Friday, January 15, 2021

Reprint Heaven: Don't Know Much Psychology

 Musings Of An Ex-Cigarette-Smoking Man
(From 2018)

Research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder made clear that physical, neuro-chemical effects occur when people experience significant traumatic events, evoking a "fight-or-flight" response, which is a function of our DNA; as hardy meat puppets, we're hard-wired for survival.

Neural pathways created in the brain are triggered when, later, people perceive -- subconsciously, for the most part -- that they're in circumstances similar to that original event, reliving, replaying (and actually reinforcing) the same emotions they experienced in it.

As a definition, PTSD was first used as the Vietnam War began winding down (for America, anyway), and only became a medically-accepted diagnostic category in the early 1980s. The Veteran's Administration was quick to adopt that addition to the DSM-III, but not necessarily to act on it or treat it.

My Dog Trainer (who specializes in PTSD, and has been in the Biz since the mid-70's) agreed that the relationship between trauma, brain chemistry, and cyclic reinforcement of bad experiences is likely.  I've worked with them for a while, and a something we've talked about occasionally is the effect of broad social or political events on the mental health, and trends, in culture and societies.

In college I was introduced to Loren Eisley through his autobiographical All The Strange Hours. He was born in 1907, and was already in his early twenties during the Depression. There was no way he could describe experiences in his life, on his way to becoming an anthropologist, without mentioning that historical event.

In trying to understand The Depression, any statistics are useless. Every anchor-point that defined a person's place in a community, their sense of identity and self, was threatened. The anxiety people felt (a constant fear in anticipating more loss, shame, powerlessness; death) went on, every day, for years with no end in sight. 

People adapted -- as organisms, that's what we do. But their spirits were bent by the gravity of events, and the effects rippled out through their lives, because that's what History does. 

The political Right has purred for years that FDR's 'social experimentation' after his election "really made the depression 'Great' ".  The truth is, a Republican-led government left 'the markets' to sort themselves out without interference. The Oligarchs of the day didn't care; their lives remained much as they always had been. They left the People on their own.

Herbert Hoover believed in a rugged individualism, where strength built character. Asked decades later how he dealt with critics who blamed him for the Depression, Hoover quipped, "I outlived the bastards". Meanwhile, people struggled to adjust and survive. Until Roosevelt was elected and tried to do something, anything, they did so without hope. 

Eisley never spoke about what The Depression did to people directly. America is composed of physical places, but also it's very much a geography of the mind: Eisley described hopping freights and moving through Hobo Jungles, towns of the Great Plains, writing sketches of the people he met there, dislocated physically and mentally by The Crash. One night, a hobo told him what he believed was the great lesson of life, hoping Eisley would get it: "Men beat men, kid. That's all there is."

Something in those side-glance references to America during those years reminded me of  late-evening conversations I'd overhear as a child, between my parents and their peers. When they'd talked through current events, surface details of their jobs and days, they worked down to the big events, to the Second World War. Reminiscing in that layer could take time.

Among married couples, the men watched their language (for the most part), and only made brief mention of the details of their war if they'd served in a combat arm. The wives talked about waiting, home, families, radio news, and finding work.

If the talk went on long enough, someone would finally mention The Depression, and something about the conversation took on a different character. The War was something to be proud of, and their voices were energetic, confident, talking about it. And it rubbed off on the children: attending the first day of First Grade, when roll was taken some children answered 'Present' or 'Here'; but a good number of kids responded, "Yo!"

But our parents sounded like distinctly different people when talking about the Depression. I don't remember details -- but sharing these memories sounded different. I could sense a current of uncertainty passing between them, a helpless fear; survivors reliving a disaster that came out of nowhere, and repeating every memory sounded like thank god we got through it; I never want to see anything like that again.

Reading Eisley sparked a connection for me between the America after 1929, and my mother's compulsive saving of string, rubber bands, pencils, tin foil. How she seemed to expect bad news or a worst-case end to anything; a stock response was, "You never know". My father, despite a level of professional success, bonuses and good reviews, worried that his job was always in jeopardy; his favorite phrase was, "Get with the program".

There was no apparent reason for either of them to live as if anticipating the ceiling would collapse, but they did. And, children talk -- we discovered our parents had similar motivations, fears, even memories. They all had their own Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- and the veterans in particular.  One friend's father was a survivor of Corregidor, the Bataan death March, and four years in a Philippine POW camp. Another kid said quietly his father would wake up, shouting for a long-dead shipmate, several times a week.

It seems obvious that people are affected by the events they live through; that trauma marks us, and it's obvious what we're living through, now, is having the same effect. Never mind the details; we all watch the news. Many people more intelligent than I am present an analysis of What It All Means every day. I only bark about it.

I keep remembering the opening section of a John Gardner short story, "John Napper Sailing Through The Universe" (1974): he and his wife arrive home after a party, full of drink and making their way up to bed. Gardner has a sad vision of the future: ...fumbling, helping each other as we must... [We] take our teeth out. I'm ninety-two. The planet is dying -- pestilence, famine, everlasting war. The nation's in the hands of child molestors. True Dat.

All I'm considering at the moment is how the echoes of the history we're living through continue to affect us, rippling out across time. How just being in the room when something happens -- seeing an image, hearing something shouted or whispered -- shapes perception. How, like gravity from some body unseen in space, experience bends how we act in the world, and our expectations of it.

And now, something completely different: Socio-Political Commentary!


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