When we are little, a myriad of disappointments can turn us into a crying machine in less than a minute. Part of getting to be a "big boy or girl" is learning to shut off that faucet. What do we learn to do instead of letting our little hearts break? I suggest that we learn re-purpose flight or fight into indifference or anger. Parents will notice in the early childhood struggles around rules the adoption of the " I don't care" delivery in response to the parental "no desert if you don't pick that up", or the "you can't make me" when it's "way past bed- time, you better come along now" parental declaration.
Navigating with school authorities and peer groups strengthens the response circuit. We learn to move so quickly in those disappointing and identity threatening situations that we become unaware of the pain that prompts the response. Indifference or Anger become our immediate "go to" positions. We learn to ignore the pain, and become unaware of the threatening feelings of vulnerability. Over time we lose ourselves into our shields.
The process is so subtle, and so common in our culture that it is almost impossible to entertain the notion that it is not as protective as we think. Actually, because we have lost the link, the "breaking heart of disappointment" that we left behind in childhood, we don't even recognize what undergirds our feeling when we are positioned in either indifference or anger. We no longer experience it as an attempt at self-protection.
The energy and drive of early adulthood may require those protective shields. So many challenges, so many false starts, so many dreams shattering on the way to wherever it is we are rushing towards. Our vulnerability is so prevalent that without a way to self protect we would be helpless in the melee of everyday life. So it is, and for us, in this time and place, so it my have to be. Survival is first, or there is no second.
But somewhere along the way, maybe in our forties, we need to re-evaluate that strategy. I suspect that what is often referred to as "a mid-life crisis" is the slow and confusing re-emergence of our feelings of vulnerability to disappointment. The twenty year plan may still have some possibility, but the long range plan has already been determined, and as that reality makes itself felt in a variety of ways our understanding of what it means to live fully begins its process of re-examination.
Divorce or a new job or a new car may or may not make sense in their own terms. But they cannot solve the dilemma. After years of deliberate and necessary avoidance, our relational disappointments need to be faced and, unfortunately embraced. The next stage of growing up, ironically, means a return to living into our vulnerability, physically and emotionally, personally and in relationships.
At this point, indifference and anger in response to disappointment are no longer protective. They cannot save us from life's ongoing painful lessons. Instead they become like walls that close in on us, forcing us to retreat from life. Unless we learn to live into our vulnerability without protection from it, we shrink in our being, and time undoes us.
But if we accept the pain, then like the caterpillars who must be terrified of the cocoon, we can be transformed into the next stage of what we are meant to become.