After struggling with anxiety, amongst other things, for years, a friend of mine got better. They’ve written about their growth, and how they’ve overcome that cloudy time of their life. I’m proud of them. At the same time, one line from their writing, in reference to a specific breakthrough, has been stuck on my mind.
“...and yes, it took something traumatic to happen to me...”
What sticks out to me is the “and yes,” as though it’s a cliche. Growth through suffering is, ostensibly, a predictable sort of character development. They have a point. I’ve seen enough media where the hero is born out of a profound loss, or somebody learns through heartbreak. I’ve heard plenty of real-life stories about becoming stronger after you’re broken. In our culture, trauma is almost glorified as the ultimate teacher. At the very least, it’s implied to be a quick way to become better; like a cleanse you suffer in order to lose your toxicity.
I agree that people can overcome and learn from their pain; we are capable of surpassing a cloudy time. I reject the idea that pain teaches us effectively. At best, it “fixes” one of our flaws. If you’re naive, for example, a profound betrayal could make you more skeptical. Behind that quick fix, however, are a dozen new problems. Trust issues are painful, and the induced anxiety can be debilitating. The improvements we see are a silver lining—we shouldn’t wish for a cloud to come, especially not for that sliver of gain. It doesn’t make up for the storm.
My experiences with learning through pain have been as positive as they get. At little apparent cost, I became more humble and thoughtful through being humiliated. Beneath the surface of that growth, however, was a basket case of issues. If traumatic experiences are a gift, then they are terrible ones. Their small benefits are the wrapping paper—the exterior presentation of the package. If you didn’t care to unwrap the beautiful paper, and see what it obscures, you’d assume that the gift was great.
I trace my obsession with humility back to my sophomore year. Having just moved from Australia to Singapore, I was lonely. No worries, though: I had the confidence to make friends. At school, I asked to sit at a table which seemed nice, and they seemed fine with it. After a day or two of sitting, the insults started coming. I was convinced this was just hazing—the kind where, eventually, they let up, and you’re a bona-fide friend. It wasn’t that.
It didn’t take long for me to feel unwelcome, but I wasn’t sure what to do. Moving tables was a fraught proposition, and there was the sunk-cost. What if the insults end tomorrow? I’d feel really dumb, then, if I left. The people I sat with made plans in front of me, introduced me to others as a “f-ckwit,” and became increasingly hostile with their insults. Still, I believed in my ability to make friends. Any day now, they’d realize that I was cool, actually; I didn’t believe that I’d earned this treatment.
Getting “broken” meant having that belief dismantled. It was the end of the day, everyone was ready to go home, and I was sitting at the table with two other guys. They weren’t really acknowledging me, I got bored, and I started to leave. As I walked away, I felt my knee hit something unexpected, and I stumbled. It was an outstretched foot. Doing my best impression of someone who wasn’t hurt, I gave a half-hearted smile. “You got me,” I said with my eyes. They were met with a look of contempt.
“I trip you over and you smile at me? You’re autistic.”
Smile gone, I walked over to my bus. For the first time in years, I cried. Alone. That incident wasn’t particularly horrible, but it was confirmation of what I dreaded. I wasn’t being initiated into the club; for the past few weeks, I’d been bullied. The worst part was that I couldn’t understand why, and I still can’t today. That pain, mixed with that confusion, burned humility into my personality. I decided that I’d been arrogant to expect better—arrogance (read: any faith in self) had led me headfirst into pain. Somehow, that was great for my academics: I became introspective and hardworking because I believed that I was always wrong and deserving of nothing. I wasn’t quite the model student, but I was docile, thoughtful, and put too much work into my assignments—close enough.
I cherish my newfound tendency to introspect; it has made me a better person. However, that was built on an awful foundation. I am humble because I was made to feel worthless, and that has other, less savory consequences. For example, I still struggle to believe that anybody really likes me. Whenever I see a bad sign, no matter how small, I want to run away. An odd facial expression, or a misplaced word, can send me on a downward spiral. This happens with friends, teachers, people I work with and complete strangers. Since that day, maintaining any relationship has included fighting the lingering thought that “this person dislikes you.” A lot of times, I have lost that fight, leading me to destroy great relationships as a result. In retrospect, I’d rather have risked being a bit arrogant than have this constant, debilitating fear.
That’s why I’m against framing pain as a teacher. It can change how someone acts, but that change is the scar tissue of a massive wound. Mocking somebody’s weight and body may make them eat healthier, or exercise more. It did in my case. However, that benefit pales in comparison to the cost of them hating their reflection; it becomes hard to ever be truly happy. That, in itself, makes staying committed to a diet, or a workout plan, difficult—you’ll hardly ever feel satisfaction from their results. In other words, skinniness born from trauma is a silver lining, not a value unto itself.
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My problem is that, clearly, people don’t see it that way. As a result, inflicting trauma is being seen as a social good—a necessary corrective mechanism in society. A frequent refrain is that we need to “bring back bullying.” Generally, this is said in response to somebody doing something odd, like making an awkward tiktok. People justify fat shaming by saying that it’s a mechanism to make people healthier. Then, of course, people simply believe that trauma makes for effective teaching. “And, yes, it took something traumatic to happen to me,” is a quote which can be attributed to more than just my friend. I think that’s because we aren’t often exposed to the ramifications of others’ trauma. It is, after all, rude to unwrap someone else’s presents. It’s also unseemly to tell the world that your gift sucked. A lot of times, we’ll only ever see the colorful paper, and the silvery ribbon. It makes sense why one might try to imitate that.
There are alternatives to inflicting pain on others, however. Granted, other methods don’t change people as quickly, but they are healthier. For starters, there’s leading by example. I became more empathetic by being close to people who already were. I learned to be diligent by following the example of others whom I appreciated. Those were developments which, rather than leaving me saddled with years of emotional baggage, simply made me better over time. Experiences like that showed me that humiliation isn’t a prerequisite for humility. Individuals can be changed without going through pain. It’s a longer, more effort-intensive process, but healing from trauma takes longer. In fact, trauma isn’t even guaranteed to have its desired effect. This whole time, I’ve talked about the times where it “works,” but there is a vast spectrum of responses to trauma. A lot of times, fat shaming, bullying and cruel remarks have no positive outcomes. Survivorship bias is a real thing; we don’t talk about the people who fail. Even when trauma leads to a breakthrough, the ensuing process of healing isn’t often about growing, but regrowing what you lost. It would be better if we spent time teaching humility, rather than destroying peoples’ self-esteem and rebuilding it for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t a critique of criticism itself, however. One can be wrong, and be told that, in ways which aren’t cruel. There is a meaningful distinction between being shown the error of your ways, and being made to suffer for them. In fact, even painful truths are benevolent. If my bullies had simply said that they didn’t enjoy my company, I would’ve been hurt, but that doesn’t compare to the pain of still feeling unlovable. In the same way, accountability shouldn’t entail bullying. There are consequences for our actions, but there is such a thing as proportionality. If you screw up, people are right to tell you; they shouldn’t be allowed to harass, belittle and degrade you, however. The conflation of bullying with criticism, by both bullies and those who wish to deflect their own responsibility, is sad. In both cases, it devalues the experiences of those who have been victimized, and they contribute to our receptiveness to bullying itself. When JK Rowling calls everyone who reacts to her transphobia a bully, she lends credibility to the fraction of people who do victimize her. Harassers don’t deserve to call themselves “critics,” so let’s disentangle the two.
There is a place for criticism, and the discomfort that comes from it. Pain can be benign. However, just like how both poison and medicine can be bitter and kill the bacteria in your stomach, bullying and critique can elicit the same feeling and result. Their consequences are radically different, though; one will damage you, and to a greater extent than the sickness you’re fighting. Inflicting trauma shouldn’t be seen as a mechanism for teaching, though it may achieve the same results as other, less toxic approaches. We should stop wishing for clouds just to see their silver lining.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.