Author and TEDGlobal attendee Andreas Salcher talks about why early childhood scars break some people and motivate others to do exceptional things.
Interview by Tim Leberecht
Andrea Mantegna’s “St. Sebastian (Der Hl. Sebastian).” Musée du Louvre, Paris
In your book The Wounded Man you describe how an accumulation of the “many little hurts” from childhood can lead to severe psychic wounds. You argue that some people can turn these wounds into success while others are broken by them. What is it that distinguishes the “successful” from the “unsuccessful” among those who’ve been hurt?
The difference between winners and losers — that is, between those who are able to turn wounds into great skills and those who are broken by them — can be summarized as personal responsibility instead of fatalism. It doesn’t matter how seriously, how often, or how unfairly winners have been hurt, they never feel like helpless victims. Winners certainly don’t suffer less than losers, yet they always feel that they are personally responsible for their lives. The key question is what meaning different individuals attribute to their wounds. At some point, successful people are able to accept their wounds and integrate them into their life story. This is both a lifelong task and a cumbersome path. However, it’s a path that eventually leads to reconciliation with oneself and the world.
What is it that our society could or should be doing? Should we attempt to prevent their wounds beforehand, or should we acknowledge and support the wounded ones more openly?
Past scars naturally belong in our lives — that’s why we can’t prevent them. Each of us has already hurt others, and each of us has already been hurt by others. However, each day, we have the choice not to hurt others. Simple questions are often helpful: Is this good for me? Is it good for the other person? Would I be willing to accept that kind of behavior for myself? The positive forces within us are much more powerful than the devastating forces. The first lesson is to awaken the deep desire in your heart to become a better person.
Do you think that the current fundamental crisis of capitalism will help us reconsider our interpersonal relationships? Are we experiencing a new era of morality and cordiality, or is this just a transitional phenomenon?
What we fear most today is that we might lose our identity with our business cards. Money, power, and fame are three major negative driving forces within human beings. Fortunately, there’s an even more powerful driving force within us: the desire to be loved. Once human beings have lost their faith in love, they either start to devote their entire life to accumulating money, power, and fame, or they start to build high walls to protect themselves and live in silent resignation. However, all of this can’t satisfy their ardent desire for love. I don’t believe that humans will become more ethical all of a sudden [because of the economic crisis], but I do believe that many people are currently confronted with existential questions, which is very good.
Do some cultures have a higher developed “school of heart” than others?
Individual freedom and the striving for efficiency have a higher priority in Western cultures than they have in cultures in which community and equality are considered more important. Both concepts have advantages and disadvantages. However, there are two areas that Western cultures undoubtedly need to learn more about: dealing with the elderly and with death. When you travel to countries with a significantly lower living standard, you easily get the impression that there is no developing country in which the elderly are treated with less respect than in developed cultures. This doesn’t have anything to do with medical standards (these are much higher in our societies); it’s about the significance of older people and about dignity. Simone de Beauvoir once asked herself: “What should a society be, so that in his last years a man might still be a man?” And she immediately responds to this question: “The answer is simple: He would always have to have been treated as a man.” Our society creates “wounded men” through the subtle hurting of children. The “school of heart” starts with vigilance.