In this season of graduations and reunions I am reminded of a scene from the movie Jane Austin Book Club. A wife returns from her high school reunion still angry at a classmate who stole her adolescent boyfriend. The husband asks why she still cares. She responds that “High school is never over.” Their conversation invites us to identify our childhood pain, grudges and to let go of real and imagined insults. We shouldn’t deny the consequences of bad events but we could celebrate our resilience and the skills we used to move through a crisis.
I’ll reflect on a few of my painful experiences and invite you to consider your own. My mom died when I was six. I was devastated and grew up in a large, loving and alcoholic family. Our Catholic faith emphasized my mom went to heaven and there was not childhood grief counseling. I was jealous of those who had a more comfortable and less chaotic childhood. I brought my pain and insecurities into high school, struggled with my grades and felt invisible compared to those who were smarter, better athletes and more popular.
This began to change as I gained recognition after graduation. I spent the next three years in a Catholic seminary and worked with poor inner city families. Their lives were much more difficult than mine had been. Their plight started me on a path to surrendering my victimhood. I became grateful for the opportunities I had. Then I joined the army and was recognized for my potential and put on a leadership path. I became an intelligence agent and learned Vietnamese. After a year at war I returned home with greater confidence and became a leader in the peace movement, then politics, nonprofits and government.
Sometimes my childhood wounds and resilience motivated me and in other situations my grudges limited personal relationships. My wife and public recognition helped me to leave more of the pain in the past and then I sought insight through psychotherapy. Now I acknowledge the childhood pain but it does not limit the joy of my adult life.
How are you facing your history?