of expertise differ, but the critical issue is that the way he developed his talents is completely different from mine. He built himself by gradually taking on greater and greater challenges that allowed him to develop at a pace that didn’t injure him. I mostly got thrown off high places and had to learn to land.
I guess it comes down to helplessness; there ought to be a better word for it, though, something more epic-sounding, with more teeth in it. We all face gaps between what we have to deal with and what we can do, and there is a level of helplessness in each of them. The situations I’m talking about are when those gaps are so immense that the experience we go through is qualitatively different. It’s not just like being a little bit helpless, but more of it: it’s a whole different creature. And it’s carnivorous.
Being forcibly thrown so far from your comfort zone that you can’t ever remember where you left it is transformative, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of my favourite people had something like that happen to them, and in some ways it made them better; provided that the changes they went through meet your idea of “better”, that is.
For instance, I can take a metaphorical hit and get up. I can do that remarkably well. I am perennially aware that there are hits I wouldn’t get up from, that there are ways in which I can be broken beyond repair, mangled beyond recognition. I also know that I can take your garden-variety hit, though, and I can get back up. I have historical data to prove that. That unbroken guy I met doesn’t have that. Maybe he couldn’t take a hit like I can. Maybe he’d take longer to get better, because he doesn’t have the scar tissue to numb the impact, the familiarity with pain, a set of learnt reflexes leading him towards recovery. He just doesn’t have my mileage.
He’s got something I don’t have, though: the awareness of what “good” feels like. He knows how he feels when things are good. This is going to sound like a nothing kinda thing, but it isn’t: as far as I’m concerned, it’s an almost supernatural ability. He knows what “good” feels like without having to think about it, and he can use that to orient himself and guide his actions. When something feels ungood, he instinctively moves away from it. When he finds himself feeling ungood, he knows in which direction he needs to travel to get back to feeling good. He doesn’t have to think about any of this: he just does it.
I don’t. I don’t know what good feels like. I was talking to my coach a wee while ago and she asked me to go back to a time or place when things were good, body and mind – not “good enough”, but actually “good”. That, for me, means the time before I was two and half years old, three at a push. My head was a mess from kindergarten all the way into my early twenties, I had my first spinal fracture when I was 18. Events have happened at me all the way through. The only time I’ve actually felt all-round good was spent playing under the living room table of my babysitter while she was cooking, and that was four decades ago.
That doesn’t mean that I’ve had a terrible life. I love what I’ve done and I love who I am. I love that I can take a hit and get up again: it makes me feel all resilient and shit. Compared to that unbroken guy, though, I feel like I’m floundering, trying to make up for a lack of awareness and instincts with sheer bloody-mindedness and maximum effort. I feel as if I’m working twice as hard as he is and still coming up short.
I’m better at taking a hit, but I am probably not half as good at avoiding that hit, because I’m not half as good at recognising when situations aren’t good enough. When I’m on the floor struggling to get up again, I have to manually find my bearings, to think my way through where I want to be. More importantly, my idea of what “good” can or should be is precisely that: a hypothetical construct. I have no real feeling for it, and no instinctual drive towards it. Sometimes I think I’m working towards it when I’m not, and that realization often comes too late.
That’s not a nothing kinda thing: that is a giant fucking issue. It’s an issue compounded by the fact that, like many if not most people, I have the tendency to gather around people who are very much like me. Most of us wouldn’t know “good” if it hit us in the face; but hey, it’d take us no time at all to shake that hit off, because that’s our superpower. Our superweakness is that, individually and collectively, we’re trying to make up a good life by trial and error. Even when we succeed it’s fucking hard work. Often enough we don’t succeed. We hit “good enough”, maybe, and don’t even know what we’re missing out.
I found this quote on a website about estranged parents forums (a bloody excellent resource on toxicity in general), and it resonates:
Non-dysfunctional people don’t stay in that environment. (…) What’s left behind are the people too broken to recognize abuse, too hungry for validation to speak up when they see their friends being abusive, too abusive to pass in a forum of healthy people.
There are toxic people out there who are toxic because toxic is all they know. To them toxicity is normal, and to move away from it is an aberration. To my unbroken friend, “good” is normal; it’s the steady state his brain is automatically set to return to. I sit not-so-happily in the middle, aware enough of toxic shit to want to avoid it but with no instinct for finding, creating, or even moving towards whatever lies at the opposite end of that spectrum. I don’t know how to rewire my brain’s compass to automatically point to “good”. As things stand, I might be seeking “good” but I’m set to “ish” at most, and I don’t know how to make that change. I don’t know if that change can be made.