I put the word trauma into an online tool which tracks the use of a word over time. In 1800 it didn't seem to exist. In 1918 it made its first appearance: as shellshock, I'm guessing. Since then trauma, referring to psychological trauma, has become a buzzword. Makers of moody cable TV series would have no detective backstories without it.
We now understand better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children.
In the mid-1990s the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study in the US found childhood trauma affects development and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Scientists have shown how trauma can be patterned into the tissues of our bodies and passed down through generations.
"Right now, I think there are a tremendous number of people in our country who are recognising that trauma lives in the body. Recognising childhood adversity as a risk factor for how we're going to deal with stress in the present is really important." Trauma researcher Nadine Burke Harris offered these encouraging words to the New York Times a few days ago.
Dr Burke Harris also talked about how the #metoo movement and the Larry Nassar scandal have raised awareness that you don't have to have been in a war zone to be traumatised. Middle class upbringings can still bring their share of trauma, and finally we are developing a shared language to talk about it.
Isn't that a good thing? I thought so. But here comes the pushback.
The tendency when it comes to trauma is to want to shy away from it. That's part of the cycle of how trauma works, that we don't like the way it feels to talk about it so we try to push it away.
While some people are applauding the bravery of (mostly) women who have opened up about past trauma, there are other voices which caution we are encouraging victimhood, especially among younger people.
Resentful baby boomers derogate millennials as snowflakes who have been coddled and indulged by helicopter parents. This discourse is pretty mean-spirited. They don't use the word pussies, but well, you know. It's there.
The Wall Street Journal, always a trusty repository for parenting advice, admonishes parents for trying to shield their anxious children from distress. This is the exact opposite of what they should do, according to experts in the field (Just throw Tarquin in the deep end, that'll teach him to swim).
"Some parents, for example, may be inclined to let their son skip a birthday party that he's dreading, or order for him at a restaurant if he is afraid to talk to the waiter." But these misguided parents send the message that these ordinary situations really are dangerous and that the child can't cope, the WSJ warns.
Another "toughen up" advocate, Professor Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University, says a culture of victimhood is worsening young people's psychological vulnerabilities because they are giving in to fear - fear of failure, ridicule, discomfort, ostracism, uncertainty. "Our culture isn't preparing young people to grapple with what are ultimately unavoidable threats."
These backlash articles really push my buttons. Possibly because I am one of the worst of those coddling parents. I used to take my kids to the art gallery on cross country day.
I also feel ashamed that I used to be the sort of person who told other people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I found reminders of other people's suffering unbearable (Not surprising, since I was so busy trying to ignore my own). Nowadays I probably over-compensate for my past ignorance by being extra wibbly-wobbly.
So, who is right? Well, in a very un-headline-worthy conclusion, both camps are. At least this is my attempt to hold together the contradiction inherent here.
There is a theory called the dual process model of grief. This recognises we can't do this work all at once.
The process of healing involves a sort of oscillation. We face what we can, and then we take a break. We go only as fast as the slowest part feels safe to go. But that doesn't mean staying frozen, and shut down, either.
"Death, like the sun, cannot can be looked at steadily," La Rochefoucauld wrote in 1678. And my other favourite quote about titration, WH Auden's: "Truth like love and sleep resents approaches that are too intense."
In meditation there is a process where you try and stay with an uncomfortable sensation even for a second. Just by noticing it, you are making some space for it. This makes sense to me, but it's easy to forget this still has to be done very gently, with deep respect for how hard it is. One person's trauma is another person's "so what?" . I would like to support my children to try to lean into the hard things, but I'm not going to be a sergeant-major about it either. Sometimes you can be brave, but sometimes you just need to let yourself off the hook. It's both.