As I get older, I am increasingly aware of the significance of early life events and how they form the lens through which we view our world.
The path of development is not always direct and linear. Frequently, personality traits emergent in adulthood have been developed in reaction to or to compensate for, the feelings of powerlessness experienced in the homes and playgrounds of our youth.
I find it remarkable that although now middle aged, my gut reactions are still basically the same as had been etched into my psyche as a child. Whom I should or should not trust, when to fight or when to retreat, all began as instincts I learned early on and were appropriate for the world I lived in.
As a child, my “fight or flight” response was honed to a razors edge as a matter of survival. And like a small animal alone in the woods, my sense of self-preservation worked continuously… and without relief.
My father had an anger problem. And, my mother saw to it that the flames of his impulsive rage were stoked on a daily basis. There was nowhere to hide in our crowded apartment, and it was impossible to remain unscathed.
In daily conflict with each other, my parent’s symbiotic dysfunction led to an edgy atmosphere where demoralizing physical and emotional abuses went unchecked.
And, my childhood ability to absorb punishment was further stretched by the daily violence and intimidation I encountered while in public elementary school.
Out of the entire school, grades K-6, there were only two pupils who were Jewish, and I was unfortunate enough to be one of them.
On a daily basis I was reminded that as a Jew, I was an un-welcome outsider.
Throughout the elementary grades, I was ambushed and beaten repeatedly by an entire posse of bullies who righteously proclaimed: “THE JEWS KILLED JESUS!!”
School officials, although having witnessed this violent abuse, chose to look the other way, essentially giving an unspoken nod of approval to this vicious bigotry.
Most hurtful for me though, was my parent’s absolute denial of my plight. In a constant state of anxiety and panic, I pleaded with them to send me to another school.
Although I continually came home bruised and terrorized, my parents rationalized the evidence before them into insignificance. Making other arrangements for my education posed too much of an inconveniencefor them, especially from an emotional standpoint.
My mother’s self-serving and dismissive response was (and still is) “well…your older brother never seemed to have any such problems when he went there”.
And so, be they teachers, school officials or my parents, those who I relied upon for protection had instead chosen to protect themselves… leaving me to my fate.
The sadistic violence I was left to endure in grade school, which had etched such jagged scars on my psyche, had been surpassed only by the one thing that could have been worse; the pain of my own parents’ betrayal and emotional abandonment.
Trapped between the dual torments of home and school, the events of my childhood were sewn together by a coarse and continuous thread of anxiety and trauma.
Behind the school and past an area of blacktop lay a large grassy field, the central feature of which was a baseball diamond. For me, walking out towards that diamond initiated a high degree of palpable anxiety.
While other kids confidently looked forward to playing baseball, I experienced it as just another exercise in cruelty and unfairness.
Playing baseball confirmed the reality that I was an unwelcome outsider who would never be considered an equal part of any team. Everything surrounding the game only served to magnify my already painful sense of isolation, self-doubt and un-worthiness.
The ritual of humiliation began as I, the chubby Jew who couldn’t play sports, was always the last person to be selected by team captains, and then only so because somebody had to take me.
I had no idea how to play baseball, or any other sport for that matter. I was certain that my lack of ability must have been the result of some inherent defect I alone possessed.
Baseball had not been taught in school, and yet it seemed that all my classmates were just able walk out to the diamond and start playing.
This whole thing had been deeply disturbing for me. The realization didn’t come until much later that other boys had to learn how to play baseball just like everyone else, and the self-blame I had saddled myself with for so long had been completely groundless.
As a child, I hadn’t known that many fathers actually spent time with their sons on a warm evening or a Sunday afternoon, playing catch or learning how to swing a bat.
The simple act of a father spending time with his son served a purpose more important than teaching the skills of throwing a ball. It let him know that he was worthy of his father’s time and attention…and that he was valued.
As a grown man, whenever I drive past a ball field and see fathers playing catch with their sons and daughters, a smile immediately comes to my face. I feel so happy for those lucky kids. But then the smile is followed by a touch of envy… and sorrow.
I would have given anything to have some quality time with my father…anything.
In some sort of mid 20th century wisdom, our schoolyard, with the baseball diamond, had been placed right next to the city’s garbage dump and waste incinerator.
Two looming smokestacks made of dirty yellow brick regularly belched their black waste into the air, blotting out the sun…and darkening the sky.
Worst of all was when tires were being incinerated. Amid the stench of burning rubber, schoolchildren’s eyes watered as we choked on the acrid smoke.
During any given school day, the air above the grassy field was completely fouled by whatever garbage happened to be burning.
Looking upward revealed a surreal vision… as flakes of ash floated slowly and quietly down to the earth… like snow.
Before long, the field became covered with a fine layer of swirling gray ash. It was, in every sense, a field of gray ashes.
And, like the dirty sky above that playing field, the painful experiences of my youth cast a long shadow of darkness over me. A chronic and accursed depression was accompanied by an absolute sense of worthlessness that I carried with me for many long years.
I spent most of my early adulthood trying to finish the job my parents and society had failed to complete. Convinced that I was unworthy of a better fate, I embarked upon a long and determined period of extremely self-destructive behavior.
I had learned to think of myself as an undesirable outcast. Filled with rage from years of abuse and hypocrisy from authority figures, I saw my only path for the future to lie outside of the mainstream, seeking asylum within the darker folds of society.
But I was an easy mark. Hustlers, and other societal parasites, quickly identified me as another lost and angry youth… ripe for exploitation. So desperate was I for love and affirmation that I fell prey to anyone who even seemed to offer it.
Mercifully, by God’s grace I was able to steer a course out of the shadows; guided by a brilliance most cherished by those who have endured suffering …undera darkened sky.