No more years of hurt

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The capacity to forget past trauma can be an impediment to productive change.

A week ago, England played in the final of the European Championships – 55 years since last contesting the top prize in a football tournament. They lost to Italy, so their record of not actually winning a tournament in 55 years remains, but they did at least get down to the last two. That’s a bit like getting down to the last two in the Circus Maximus however, scant consolation when you’re face down in the sand in a pool of blood while the winner takes the plaudits.

Sports is replete with these long gaps, with pain, trauma, and disappointment. Despite Italy’s glorious World Cup record, the country actually hadn’t won the European Championships since 1968, so their own 53-year ordeal came to an end. Meanwhile, their wait to record a meaningful Six Nations rugby campaign stretches into its 22nd agonising year, while England’s rugby team have been garlanded with success many times over in the same period.

The funny thing is how quickly these sporting heartaches are forgotten once the hurdle is cleared and the pain is in the past.

Andy Murray is a great example. In 2013, he became the first male British Wimbledon champion since 1936 (a gap of over 70 years). Every year until 2013 was an agony for British tennis fans, especially if one of their plucky players went on a freak run (remember Jeremy Bates and his lucky sleeveless jumper in 1992?), or seemed like a real contender (Tim Henman).

Then Andy Murray won in 2013, and again in 2016, and everyone relaxed. There’d been a British Wimbledon winner in living memory. Job’s a good ‘un. We can all move on.

But this psychological trait – presumably an adaptive one that stops us going mad – also allows all kinds of bad behaviour to flourish. The ability to minimise bad experiences once they’re in the past is a recipe for questionable conduct to continue. It licenses impunity.

Remember the shitty service you got from a journal? Forgotten in the rush of relief once the article is out. Or the colleagues who subjected you to unrelenting microaggressions and somehow never quite let you feel you belonged? Well, let bygones be bygones once you move on.

Most perniciously perhaps, bad mentoring or substandard supervision can easily be left uncommented if you move on to better things. Worst of all, you may even conclude that the gaslighting you endured was the reason for your success and that it is something to be replicated. You will sit in your new office thinking “I am so thankful that he was such an asshole to me (or she, assholes are not gender-specific); all that bullying and bad treatment really toughened me up and made me the well-rounded individual I am today.

And then you go on and be an asshole to all of your students as well. Such individuals are not well-rounded, they are traumatised, and their unhealthy philosophy is the academic equivalent of child soldiers going on to become warlords.

The problem is that people are so happy to forget the pain of the past, to heal and put it behind them, that they rarely take steps to prevent it happening again. And this is just assuming there’s a good outcome – there will be others for whom the pain goes on, and it may not end.

It’s to them that we’re incumbent on addressing the shortcomings in the system. And it needn’t necessarily be confrontational. You can contact journals to provide feedback on the service you received. You can gently point out the ways in which your colleagues might be (unintentionally) making you feel excluded and uncomfortable. And if they’re approachable enough – and if they’re a good mentor, they will be – you can let your supervisor know after you leave what aspects of their approach was helpful for you, and what wasn’t.

Good journals will be receptive to the feedback of their clients. Good colleagues will be receptive to ways in which they can be better allies. And good mentors will be seeking to better their supervision of those in their care.

George Santayana observed that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Those who expunge their pain doom others to endure it.

Be brave, and try instead to use your experiences to ensure others don’t go through what you did. End the years of hurt – for all of us.

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