Often, the traumas we fear will scar us do not. Severe pain, major surgery, getting fired or broken up with, wrecking the car, losing one’s faith, embarrassing oneself…the angst fades, and while we can recount the details and even laugh about some of them, the sting is gone.
The same is true of expected joys. Inheriting money, winning awards, having cosmetic surgery, splurging on a gorgeous outfit, hanging out with a celebrity, getting praised by an influencer…those thrills fade fast.
So which experiences do leave an indelible mark? I made a list of my own, figuring it would be cheaper than ten years of psychoanalysis.
The deaths of people I loved with my whole heart and soul. Now they live inside me: I can still see them, hear their voices, sometimes even ask their advice. Quite a magic trick, that kind of love.
Walks in the woods before breakfast. I grew up with no time in the wilderness, no trips to forests or mountains. On high school retreats, we were told to go for a walk while the monks made breakfast. I felt euphoric, clean and empty and pure, quiet deep inside myself, completely at peace—unusual feelings at that age. I remember nothing the monks said, but those walks broke the world open.
Losing my virginity? That made far less impression than I thought it would.
Falling in love, though, changed me every time. It added to me, snaked out an arm and grabbed the stuff that attracted me and glommed it onto my skin. And getting married? That single woman feels alien to me now. I know things she would never understand.
Watching my mom live with such anxiety, skinny and nervous, her life tightly contained, left me desperate to live differently. Granted, desperation can make you anxious, too….
Growing up knowing that my father had dropped dead when I was eight months old made life feel very fragile, a temporary gift that could end at any moment. This is a bit scary, but makes it easy to feel grateful.
The first guilts—stealing a pack of orange mouse stickers from a box of stationery when I was ten; rejecting a boy with awkward cruelty because I did not know what else to say or do. The first abject misery, loving a man who would never love me back. The second, not getting what seemed like the perfect job. Slowly I began to realize that my wants and other people’s needs had to match, in both work and love, and what looks like destiny is more of a crapshoot.
Switching from business to a philosophy major felt brave and foolish, and made it easier later to keep turning down higher-paid management jobs so I could keep asking questions.
Two compliments made a difference. Not the ones I had hoped for, craven with insecurity, when I dressed up or gave a speech. Those just helped the adrenaline ebb away. But in high school, a friend told me I had the kind of smile that, if she walked into a roomful of strangers, she would feel comfortable approaching me. And years later, the devilish subject of a complicated profile said, with a wry grin, “You got me.”
A bionic hip joint? Cake. It took a while for my muscles to stretch, relax, and twine around the titanium, but contrary to my lurid expectations, my body feels entirely the same. Minus the fiery pain and thirty years of on-and-off immobility. Artifice, it turns out, does not always feel unnatural. It allows movement, which feels more natural than all that inflamed stasis ever did.
Falling flat on my face on the concrete when our new, not-yet-trained dog lunged for a squirrel, though? That changed me. I have felt a tad more precarious ever since, stuck with the memory of that rough asphalt on my bloodied cheek and my poor smashed nose. Why I should be scarred by that and not melanoma or five fused discs in my neck, I cannot say. The suddenness, maybe. The flash of total helplessness as I slammed forward, the whack of impact, the fact that it was my face. I still feel it—and then I try to imagine the sorts of memories that stick, or get buried, after real trauma, rape or assault or warfare, and my mind stammers into silence.
I thought differently of myself after our house was overrun by flies and I went a little mad, swatting them dead in a frenzy of bloodlust. Could I feel that way killing a larger and more complicated creature? Did the answer even matter, if I had already proven myself capable of crazed violence?
Talking to a rapist, a murderer, a pedophile, a sex addict—all those experiences changed me, not because they were vile, but because they were not.
Having a mean-spirited boss made me timid and left me furious. Having a good boss made me think myself capable of far more than I had dreamed possible. And the way I felt after I quit the mean boss showed me how much of yourself you give up when you are miserable at work. It drains all the humor, spontaneity, and creativity from your brain.
Living crowded, with police and ambulance sirens going off constantly, then moving someplace where a siren is so rare, it is alarming—that changed me, erasing what was once a blithe obliviousness to danger.
Taking a dog who spent four years in a cage, teaching him how to have fun, and watching him fall in love with the world—that changed me far more than raising a pedigreed puppy did.
Travel changed me, just as the ad copy promises it will. But for me, those beaches had no impact; it was the deliciously scary stuff that stuck. Getting lost in a barrio in Spain. Trying to muster enough Kreyol to ask about voudun in Haiti. As for that de rigeur spring break trip to Ft. Lauderdale, it might as well never have happened.
What is the point, here? That challenge leaves a deeper mark than conventional pleasures. That we change one another, and it is the interaction, not some canned, passive, solitary “experience,” that we remember. That what our society holds up as either devastating or triumphant usually falls short. The internet is crammed with “10 Awesome Experiences That Will Change Your Life Forever”—but honestly? They might not. If we look at which experiences stick with us, though, maybe we can figure out how to live our own life instead of a prescribed one.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.