Toby, 21, laughs and shakes his head no when asked if his parents ever married. “Thank God for that! I don’t really believe in marriage—never have, never will.”
He grew up with his mom, while his dad was “off doing other things with other people.” “My dad was a big douche,” he says. And of his stepdad, Toby is direct: “he’s a dick…. I hate his guts.”
Toby’s primal experience of trust was disrupted by his dad’s absence, and since trying to become an adult, he has found little reason to trust other people, or institutions.
He feels used by his employer, a grocery chain, who only gives him about thirty hours of work a week, and that at $7.85 an hour—even though he’s worked there a year and a half. “They don’t care who you are,” Toby says about his employer. “If you’re trying to make a living, support you and your family, it’s not even worth it.”
And while Toby comes from an extended family of religious believers (as his uncle put it, “we believe in God—just none of us go to church”), he isn’t even sure he can trust God, much less religion. “Every day there’s a kid getting murdered,” he explains. “If there really is a God, why does he let that happen?”
Toby’s own experiences in relationships have confirmed for him the seeming impossibility of building trust. When he was 19, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, and he was so happy he cried. When she was two months pregnant, she got down on one knee and proposed to him. “She had the ring and everything,” he laughs. He said yes, and they set a Halloween wedding date—“a Day of the Dead wedding.” But then he found suspicious emails between her and her male coworker, and he told her to leave.
Now, he struggles with what he describes as “really bad trust issues.” “I don’t know how to trust people,” he says, “so why would I trust the marriage that I know is just gonna fail?”
“Just from every experience I know,” continued Toby, “marriage leads to complications, to a fight, to a big mess. I’ll avoid all of that. Just be with a girl, don’t get married to her…. The ‘m’-word is out of my vocabulary.”
“After so many years, everything just falls apart and they start fighting,” he added about the married couples he has observed in his extended family. “And I’m trying to avoid the whole situation of fighting.” Moreover, although never married, Toby feels like his worst fears about marriage have already been confirmed (his fiancée’s cheating).
‘Just from every experience I know, marriage leads to complications, to a fight, to a big mess.’
Toby’s story is striking because he does not trust any of the institutions that historically helped young people to become adults: family of origin, workplace, house of worship, marriage. In many instances, his distrust is rational: his dad left him at an early age, almost all of the marriages he has witnessed up close have failed, he works at a job that doesn’t pay him a living wage or provide full-time hours, and he wonders how God fits into a world where there is a kid getting murdered every day.
Knowing Toby’s experiences makes it easier to understand why he does not trust people or core meaning-making institutions like marriage and work. Sure, we could make an argument that if Toby just worked hard enough, he could achieve the good life. Sure, we could point out the statistics that suggest that getting married is good for one’s wealth, health, happiness, and children. But those arguments too often exist in a vacuum, sealed off from people’s pain and difficulties.
If we want to empower young people like Toby, we have to start by honoring their suffering. By that I mean that someone has to know Toby’s name, create a safe space for him to tell his story, and connect him to other communities with webs of belonging, as well as to professionals (for instance, therapists, clergy, and substance abuse counselors) that can help. This process gives a person the experience of “feeling felt,” in psychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s phrase.
That personal connection is extremely important. As Siegel explains in Mindsight, the presence and care of an “attuned other” literally helps a person to rewire his brain and to heal from past trauma. Siegel explains how the brain includes a “mirror neuron system”—it’s the system responsible for the fact that we yawn when we see another person yawn. It’s also the basis of empathy. As Siegel says about his sessions with a patient who had a painful childhood and didn’t want to talk about it, “My being present fully with Anne at moments of distress could help her mirror my own feelings of safety.” His caring presence could help her “feel safe enough to feel her own feelings.”
Put another way, the presence and empathy of an “attuned other” is decisive for retrieving and naming those “implicit” memories of the past that shape our present actions (sometimes unbeknownst to us), as Toby’s memories have left him unable to trust others. With the help of a trusted person, a person can dive into the past and emerge safely, a process that helps a person to “literally link together the neurally distributed puzzle pieces of implicit memory” into a coherent life narrative–and thus experience healing.
But when the past remains fragmented in our minds, our minds can’t achieve integration and we can’t move forward. As Siegel says, “When families do not offer a place for children to express their feelings and recall what happened after an overwhelming event, their implicit-only memories remain in disintegrated form and they have no way to make sense of their experience.” With no way to make sense of his experience, Toby remains stuck in the past, overwhelmed by past betrayal and unable to build bonds of trust.
Connecting young people like Toby to institutions like marriage, work, and houses of worship will be an essential part of renewing Middle America. But they will first have to be able to trust those institutions—and that’s something that may require the presence of an “attuned other”: a person who honors the suffering, and whose friendship and daily accompaniment can act as a bridge between them and the institutions from which many working-class young adults are increasingly alienated.