If you're reading this, then odds are pretty good you're broken. That's OK. That applies to most people who've lived long enough or got dealt unfair hands early on. Life has no shortage of rough edges and cruel angles, and it's virtually impossible to navigate the twists and turns of existence without getting cut eventually. Over time, these minor insults and traumas heal, but they often scar. Accumulate enough scar tissue, and pretty soon you stop working the way you're supposed to. Or at least as well as you could have without the injuries.
There's an old saying that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I guess that can be true. Pain makes you flinch. Your fingers form a fist, and that fist can become tighter and harder with each indignity suffered. Eventually, that fist might even get strong enough to punch down walls. But if you need your hand for something other than violence, if you want to unfurl those fingers to caress a loved one or comfort someone in need and can't, well then, you're broken.
Also, please stop punching walls.
I started thinking about all the things that can break us. Those crucial moments when we first learn something dark about the world that places us on a more destructive path. I wanted to write about them, avoiding the obvious triggers like death and abuse to get a better accounting of what breaks us. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe because I'm no fun. Or maybe I had a deadline and just couldn't bear to research "6 Famous Works of Art With Hidden Penises." But I think we can agree it's easier to fix things when you understand how they broke.
There's no doubt this is a huge one for me. Let me tell you a story from kindergarten. We were at recess, and I was running around the way speedy little 5-year-olds do. I was probably pretending to be Spider-Man or Han Solo, because apart from my family, those were the two defining archetypes of my boyhood. (Also because Superman and Luke Skywalker are boring.) So anyway, I was running around, head down, and I ran right into a boy I'll call John (because that's totally his name). I looked up and saw John rubbing his face. My running fist had apparently contacted his chin. I asked John if he was OK, he said yes, I apologized, he said OK, and I went on my way.
Five minutes later, while I was busy spinning webs or shooting lasers, some busybody little girls came over to tell me I was in big trouble and our teacher, Mrs. Steir, wanted to see me. I was pretty surprised, but also pretty confident I could explain myself. So Mrs. Steir asked me if I punched John, and I told her the whole story. Do you know what she did?
She looked down at me and said, "Have you ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?" I protested and she was insistent, even though I'd never lied to her before. Even though I'd never been in trouble in class. Even though she'd only had John's (totally lame) word against mine. It was decided, and I lost the rest of recess for punching John.
"Gladstone totally never called me."
I have never recovered from that incident. To this day, I get disproportionately angry if I'm falsely accused of lying -- especially because I tend to be a fairly truthful, heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. When it happens, I try to be objective. I try to take myself out of it, but I feel that irrational twinge of childhood injustice. How deep did this silly little incident cut? Well, let me tell you a story from sixth grade.
See, I forgot to mention Mrs. Steir was about 903 years old. We were her last class before she retired. And six years later, when she was 909, she came to visit us before we graduated elementary school. A last goodbye. She recognized us all, and remembered all our names. Oh, except for me. So do you know what I did? I stood up in front of my sixth grade class and spoke directly to the worst teacher I've ever had: "Don't you remember me?" I said. "I'm the little boy who cried wolf." I then told her the whole story and how wrong she was. I'd love to tell you she felt awful and apologized, but instead, she had a good laugh that I still remembered such a silly thing. And even after that nearly vindicating experience, I still feel compelled to tell this story to all of you. Yep, broken.
Most of us have loved -- or at least been obsessed with -- someone who didn't love us back. Just ask Cracked's own Soren Bowie. I still return every third bouquet of flowers he sends me just to throw him into a death spiral of self-harm.
This occurred shortly after I set the Build-A-Bear he made for me on fire.
But I'm not talking about mere unrequited love. I'm talking about people who date you, and encourage you to fill your thoughts with them because they like the way that feels. More specifically, I'm talking about the people who do this even though they're positive they don't love you back. That's the tough one. When someone who doesn't love us wants us to fall for them and we do, well, that breaks us.
Let me tell you a story. One day, I was banging my kindergarten teacher on her desk, and ... yeah, sorry. I don't have any stories like that, or at least I don't know how to tell heartbreak stories without sounding maudlin. Do I really need to? Most of you have been in this situation on one end or the other: lovegiver or lovetaker. Maybe both. Probably both. That's the thing about getting broken. Sometimes, you're convinced that revisiting the trauma on the other side of the equation will fix you. It won't.
This one started percolating around my mind a couple of weeks ago when I wrote that uber-happy column about college. I had mentioned that college was the first time I saw people do things without consequences, and I referenced an unprosecuted date rapist who'd crawled inside a nearly comatose girl. That's all the information I gave, by the way: a rapist and a near comatose girl. Despite that bare bones description, no shortage of commenters felt the need to defend this person -- this person I'd defined only as a rapist. "He was drunk, too," they said. "She consented!" Or even better, "She's lying!" Yes, commenters accused a fictional construct of being a liar, and they defined the guy known only as "a rapist" as not a rapist.
I don't know this rapist, but I have a good feeling about him!
Mind you, these commenters weren't saying they were once falsely accused of date rape or they personally knew a girl who had seemingly consensual sex with another drunk dude; they were calling the fictional man innocent, and the rape victim a liar. Why would anyone ever feel the need to do that? Well, my guess is, they're broken. Broken by injustice.
Only someone who has seen the good guy lose and the liar prevail too many times could react in such a knee-jerk way to a hypothetical. I really don't think I can make too much of a point of this. It's like taking a math quiz that reads:
Q: A train leaving point A travels at 50 mph toward point B, a hundred miles away. At that same time, a train leaving point B travels toward point A at 30 mph. How far away from point A will the two trains meet?
And deciding to answer it as follows:
A: Who the fuck knows because affirmative action has ruined the conductors' union and I bet he doesn't even know how to drive the train.
But that's how people get when they break. The past abuse colors everything until decisions don't make sense anymore. The specifics almost don't matter: lose too many games of Monopoly to your older brother who always stole from the bank and you might stop trusting board games; lose out on trophies in rigged competitions and you might become blind to any competitor's value; or get betrayed by a man or woman you loved and the credibility of an entire gender can go out the window.