I didn’t think so at the time, but looking back at my childhood, the world was a pretty tough place.
I grew up in a neighborhood of very active kids and very “permissive” parents. They weren’t permissive in the sense that we were allowed to do whatever we wanted and they didn’t care. No, they cared a great deal about what we did; it was just that they always gave us enough rope to hang ourselves. They permitted our failure to occur. We had the freedom to fail with the understanding that whatever the consequences were, we were to bear those consequences without complaint.
I was really a great system. We made mistakes, of course, but we learned from each of them and they were rarely repeated. Never make the same mistake twice, unless, of course, the positive side of the mistake was pleasant enough that it outweighed the negative effects of the consequences.
And so I grew up in an environment that valued toughness. “Grin and Bear It” was a comic strip that my father enjoyed immensely. All of the kids in the neighborhood grew up in similar households. And one of the most important lessons that we all learned was never complain about personal pain. No one cares. We all had the same problems, so don’t bother complaining about how bad life was treating you personally.
Of course we could complain about the world, about teachers, about politics. I was OK to be negative about almost anything except personal pain. I remember my brother-in-law’s admonition to “be quiet or I’ll give you something to cry about.” This would be delivered whenever one of us as a small child would start to cry or whimper about a small ache, pain, bump, or bruise. No pain was worthy of tears because it could always be worse, so save the tears for something that really matters.
Of course, from that perspective, one could never cry because it could always be worse. And amongst friends it was even worse than family. I remember numerous bicycle accidents resulting in scraped knees and elbows, torn clothing, bloody body parts, and although the eyes might glisten with impending tears, none could possibly be released around friends.
“You’re OK, come on, let’s go” would be as sympathetic as anyone would be. They had more sympathy and care about the damage to the bicycle than damage to the body.
This attitude was not limited to the kids in the neighborhood, but extended into the adult world as well. I remember the reaction of coaches during athletic practice and contests. When a collision might result in a participant not immediately springing to his feet, the coach would do a cursory examination to determine if there were broken bones or extensive bleeding. If there were none, the prone body was helped up and the coach would tell him to “walk it off.”
And that is exactly what one did to save face with both coach and peers. And as quickly as possible, the athlete returned to the coach to get put back into the game. But never a tear was shed regardless of the pain one felt.
“Walk it off” became a most effective mantra, not only for physical pain, but for emotional upheaval as well. I remember many times when embarrassment, frustration or upset caused by the perpetual conflict of developing male/female relationships would be overcome by a long walk home. I remember hanging up after conflicted telephone conversations and going for a long walk to clear the head, even in the midst of winter or during a rain storm.
To this day, I enjoy my walk. There is something refreshing and even therapeutic about repeatedly placing one foot in front of the other. A walk is not about the steps you took before, or the ones you’ll take in the next moment, a walk can only be accomplished right now. Until I aged a bit, I didn’t realize how wise my family, friends, and others were as I grew up.