I’ve been thinking. A lot. In fact, some might accuse me of overthinking — to which I reply...sounds about right. But instead of concluding with my usual brand of pessimism, my ruminating has unveiled an interpretation of humankind previously unknown to me, for the simple reason that I had not suffered through specific hardships long enough to learn their lessons.
In other words, the combination of suffering and reflection (with a healthy dose of self-awareness) is the trigger to leveling up your resilience bar, preparing you with the skills necessary to overcome the next hurdle.
Life — the art of living–is truly a precious, wondrous thing. Many before me have pondered the same questions, as will many after me. The incredible thing, I find, is how we all come to the same conclusions over and over. We find truth in the well-worn ideas bestowed upon us by philosophers, prophets, the wise. You can call them adages, proverbs, life lessons, but no matter how often you read the words in a storybook, in a self-help guide or hell, on your favorite therapeutic Instagram page, it isn’t until an experience of intense caliber induces a unique form of suffering that we truly touch upon the answers that lead us to find meaning in life. It’s just not possible to do so without the pain.
Us woe-begotten millennials are obsessed with uncovering the truth behind our unique traumas— a 21st century buzzword if there ever was one. We’re informed that our adult behaviors, personalities, defense mechanisms, the persistent patterns we’ve adopted over time (many of which we try in vain to get rid of)— all of these manifest from childhood experiences. Both overt and subtle, these traits have wedged themselves comfortably into our subconscious and guide our every habit and train of thought like a puppeteer leading a strung-up doll.
My own nature, why I am the way I am, has been occupying my thoughts as of late. This isn’t a formal confession of narcissism, but rather, a mess of ideas I’ve concluded about my personality born out of reflecting, anxiety, research, peer discussion and a whole lot of free time. I’ve found ample opportunity to make what I hope are objective observations about the individuals said to have the most impact on the self: parents or childhood caregivers.
In a prior story, I mention how the immigrant experience is typically synonymous with suffering. My parents are no exception: us first-generation Americans are well-versed in tales of poverty, of pain, of lack of guidance, of dreams forgotten that are common place for our families. Of a simple inability to access the many of the resources that we wouldn’t bat an eye at today.
I’ll caveat this part by mentioning how hailing from a third-world country is by no mean a textbook definition of pain and poverty, as many of my fellow immigrants come from well-to-do backgrounds that play a part in how quickly they rise ranks in the Western world. No two immigrant journeys are the same, no matter how similar they may look on the exterior.
My Abbu was raised in a tin home without electricity in the city of Chittagong, Bangladesh — home to the world’s longest beach. Recently, I handed him a pen and paper and asked him to draw a blueprint of his childhood home, a place that housed seven children and a set of parents.
I watched as he took the pen from me, hesitating before setting its point down.
A square, divided by two bold lines that separated what appeared to be three rooms. The entrance to the home led to the first room — a space that served as both a makeshift living area as well as a bedroom where my dad slept. The back room, a sleeping place for four girls and their mother. The middle space — the center of the home and where his two brothers and father took up residence.
I think often of my father’s upbringing and the learnings that must have shaped his outlook of the world. What sort of behaviors did his parents’ relationship model for him? What lessons did he learn that influenced the peculiarities that he’d practiced for most of my life?
I knew he served as a beacon of light for his younger siblings; the sacrifices made by the eldest child knows no bounds, and my father made plenty in order to guide his brothers and sisters towards success. In the same breath, Abbu knew no love or affection from my grandfather (Dada), an irate man who often raised his voice at my poor grandmother. In the late 90s, after we had already immigrated to the US, Dada met his demise from Parkinson’s disease.
Pernicious parenting aside, my father values the pursuit of education above all else and has gone lengths to ensure his children received it. The same man whose own father tried in vain to prevent him from attending university in order to find work to support the family instead.
The children of immigrants will often find themselves in two minds when it comes to regarding their parents.
On the one hand, with some level of resentment over the pain our parents unknowingly inflicted upon us. And later on in adulthood, with pity, after becoming attuned to the injustices of life, and the many ways in which the context of history had ravaged the full potential of Mom and Dad. Enmeshment and lack of boundaries are defining characteristics in South Asian families.
What if you were never taught how to draw a firm line between family and self? How do we toe the border between resentment and empathy?
My mother’s life could fill an entire novel. My siblings and I grew up hearing grand stories of a father who spared no expense when it came to seeking pleasure in life with his children by his side. The tales of my Nana’s iconic white Jeep, his faithful dog Tommy and the affection he bestowed on his family was shared with us at great detail. We were stunned to learn that at the tender age of ten, my mother lost her father to an untimely heart attack. He left behind a grieving widow, seven children, and four stepchildren from a prior marriage.
It’s remarkable to think how explicitly Ammu is able to recall memories with her father after only a handful of years spent with him, and moreover, how influential those few memories became in shaping her expectations and views of how the world should be, just as how my father’s upbringing shaped his, though the two grew up with different understandings of poverty and familial relationships.
A few years later, another traumatizing event struck Ammu’s family: Badul, my mother’s immediate younger brother and best friend, lost his life to a shipwreck at fourteen. His body was never recovered.
I find myself caught in wonder over how a mere generation separates my life, an experience wrought with opportunities that my ancestors could only dream of, and the life that my parents led. The circumstances — it was only a stroke of luck that I was born in the late 90s, that I was raised in New York City and was fingertips away from opportunities galore. I didn’t control any of the major factors that helped pave the way to a life where in my twenties, I’m making more money than my parents made their entire lives. I can marry whoever I want to. I can flit back and forth between my Bangladeshi heritage and my American upbringing. I have options, and all these things have shaped my own perception of the world. I have endless choices. My parents did not.
“I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.”
The first was a young man on top of the world: Fahim Saleh, a tech prodigy turned entrepreneur with larger-than-life dreams, who was brutally murdered by an employee who he trusted. The second was Tanvir Miah, a young man who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did: popular, athletic, family-oriented and deeply spiritual. He lost his life in an accidental drowning in upstate New York.
When members of your community pass, especially those with full lives waiting to be explored, it impacts your psyche in an inexplicable way. I did not know either of these two men personally, yet it pained me to think of their families’ suffering, of being robbed by the mysterious workings of the external. Of how for some families, suffering is simply a way of life, compounded by one thing or another, and the only way out is to move on — often without coming to terms with the tragedy.
Tanvir’s death brought to mind the death of Badul uncle and how my mother never truly recovered from his absence, at least not in the therapeutic manner that is recommended today. In her time, such a notion did not exist.
People who grew up like my parents think survival first. Their coping mechanisms reflect the consequence of the inability to process trauma.
We witness how those who have been subjected to hardships early in life are able to withstand horrible events, at least externally. So used to compounding pain, the aftereffects of these experiences go unnoticed and untreated. The problem, however, is when this survival mentality impacts the next generation; when these coping mechanisms are passed onto their children.
In the modern world, we have infinite access to resources to alleviate our pain, yet so many of us still subscribe to this idea that seeking help is shameful. This is because the survivalist mentality of our parents generation never waned, in spite of many of first generation kids playing in a different battle field.
Here’s the real difference between those who are considered mentally strong, and those who aren’t.
As the child of immigrants, it’s tough to draw a line between the things we should seek help for, and the pain that must be endured to make us stronger. But mentally strong people have built a sense for when to seek help and how to learn and reflect from pain. They know that consistently enduring pain for the sake of enduring, or expecting a positive outcome down the line, doesn’t necessarily translate to resilience. They know they don’t have to struggle for struggles’ sake.
Don’t mistake asking for help for weakness, and don’t believe that internalizing and powering through painful experiences counts as strength. There is power to processing. As I am beginning to learn in my late twenties, being able to live through your trauma the way my parents have is fantastic, yet the ramifications of internalizing our pain manifests in less transparent ways. Somewhere down the line, someone will have to confront the compounding pain sooner or later if left untreated. We may as well be the first to break the cycle.