Avoiding the unexpected

For the first time in my life, my Bleeding Heart is thriving.

My Bleeding Heart or what others call my Chain of Hearts.

For me it bleeds, heart-shaped leaves that slip from purple-grey to green and give off a wash of sorrow made more beautiful by every tendril that falls. 

I’ve been in discussions of late with a friend who is concerned about the rise of content warnings to the point of suggesting we put such warnings on books.

This blogger urges content warnings on books because she hates to read a book and find herself suddenly assaulted by images in her imagination that she can’t remove. 

If she had known in advance that such content in the book might stir up memories of her own distress or refresh distress then she would most certainly have appreciated a warning in advance.  

To me, this is the oddest thing.

Why read if you don’t want to be moved or even unsettled?

Why read if you want every word to be as predictable as the next?

Why read if you don’t want your imagination to take you places where you have never been before or take you to places that are all too familiar, including those of distress and so-called trauma? 

The more you read into these territories the more you can get your mind around events of your own experience that once disturbed you, and maybe still do, to learn about how others have tackled them. 

At least this blogger is asking for a content warning only. She’s not suggesting we altogether ban such books from the library of human thought. 

I’d have thought the blurb, the cover and a few pages from the beginning might give you some idea of the nature of the terrain ahead. 

Not the specifics though.

That’s the magic of literature. You can’t go on a journey without going on that journey. And everyone’s perspective of that journey will be different, even as we might all be exposed to the same landmarks. 

That’s the joy of reading and most writers know that not all readers will read their work in the spirit in which they’ve written.

People will see things the writer never dreamed of. 

You can’t get to your destination without actually going through the landmarks of that journey unless you want to avoid the experience of life altogether. 

You can travel from A to B in a hermetically sealed bubble. You can fly from Australia to Los Angeles without a stopover and know almost nothing of the terrain over which your plane has carried you, but you will still have the experience of the plane journey itself. 

Unless you anaesthetize yourself.

Your time within the airport your time landing and those fourteen hours or so where you entered what I always think of as a travel bubble where time takes on a new dimension and you try to pass it by sleep or reading or watching movies and the occasional usually awful airplane food. 

Perish the thought the unexpected happens. That the plane encounters difficulties. No one wants this and this is the extreme of trauma to be mid-flight in turbulence that causes the air in the plane to drop so that airbags become necessary. 

Still, this happens rarely. 

Air travel is an actual experience, a reality and by-product of the amazing thing called human flight. 

Reading a book is a virtual experience. We might find ourselves plummeting to the earth in our story airplane, feel all the anxiety and horror of the descent, our imaginations filled with the angst of our fears of dying but we will not die. 

Note I’m using a safe metaphor here. Flight as opposed to the horrors of being on the receiving end of gross cruelty or sexual abuse.

Yesterday, I listened to a Ted talk by Keely Herron who spoke of her distress over what she calls the cult of happiness. The pressure always to exude happiness in public and to hide our ‘unacceptable’ trauma from others. 

In contrast to ‘acceptable trauma’.

She uses the example of a young man, Danny, who did not learn to swim until he was thirty because he had been bullied as a child.

Everyone applauded Danny’s story. They admired his tenacity. He learned to swim after all that distress. At least one person even found his story inspiring. This trauma of being bullied at school is ‘acceptable’.

But other stories such as this women’s father who killed himself, or her first experience as a five-year-old of sexual abuse and her later experience of being raped. These rate as unacceptable trauma. You keep them to yourself. 

Sexual abuse of all forms, especially incest, go into this category, along with suicide and mental illness.

These then are the cornerstones of unacceptable trauma. 

The stories we might tell, about which our blogger wants a pre-warning:

This content will distress you. This content will unsettle you, and for those out there who do not want to be unsettled by life, by what you read, do not go there.

Stay in the safe bubble of Facebook land or elsewhere where images are sanitised, even as the news every day overwhelms us to the point of horror to which we have become inured.

It’s a crazy world that on the one hand advocates content warnings on literature and at the same time allows the governments that currently lead us to thrive. 

I watch my Bleeding Heart grow and admire its beauty. There is beauty in pain, sorrow and suffering if only we can see it.

Not for its own sake, but for the fact we can’t avoid such feelings and also in the sense that to feel is to be human, and helpful. 

Our feelings help us to understand ourselves and our world. They help us to connect with others and guide our decisions.

Let’s not wrap our feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, up in avoidance and denial.

9 thoughts on “Avoiding the unexpected”

  1. Dear Lis, I absolutely loved what you wrote.
    There is a vista and heart felt emotions in writing about trauma and pain. And as you write, the reader opens up their own experiences and understandings in relating to the written material, and new personal feelings emerge. And that is the magic of art, music and literature.

  2. I do get where that woman’s coming from and I’m not unsympathetic—there’re more than a few things in this life I would’ve avoided reading, seeing or hearing (the Mr Blobby single comes to mind)—but, as you say, where do you draw the line? Films have their film board classifications and music albums have Parental Advisory labels so why not books? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here.) We have reviews which can be helpful but most of us don’t like our reviewers to give away too much so who do you please and, more importantly, how do you please them? I suppose I’m lucky because I’m not easily upset or offended and I, hand on heart, can’t think of a single paragraph in any book I’m sorry I’ve read. A rape victim isn’t going to find reading about a rape entertaining but they also can’t and shouldn’t pretend rape isn’t a part of life and its story ought to be told as unpleasant as it might be. Last night Carrie and I watched a couple of episodes of the most recent series of ‘Silent Witness’ that dealt with physical and mental abuse and I won’t pretend for a moment I enjoyed the shows but they handled it reasonably well. My mother, nature lover as she was, never tuned in to nature programmes on TV in case she saw creatures being hurt or killed. She knew it happened and her boycotting certain television shows wasn’t going to alter that fact but she didn’t want to see it and why should she have to? If they started putting warnings on the covers of books I can’t say it would bother me one way or another as long as the sticker was removable but the simple fact is you can usually tell where a book’s going and if it’s not heading in a direction you want to follow then stop reading; there’re plenty of other books out there.

    1. You don’t have to be a rape victim to find reading about a rape disturbing, Jim. I reckon most people would find it disturbing. just as we find it disturbing to read about the atrocities of war. That’s what reading is supposed to help us with. Our capacity for empathy even if it has or hasn’t happened to us. But I agree we must be free to cho=oos whether we enter certain territory to some extent. though once we’ve elected to go into a book, the writer will take us into unexpected places, hopefully. Otherwise why bother to read. why bother to get up in the morning if everything that happens to us is entirely predictable. Life would be so boring. Thanks, Jim.

  3. There is a woman from my hometown who lived through horrific childhood trauma and wrote a book called A Girl Raised by Wolves – she now teaches yoga and writing to traumatized people of all kinds – cancer survivors, prisoners, women in shelter – and she talks about shining the light on surviving unacceptable trauma. Her name is Lockey Maisonnueve, you might be interested in her work.

    1. Thanks, Kim. I checked out Lockey’s book. what a journey she’s been on and yes indeed, how compelling that she managed to turn her traumatic experiences around in some ways for the good of herself and others. It’s good to see you here.

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