Ivan Berezin

From Trauma To Responsibility

Imagine this: You are twelve or thirteen years old. One of you parents has died. Which is why the remaining parent becomes a figure of peace, love, attention and protection. As far as you know the only figure of peace, love, attention, and protection in the world. One day, while playing in your room, you discover a hole in the wall. It's very small and in an uncomfortable place. You have to duck and stick your neck to reach it. Nobody would even notice it if you didn’t tell them it was there, like a small stain on your clean clothes. When you reach the hole you notice you can see through it into the room that used to belong to your parents, now it only belongs to one of them, to make things easier, let’s say it is your mother’s room.

Without making much noise, you go into your mother’s room to find the hole from her side. It is behind some drawers, it would be almost impossible to notice it. When it gets dark, after dinner, and after being snuggled up by your mother, you decide to rise from bed and spy on her room. There is no light in your room but there is on her, you can see her but she can’t see you. She sighs, sits on her bed, and after a while she begins to uncloth. You can’t put this into words but you are going back to your early childhood, when you were breastfed and were so close to your mother that it could be called a symbiosis. Those were the times when you truly felt safe and nothing worried you. You find relief in your mother’s figure. All worry and stress vanishes as you look at her. You decide to continue with this habit every night.

During the day you miss your father. You wish he were here with you. He made your mother happy and everything was better. He played with you, taught you lots of new things, and helped you become a more mature person. You can’t put this into words either. Your sadness disappears at night when you watch your mother’s nakedness. Sometimes she reads. Sometimes she masturbates. Sometimes she cries. But you always, always enjoy watching her. You hadn’t felt this close to someone in years. You hadn’t felt this level of reality and presentness in years.

One day, your mother brings a man home and invites him to dinner. He is a sailor, and he has lots of stories and adventures to share. This man is not better than my father. Is what you think. Repulsed, without finishing your meal or saying good night, you escape into your room and try to sleep, but the wrath within you does not let you rest. You hear the noises of forks, knives, and chairs from below. Eventually, the noises stop. You hear lots of footsteps coming up the stairs, and you hear a bang from your mother’s door. Anxiety runs through your body, pulls on your stomach and hurts your head. You rise from bed and spy on your mother.

You look through the hole, you feel relief when you notice there is only your mother in her room. No signs of the sailor. The bathroom door opens, and the sailor comes out. The anxiety comes to hurt you again. The sailor approaches your mother. He grabs her face. He kisses her. He takes her clothes off. Your mother does things with the sailor you had never seen before. You wish dad were here. Dad could kill that man.

As you read all of this, you could have thought I must be a renowned novelist or a famous author. In reality, this is just a small summary of a novel called The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima. These are the events that happened to the protagonist, Noboru, in the first pages of the story.

I want you to slow down for a second and ask yourself the following questions: How would you feel if something like this happened to you? How would you feel if the most sacred thing you know, your source of security and love, is suddenly corrupted by an unknown agent that threatens the world as you know it? Would you feel wrath? Anxiety? Anger? Hate? What would you do about it? Would you tell your mother what you saw and how you feel? Would you keep on spying on her? Would you stop? What would you do if you had all the strength in the world instead of being a small child? Would you walk in there and kill the man? Would you run from home and never come back? Stop to answer these questions and continue reading when you finish.

The reason I ask you these questions is that this situation is not something far fetched from reality and unlike our daily experience. This event can be summed up as follows: discovering something that threatens our sense of security. Symbolically speaking, this is something that happens to all of us very frequently. If you don’t believe me just observe and listen to the complaints that those around you and you make. “Things are not like they used to! Now everyone expects so much from me. I have to be rich, and strong, and attractive. Meanwhile its society and the system which keeps me poor, and ugly and fat… I hate everything!” This complaint implies that things weren’t always like this, and they used to be better, and that there was something which caused the change between things being good to things being bad.

This problem or situation can be manifested in multiple scenarios of different magnitudes. Neither the change nor the reaction have to be negative and toxic. You could learn something new which makes your life better. However, a change, a revelation, a discovery, will always be violent in nature, as change means the shattering, destruction, and dissipation of certain beliefs and frameworks. This type of change can be called trauma, and the harsher the change is, the more traumatic the experience will become. What makes the difference between a child and an adult is the way they respond to this violent trauma.

If you have read any self-improvement gurus, you’ve probably heard this before: “Don’t just think, act!” or “Reading a lot is useless if you do nothing about it.” As cliche as this sounds, this is actually the path between becoming aware of something, for example having a traumatic experience, and doing something about it, taking responsibility and living that experience on your own terms. It is important to understand one’s emotions to give a gratuitous interpretation to the traumatic event. Understanding one’s values is important to be able to respond in an appropriate manner. Let’s analyze Noboru’s example.

Noboru represents you. A person at peace with the world. Your mother represents the world, what is known. The sailor represents chaos, the unknown. The unknown appears in your life and corrupts the world. You have lost equilibrium with the world and no longer understand your place to stand. There is no harmony anymore, no confidence, no security, no trust. You don’t know what to do. This could be the beginning of a new adventure.

Let’s look at a different example. You arrive from work happy because you have been paid. You will be able to take your girlfriend out to eat, and enjoy a nice coffee with your siblings. There seems to be harmony between the world and you. You sit down on a couch to rest. You open Instagram. You watch a kid, ten years younger than you, driving a Lamborghini which he paid with the money he made with his software company. Your perception of the world is shattered. Would it have been better if I had studied computer science? Will I never be able to accomplish my dreams? You are angry, anxious, and confused. This could be the beginning of a new adventure.

What happens after a traumatic event creates disequilibrium? What is the proper way to behave which will bring back harmony? To answer this I will continue to tell you Noboru’s story. If you don’t want me to spoil the ending I recommend you to go read the novel and come back when you finish it. Ready? Let’s keep going.

Unfortunately Noboru’s story did not have a happy ending. Before actually telling you the correct way to behave after learning something shocking let's look at what you shouldn’t do. Let’s look at what Noboru did. This will be the attitude which will bring you to deeper depths of despair and tragedy. Let’s go back to that night when you saw your mom and the sailor…

Moonlight strikes on their bodies and skins making them shine like milk. While short on your breathing you keep observing the act. You can’t stop watching. You are crying in silence. They go to sleep and you remain awake. You feel knives in your stomach. You want to die. While they are peacefully sleeping you remain shook like a cat who heard a mouse. Eventually, and you don’t know when, you fall asleep on the floor. When you awake your whole body is aching. It’s sunny outside but everything looks gray to you. You don’t feel comfortable at your home so you decide to take a walk hoping it will distract you. You end up in the forest. After walking for a while you hear some laughs and some screams. You get closer to them. They are kids, and they look just about your age. They are just like you, aren’t they? You get closer and you begin to understand what is going on. They had captured a rabbit, and they were spinning it around the air as if it was a baseball. The tallest kid gives an order and they all stop. He has seen you. The kid asks if you want to play with them. It doesn’t look like you have much choice. He gives you the rabbit and tells you to hold it and keep it still. You feel like something is wrong, but the kids are happy and they are just like you, so you feel like you should obey them and play it cool. The tall kid gets close to you and pulls out a knife from his pocket. “If you move, I’ll kill you.” He says, “Hold the rabbit down.”

As if the kid had done it a thousand times before, he slices the rabbit’s head off and lifts it up by its ears. Everyone cheers in joy and victory. “You did it well,” says the boy, “You should hang out with us more often.” You feel like everything is wrong, but you feel better here than at home. It's less disgusting to see the headless bunny than to see your mother’s eyes. You start hanging out with the kids more often.

As the months go by you become close with the boys. You’ve seen hundreds of perverse and vile acts, and while sometimes you feel shame and guilt, it's more tolerable than being home. Mother is happy you made friends your age, unaware of what type of kids these friends are. Not like she was particularly attentive as she had decided to get married with the sailor. You don’t like this at all. What would dad say?

One day, your friends propose a plan. You choke on your saliva. You don’t want to say no, but you know they could hurt you and you don’t want to lose them. You agree to follow through with their crazy idea, but your heart is practically bursting out of your chest. You return home.

Once you are home, you talk with the sailor, you call him dad, you make him your friend. And when there are no signs of suspicion you invite him to tell you and your friends about his adventures as a sailor. He accepts. You take him where your friends told you to take him. Somewhere where there’s no one that could see or hear what would happen. Once you are there you all sit down and the sailor tells his stories. The tallest kid stands up and begins to brew some tea, he puts an invisible liquid on the tea which is not exactly a sweetener. He hands the tea to you and tells you to give it to the sailor. You know what will happen to him if he drinks it. Feeling a guilt so violent that it makes you shake, you give him the tea, and he drinks it as he tells you his stories.

Mishima does not tell us what happens next, but I think its pretty obvious what will happen to the sailor after drinking that tea. He will die, and he will die by the hands of his wife’s son. A little kid who was just a little angry and just a little confused. This was the only thing you needed to become a murderer, a little wrath and a little confusion.

Can you understand how one thing led to the next? First there was a traumatic event, one which broke the equilibrium between Noboru’s comprehension of reality and reality itself. Then, he was unable to lead with the trauma in a healthy manner. Instead, he became close with groups, habits, and beliefs that were harmful, toxic, and malignant. These events and attitudes transformed Noboru’s code of ethics, changing to an extent who he was as a person. Finally, Noboru made some grotesque choices which he never would have made if not for a deep internal change or flaw. In other words, an external change created an internal change, and that internal change created an external change. A change in the environment creates a change in personhood which creates a change in behavior, which creates a change in environment.

This external-internal-external cycle is inevitable, however, the part of it that is in your control is how you work with the change and how you react to it. Not knowing how to deal with trauma, disequilibrium, and your emotions will lead you to toxic environments that only cause more harm. It will take you from being a sad child at home because your mother has a new boyfriend, to becoming a bully who kills rabbits for fun. It will take you from feeling inadequate because you saw someone making more money than you, to becoming obsessed with money to the point where you lose all your friends and family and start engaging in fraud and selling illusions to be successful. It will take you from being afraid to talk to women to manipulating them for validation. There will be moments where you feel this is the right path. I pray that God wakes you up from this deception. Something will happen that will show you your lack of morality. One day things will go too far. One day you will be driving that Lamborghini you always wanted and realize you have no one to share it with. One day a woman will leave your house crying, and you will realize you are a monster. One day you will go from killing rabbits to killing your stepfather, and it won't be so funny anymore.

A new awakening of consciousness will occur. A moral authority within oneself. The angel on the right shoulder, Jiminy Cricket, the voice of conscience, God. A value beyond pleasure and materialism awakens within you and begins to speak to you, perhaps presenting itself as guilt, perhaps as hope, it is an opportunity for growth. I have always thought that Noboru's story would have been better if he had thrown the tea on the floor before giving it to the sailor, or if, after giving it to him, he "accidentally" spilled it on him. I suppose Mishima wanted to teach us the danger of waiting too long before listening to the voice of reason, shame, and guilt. That's fine, but I want to present you with an alternative.

Our emotions always try to tell us something, and if you pay attention, they will reveal a lot about what you need to do to feel better. This is where therapy, play, art, and introspection help us. They allow us to become the person we most deeply want to be. One who feels safe and calm, not because they are a helpless child in a benevolent world, but because they are a strong person who knows how to face and solve adversities. Our deepest values will guide this process of recovering harmony.

To identify your values and have a moral guide that keeps you away from evil and brings you closer to goodness, I want you to do the following exercise: Write on a piece of paper a heading that says "My Values," and write down all those things that are important to you, things that inspire you, motivate you, bring you happiness, or that you would work for if you were happy. They can be health, life, happiness, trust, love, family, etc. They are the things you learned to value in childhood and may have lost over time. When you finish your list, write another heading that says "Vices." These are the things you do that you know go against your values. For example, eating junk food, isolating yourself in your room, watching pornography all day, abusing substances, etc. Finally, write a last heading that says "Virtues." These will be the things you must do and what you do to achieve your values. Studying hard, always eating with family, exercising, etc. Once you have this ready, you will have a guide of what you want, what you will do to achieve it, and what you need to avoid. You have to read this guide every day and every night so you don't get lost. Circumstances will change, there will be traumatic events. Having confidence in your values will create a strong identity that won't be deceived by toxic communities and will find a way to grow without losing its essence. If Noboru had understood this, he wouldn't have done what he did. If you do, I promise and assure you that everything will turn out well.

I am here to help you. There are many people and resources that want to help you. Don't hesitate to contact me and ask for advice. If you are suffering, I promise you deserve a better life. The sailor who lost the grace of the sea is not a guide on how we should behave; it is an exploration of the inner workings and deepest desires of a human being, and what can happen without proper handling of the truth.

With love,
Ivan Berezin.

Let's figure out the meaning of life through the teachings of literature, psychology and philosophy.

Join the newsletter to receive updates when I post a new article.