Who Is Your Uncle Marvin? This Is Mine.
If you haven’t read it already, there is a beautiful book called Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett. Brackett is the founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and he pours both his heart and expertise into this book about the power and usefulness of emotions.
In the book, Brackett shares the story of a very special person in his life, his Uncle Marvin. Uncle Marvin was the one safe person in a sea of trauma for the author. He was that little hint of good in the world and opened Brackett’s eyes to the possibility for healing. The author asks his readers to answer the question: Do you have an Uncle Marvin?
Well, I do. This is my Uncle Marvin:
My sister and I call each other Pal. Our names are Sheri and Cindy, but for as long as I can remember we have both always been “Pal” to each other. It feels strange to hear myself use her real name. This nickname runs so deep we even took a trip to Pals, Spain simply because of the name. She is six years older than me. Which, if you do the math, that is the perfect age gap for little siblings to reach optimal annoyance levels. Add to that the fact that I was severely ADHD, and we are talking about a recipe for sibling rivalry. But she never once made me feel annoying and I can’t recall a single time we fought as kids.
Instead, she made me feel seen. I always needed to be the center of attention and she always obliged. Her birthdays would become more about my performance of the “Happy Birthday” song than about her turning a year older. The only time she did allow herself to be the focus was when she was the focus of abuse. Even going so far as to physically stand in the way to protect me and ending up with a broken arm. And she never complained. I never knew — and still don’t know — if she ever resented me for having to do any of that to protect me.
She and I both survived our fair share of trauma. Some traumas were quietly hers, and some were quietly mine. But we both lost our father, one of the best men we’ve ever known, when I was just entering my teens and she was at the end of hers — too young for either of us. From what I’ve seen trauma do to families, I now realize it is miraculous that she and I only seemed to grow closer with each one.
Childhood trauma does a funny thing to you. It makes you narrow down the list of people you are willing to grieve with your whole heart — the people you can’t life without. She is on that very short list. She’s earned the right to be there, after all she’s been there longer than anyone else.
Sometimes I wonder how hard it was for her to love me unconditionally for my entire life. It seemed like that task was too hard for everyone else. Was it hard to believe in me when it seemed like I was flailing? Was it hard not having the privilege to flail like I did? I am in awe of how she managed to never complain about the obligation she was given and didn’t deserve. The keeper of my secrets, the pathfinder, the nurturer. And she never complained.
In fact she lifted me up. I remember when I was younger I was really insecure about the hair on my arms. I thought it was too dark and I looked like a man. Kids picked on me about it, as kids tend to do. I finally got fed up and asked our mom what I could do about them. She laughed, said I was absolutely not doing anything to my body, and said it was not a big deal. But Pal saw it was a big deal to me. She sat me down later that night and told me the options — I could bleach the hair, I could shave them, and what the pros and cons were. She gently told me I was beautiful the way I was, but if I felt I needed to do something she would help me. I don’t remember what I did about the hair, but I will never forget how it felt to feel seen and heard.
As Mark Brackett highlights in his book, kids just need to feel like at least one person hears and sees them. It will cast that shadow of a doubt on their self-hatred, which can later become the traction they need to drag themselves out of the pit. My sister is and was that hint of good, that shadow of a doubt. She is my Uncle Marvin.
Who is your Uncle Marvin?