Over the weekend I watched The Outsiders for the first time in a number of years. I'd been avoiding the movie for some time, even though it was one of my favorites as a teenager, due to the period of my life that I associate it with, but now that they finally released the long-lost extended version I couldn't resist any longer.
The movie does still evoke some fairly strong emotions for me, though it's nice to know that I can watch it now without totally reexperiencing how thoroughly miserable I was when I was fourteen. At that time in my life I read and reread the book so many times that I practically had it memorized; if we'd had a VCR at the time, I would have quickly worn out a VHS copy of the movie. As difficult as life was for the book's characters, I would have given anything to have the close-knit community of friends that they had. Having had several opportunities since then to experience that level of camaraderie, I'd give - well, not anything, but quite a bit - for the opportunity to make that a permanent part of my life.
Time may not heal all wounds, but it at least gives us the distance that we need to move on with our lives.
Healed or not, we never completely escape our past experiences. They become a part of us, facets of our personality that subtly color our actions and decisions in ways we may never be conscious of. That guy I just can't bring myself to like? He reminds me of a kid who tormented me in third grade. That innocuous comment I blew up over? It triggered my 'fight' mechanism because of something my parents did 25 years ago.
We are, of course, capable of rising above those instinctive reactions, but how many people really make the effort to engage in the self-examination necessary to identify and defuse their triggers? In the case of more traumatic memories it might not be something to even attempt without professional counseling.
Even more frustrating, of course, is being on the receiving end of somebody else's triggered memories. Why did that person react so negatively to me? There's nothing I can do about it if she's unwilling to talk it through with me.
Realizing that somebody hurt me out of reaction to some old wound in their own life doesn't change the fact that I've been hurt, but it provides a starting point for addressing the problem. If I respond by striking back, I just deepen their pain and perpetuate a cycle of retaliation.
Making an effort to understand somebody else's pain may not undo what they did to me, but it lays the groundwork for healing to take place on both sides, and opens up the possibility of continued relationship between us. Vulnerability is risky, but without it true community can never happen.
Which is not to say that all actions should be pushed under the rug, of course; if someone commits a crime, especially a violent one, justice requires that they be held accountable in a court of law. But learning to forgive them is not the same as letting them off the hook.
When you think about it, it's really a wonder that we can relate to each other at all. Two individuals who share similar cultural, religious and economic backgrounds can nonetheless have vastly different perceptions of the same event. And the vagaries of language don't help; we may agree on the surface about the meaning of a word, yet in practice have slightly different understandings about its application. Those differences quickly grow into a huge gulf as we move away from those in our immediate circle.
Sometimes I think being a hermit would be a lot easier than trying to relate to other people. However difficult celibacy may seem in some respects, it does afford me the luxury of never having to get too close to another human being. (And yes, I know that's not the church's ideal vision for celibacy, but perhaps it's time to pay more attention to how the average person actually applies it in the real world.) I can glide through life engaging with others on a superficial level, going through the motions of church and charity and community, all the while keeping everyone just far enough away that they can't hurt me. I suppose some married people do the same with their spouses, but it's even easier without such entanglements.
If only I really could be content playing the perpetual outsider...