If the inside of my own head is any indication, we all carry around a few snapshots of what our childhood was like. These snapshots are extremely powerful in determining our self-image, the choices we make, and the way we feel about everything.
One snapshot of my own childhood is that of me, sitting in a school bus. Every other seat is taken, but the seat next to me is empty.
The most important thing about this image is not seen in the image. Most important are my feelings. I was lonely. Along with that came fear, confusion, hurt, surprise, and the shame one feels when one hopes no one else has noticed. I couldn’t get to school fast enough that day, so I could get off the bus and get lost in the crowd walking through the doors. I dreaded getting back on the bus at the end of the day to have the image repeated. Something died in me that day. I no longer believed that I could belong.
Being just a snapshot, it’s taken out of context. This could have been the only time in my entire childhood no one sat with me, I have no way of knowing anymore. The image does not include all the other times kids were friendly, when I was included, and when people listened to what I had to say. It did not depict me in the bosom of family, in a safe and vibrant community, a citizen of one of the most consequential nations on earth, belonging to a race that enjoyed widespread privilege. It’s picture of a single moment of a single day of a single kid feeling sorry for himself. What gave this snapshot so much power?
Loneliness is very consequential for a kid. Young children left alone can soon be dead children; kids know this and react accordingly. By the time I was attending school, being left alone was not a death sentence, but being accepted by my peers was certainly imperative; it made the difference between a good day and a bad one. Of all the idiot lights on the dashboard of our feelings, loneliness is one of the most significant. If you’re feeling lonely, I hope you don’t ignore it. If a kid is feeling lonely, something must be done. That’s one reason the snapshot was so powerful; it took a reading of something vital.
My problem with this snapshot is that it’s a misreading of something vital. I had no good reason to feel lonely and certainly no good reason to conclude on the basis of that single snapshot that I was unlikeable and friendless.
I can recall other times I felt that way: a time some kids teased me, another time I was forgotten, when I didn’t make the Little League team one year and, another year, when I did make it and I let everyone down by striking out. Any kid can point to dozens of similar instances; they don’t have to mean anything. All these instances of loneliness could very well be represented by that one picture I have in my head of me sitting alone in the school bus. It doesn’t matter that it’s inevitable that every kid is going to feel this way some time. I was a kid and unable to put it in perspective, so the scene seared its indelible image into my memory.
This snapshot still comes up to this very day. All I have to do is go out to lunch, sit alone in a diner, and I am transported to that bus, feeling some of the same things I was feeling then for the same bad reasons.
Maybe you have those snapshots, too. Maybe yours are worse. Maybe you have tried to do something about them. What can be done about a snapshot? I mean, besides let it define who you are?
The first thing I did was to act as though it didn’t matter. I told myself that I liked it better this way. I became a bookworm. I did not try to pursue friendships as avidly as I read books. I never reached out to other kids, invited them to my home, or tried to be included. Of course, these choices only made me more solitary, proving the accuracy of the snapshot; but I gained so much else. Free of the necessity of developing and maintaining friendships, I had time to devour the encyclopedia, cover to cover, several times over.
Maybe you’ve tried that method, too and have developed your own compensating strengths.
The next thing I tried was acting like it did matter. Having this experience on the school bus gave me insight and the desire to hang out with other marginalized people. I became the person who sits with the lonely kids on the bus, so to speak. I became a therapist, in other words.
The snapshot brought lots of good, pro-social things into my life; but still, all I had to do was go someplace alone and all the negative feelings would hit. Can I ever be free of those unnecessary feelings?
The next thing I tried was disputing the feelings, arguing with the erroneous deductions I had drawn with my eight or nine year old brain. I pointed to the friends I actually had, the healthy relationships I enjoyed, and the many places I’ve gone with someone actually sitting beside me. That day on the bus was a sampling error, I told myself. I was making too much of it. My conclusions were not supported by the evidence.
Have you done that, too? You might have seen a therapist who instructed you in the methods of cognitive behavioral therapy; or, as I have, been such a therapist. Those methods help, but it’s always a thing I do after the old lonely feelings visit me. Rational thought has never succeeded in keeping the snapshot away; it only defeats it once it appears.
Next, I tried to build up an immunity to loneliness. I started to go out of my way to be alone. I got this idea one day when I went to the movies by myself and started to feel self-conscious that no one had gone with me. I decided to go to the movies every day in defiance of the feelings, even seeing films I didn’t want to see. I’ve since kept up this immunology program to some extent and gone hiking alone in the wilderness and traveled by myself in a foreign country, all to show myself I can do it. I won’t let a stupid snapshot stop me.
I can recommend this method to you if you have your own snapshots that would try to limit you. I wouldn’t recommend seeing movies you don’t want to see, just so you can say you went alone, but I would recommend not letting it stop you. Be warned, however, if you do this, the snapshot will show up even when you have dared it to come.
One method I never tried in coping with my snapshot is to glom on to anyone who would have me or not be able to get rid of me, just so I would never have to feel lonely. I’ve met people who’ve tried to do this, though, and have seen that it doesn’t do them any good. For one thing, it’s inevitable that, despite their efforts they will still have to endure some brief moments alone; for another, there’s nothing that makes people want to get rid of you more than when you try to make yourself adhesive.
I now believe that there is not much that can be done about these snapshots. I’m sure that when I’m an old, old man, doddering around in my nursing home, and have forgotten everything else, I will still have that snapshot to torment me. From what I’ve seen, it’s hard to be alone in a nursing home, but very easy to feel lonely.
I’m forced to conclude that, once some things make themselves such an influential part of your past, they will never go away. They’re just part of the terrain you have to deal with. It’s getting to be that I wouldn’t even want them to go away. I think I’ll keep my snapshots for the same reason people keep any memorabilia from their childhood. I’ve got collection of old drawings and a story I wrote during that time, too; all of which are just as embarrassingly inept and childish. It’s important to keep them around to remind myself I haven’t always been as I am now, to demonstrate the reality of change.
I hope you, too, can feel safe enough with your snapshots that you’ll want to keep them. That doesn’t mean that those snapshots have to define you, but they always will affect you. It doesn’t mean you have to do as they say. You can make your own choices and can defy or go along with their dictates. There are many things you can change: you can change the way you think about your snapshots, you can change what you do when they affect you, but you cannot change the way they affect you. These snapshots are written in stone.