I just finished reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines (Random House, 1993). This is a beautiful novel that really brings home the personal and cultural harm of racism in America. It’s a system that we are all participating in, whether we want to believe it or not.
What I found especially moving in this story was the depiction of the effects that can be created by caring about another person. Not caring for someone, not pushing someone to do what we think is best for them––which meets our own needs. But true open and unconditional caring that allows a person to feel respected and honored as a human being, to find their own center. It is transformative for both the giver and the receiver.
Coincidently (?), I came across a related article in The Sun magazine the same day, called The Long Shadow, Bruce Perry on the Lingering Effects of Childhood Trauma*. In the article, Jeanne Supin interviews Perry, who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and a neuroscientist. Perry has had a long career working with trauma survivors. He helped science to understand that children with behavior issues, often labeled as “trouble” or “problem” children, usually have a history of abuse and neglect. This history over-activates the stress-response system and rewires the brain to become hyper-vigilant, which can be emotionally and intellectually stunting. The brain shows measurable structural changes.
Perry found that the therapy so often prescribed for survivors could actually do more harm, by re-triggering the trauma. He also found that if those children were given the structure and stability and nurturing they’d been denied earlier in life, they could improve, sometimes dramatically. In other words, they benefited from caring.
These results are transferrable to adult survivors. War veterans who had the most PTSD also had histories of childhood neglect and abuse, and also benefited from caring. For the best outcomes in either child or adult survivors, the caring was offered but the reception of the caring was led by the trauma survivor. The receiver had to be the one to regulate the caring exchange. This kind of exchange is demonstrated perfectly by the characters in A Lesson Before Dying.
The take-away for me is two-fold. On a personal level, as a survivor of multiple traumas, it is important that I am caring with myself. Truly caring, as in patient and nurturing and loving. On a cultural level, I want to be caring when interacting with others. I know that people are carrying all kinds of trauma with them, both historical and current, based on their skin color, gender, religion, sexual preference, socio-economic level, mental and physical health. Caring means that I offer these people––which is everyone, really––patience and positive regard, in every single interaction that I can. That I offer this without the expectation of a visible result, without doing it to meet my own needs.
Caring has always been a moral imperative. I believe that True Caring, especially in today’s cultural climate, is a necessity for the survival of our species.
* See the article at: