Competence like an overcoat can protect you from pain

The last day of summer and I put on the heating again for the first time in weeks. It has that stink of stirred up dust. That tends to happen when the first flus of hot air flows through the pipes after a long hiatus. 

I finally reached the end of Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book on trauma only to learn that in 29017-2018 under the weight of the #MeToo movement several of his colleagues outed him at his organisation as for bullying behaviour. And I’m struck yet again on the way celebrities reach great heights only to fall from grace in ignominious circumstances. Van Der Kolk lost his job but he re-emerged to see another day as head of another centre on trauma. I suspect much of the shine has gone off his reputation. Not unlike the reputation the once lauded Bruno Bettelheim enjoyed was lost to him after his egregious behaviour was outed. 

There’s the furore in parliament on Brittany Higgins’ allegations that she was raped by a minister in an office not far from the PM’s office and all hell breaks loose as to who knew what and when. We are having our own #MeToo moment in parliament with women now able to stand up and say it happened to them, too. And certain men are being shamed for their past behaviours. 

Van der Kolk writes that ‘competence is the best defence against the helplessness of trauma’. In other words, to grow strong, to develop a skill to show some ability in any particular sphere is one way of overcoming some of the feelings of helplessness induced through trauma. Which to me runs parallel with the idea that the best revenge is to do well. 

Different concepts but both argue for the notion that if you develop some level of competence, if you show yourself to be an achiever, someone who is good at something, you move out of the position of helpless victim and can become someone who feels better about themselves. Or so the theories go. 

I’m not so sure one cancels the other out. Competence might reduce feelings of helplessness but in my experience an ongoing sense of helplessness related to the experience of trauma can still accompany a life of great achievement. 

People can do well in their careers or their talents, but still the shadow of past hideous experience under the cruelty of another person, persons or events beyond their control can still leave people helpless even as they shine elsewhere.

That’s my sermon for today. Beyond this I’m sad to see the fading warmth of summer even though they say tomorrow will reach 30 degrees centigrade. The nights are cooling down and much as I’m relieved the bushfires weren’t so bad, here in Victoria at least, not like last year, I’m still sad to find I’m back in shoes and socks each morning because it’s too cold to wear open toed sandals.

In 2015 when I won an award for my piece of memoir, A visit to the beach, the person judging the short story section, said something about how many stories began with the weather. As if such a beginning is predictable, awful and boring. My piece began with the weather, too, only the memoir judge who chose my piece said the weather in my piece was more like a character than a feature of the story. 

I realised the lottery of literary prize winning when, soon before the awards were announced, I chatted with the memoir judge and his wife and some other dignitary from the local council in NSW who offered the prizes. He said without realising I was one of the recipients, he had two favourite pieces, so he asked his wife to read them both and he went with her choice, which happened to be my essay. 

Such is the luck of it all. I might have been her second choice and then might never have known how close I came. 

There were only first prizes here.

Life can be like that. Only the first get the spotlight and those who are on par with the first but by dint of circumstance miss out on first placing can disappear without even realising how close they have come.

And the mighty who fall like Bessel van der Kolk who can then rise from their ashes lose all their lustre because we are all of us mortal human whose reputations rise and fall on the whims of others, who can judge us well or harshly not only because of the things we have done – that’s surely a factor – but also on the mores of the day and the way behaviour is judged. 

Like the paintings of old. Ruben’s beautiful fulsome figured women who were much admired. Today are less so. 

The things we value, the things we despise, shift and sway like the weather. 

2 thoughts on “Competence like an overcoat can protect you from pain”

  1. As always, your post is rich with wisdom Elisabeth. I love reading your thoughts and reflections, even though I don’t always comment.
    I sometimes start a piece with weather, too, and don’t consider it a problem as long as it’s interesting.
    So true that personal taste can result in a ‘win’ or a ‘loss’, which is why I try very hard not to take rejection to heart these days.
    Have a lovely weekend x

  2. I’ve never ever thought of myself as a victim. Things have been done to me that I’d rather had not been done but that’s true of everyone. I can’t imagine anyone going through life without a few unpleasant experiences. That said I struggle to relate to victims. That’s probably an unpopular thing to admit in this day and age but it’s true. That doesn’t mean I don’t sympathise but I don’t really get what they’re going through. Maybe it’s a matter of degree. That said some of the things that have happened to me were genuinely traumatic, even abusive, but I never imagined there was another response other than getting on with things. Oddly I don’t really think of myself as a strong individual but I’ve obviously got some strengths. I do carry some guilt and shame for the wrongs I’ve done but, again, who’s not hurt someone in the past? It doesn’t invalidate the good I’ve done. I don’t like the way people are overreacting to the indiscretions of celebrities at the moment; It’s over-the-top mob mentaility. Some, yes, do deserve vilification and even punishment but the court of public opinion is too quick to condemn and invariably without knowing all the facts. I, for example, refuse to think of my father as a bad man. It’s reductive and unhelpful. Granted, to add to my last comment, few at his funeral knew what he was truly like and what good would it have done to open their eyes? Funerals are for the living.

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