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Country of lost children
What sort of a sick, sick culture willfully traumatises and abuses its own children?
11 June 2012, 12:00am
In fact I went through a good part of my childhood with firmly clenched fists ... opening them (very reluctantly) only when it was absolutely necessary to do so, and shutting them right up again at the earliest opportunity.
Elsewhere, such curious childhood behaviour might have elicited interest among pediatric psychiatrists. But in Malta, you don't to look very far for the cause.
Yes, that's right: it was the Crucifix wot did it. That ubiquitous, graphical representation of extreme torture, that back in the late 1970s - probably even more so today - was simply unavoidable everywhere you looked. To me it was an image of untold horror and violence: and for what felt like an eternity I was plagued by nightmares in which nails found all sorts of unlikely excuses to be driven through the palms of my hands.
You can call it a 'phobia' if you like, in the sense that the idea nauseated as much as it frightened me; but then again, fear such extreme mutilation cannot realistically be described as 'irrational'.
In any case, matters became infinitely worse when a religion teacher explained to a class of 10-year-olds that the nails in question were not actually driven through the palms of Jesus' hands... but rather, through his wrists. (Otherwise, our teacher helpfully added, his hands would have simply been torn apart by his own body weight.)
Naturally, this unexpected detail opened up a whole new chapter in my childhood book of horrors. Fists can always be clenched tight shut to produce a fleeting illusion of safety. But wrists? How on earth do you protect your wrists from imaginary nails... short of super-gluing your forearms together?
Today, more than three decades later, I can look back at that trauma and more or less laugh... though it didn't seem very amusing at the time. But I do sometimes wonder how many of today's children suffer from similar or identical traumas of their own. And above all whether the sort of catechism they receive today is still conducive to this sort of childhood horror.
From what I hear, it seems that my own experiences of 'duttrina', back in the early 1980s, are nothing compared to the ordeal children are reportedly put through in 2012. In my day we learnt about the Holy Trinity, the Sacraments, the life of Christ, and so on. And yes, we taught about Heaven and Hell, too... but the approach was surprisingly liberal for a country so traditionally stern on religious matters.
According to our catechism teacher, Hell was a 'place without God' - no physical torture involved at all. And I stress that this was all in preparation for Confirmation (which I went through at 14: considerably older than my equivalents today)... and NOT First Holy Communion, when children will still be only six years old.
Fast-forward 30 years, and there is now mounting evidence that six-year-old children are routinely exposed to the sort of trauma that makes my own fist-clenching experiences seem utterly laughable. If you don't believe me, ask Anton Grech, head of psychiatry at Mount Carmel Hospital, who finds his private practice regularly inundated with patients who are little more than toddlers.
In his own words: "at around this time of year, in the run-up to Holy Communion, I always get to see several six-year-olds who have irrational fears of hell or of dying."
Six-years-old, and already living in fear of death and hellfire? That, to me, is shocking.
It would be shocking even if the lessons taught in the process were based on anything resembling the truth. But seeing as the very idea of physical torture after death is so intrinsically absurd, I can only conclude that these children are the victims of a truly sickening and sinister strategy of control through fear. [Note: in case catechism teachers never noticed, the physical body remains here on Earth after death... and the 'soul' is supposed to be incorporeal. So what part of the deceased gets physically burnt in the eternal fires of Hell?]
I suspect also that the sad adults who ruin other people's childhoods in this way - by suppressing all the innocence, beauty and above all freedom that form a child's birthright - are subcosnciously 'punishing' their victims (with interest) for the equally unacceptable traumas they themselves would have had inflicted upon them in the past.
And this, I fear, is just the tip of an iceberg. Most of my contemporaries are now going through their 'productive' phase - you know, doing their little bit to avert the pensions crisis, and all that - and the resulting broods are duly sent off to a combination of MUSEUM and private catechism lessons ahead of the inevitable 'preċett'.
Even the more religious among my friends occasionally express shock at the sort of questions their children come back from those lessons asking: things like, if nannu and nanna are no longer living together as man and wife, does this mean they will go to hell and be tortured forever? Or, at the height of the divorce campaign: daddy, why did you 'break your promise to Jesus' by leaving mummy?
Naturally it remains up to parents to decide whether to inflict this sort of awful fear-mongering and indirect emotional blackmail on their own children. I do however wonder whether it would be even possible to 'opt out', given the possibility of repercussions on the child for being 'different'. Would children be bullied by schoolmates, or discriminated against by teachers, if brought up safely sheltered from the horrors of the institutionalized, biweekly trauma sessions called 'catechism'? I don't know, but clearly this is an unwholesome, unhealthy situation... and as such it compounds an impression I have long had about Malta and its attitudes towards childhood in general.
I can't help but notice, for instance, that a great many people out there don't seem to know what 'childhood' even is. They use the word 'children' indiscriminately to refer to 'embryos' and 'foetuses' - which are not 'children' at all, any more than a nut is a sapling, or a tadpole a frog - and then spectacularly omit any reference to real children from any part of public discourse.
And when the same people loudly claim they want to 'protect' embryos and foetuses from a host of non-existent dangers, what they are really doing is subliminally compensating for their own shocking tendency to neglect children in the real world: where the dangers are tangible, and protection cannot be taken for granted.
Ultimately, though, the question this country needs to urgently ask itself is another: what sort of a sick, sick culture willfully traumatises and abuses its own children in this way? Fills their tiny minds with wild terror of death and eternal hellfire? Forces them all to live in fear, so that they can one day be as blinkered, unimaginative and generally unhappy as their own sad generation of parents?
Not a culture any sane person would want to call home....