• Lijing Cobb

Inspector of Peace

These days I live with an inspector inside me. When my voice gets a bit too loud, my inspector tells me to tone it down. When I am about to use a harsh word to my kids, my inspector orders me to find a replacement. When I stare into space to tune out, my inspector nudges me to snap out of it.

When I make a choice, I look at my inspector and ask, am I right? The inspector looks back at me and says, you know.

I’m reading this book called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté, and I’m about half way through. In a chapter titled “Their brains never had a chance,” Dr. Maté talks about consistent emotional nurturing as “an absolute requirement for healthy neurobiological brain development” (Maté, 193). For humans, Dr. Maté continues, it is critical for the infant to form an attachment relationship with its parent/guardian, “owing to the absolute helplessness and dependency of infant mammals…. Without attachment he cannot survive; without safe, secure, and non stressed attachment, his brain cannot develop optimally. Although that dependency wanes as we mature, attachment relationships remain important throughout our lifetime” (Maté, 194, italics mine). By observing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in infants under the care of both depressed and normal mothers, he comes to the conclusion that the brain is “experience-dependent.” “Good experiences lead to healthy brain development, while the absence of good experiences or the presence of bad ones distorts development in essential brain structures” (Maté, 195). The inevitable conclusion from this research is that since “the majority of chronically hard-core substance-dependent adults lived, as infants and children, under conditions of severe adversity that left an indelible stamp on their development, [t]heir predisposition to addiction was programmed in their early years. Their brains never had a chance” (Maté, 196).

My father was born in February of 1947 in Shaoxing, China, where I was born and raised as well. During World War II my hometown was under Japanese colonization, and my grandparents, like all the other common folks in that area, lived in fear and chaos. History witnessed the Japanese killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in that region before Japan’s defeat in 1945. When my father was born, China was embroiled in the Civil War between the Nationalist Party led by Jiang Jieshi and the Communist Party under the helm of Mao Zedong. My father's infancy was spent in an unsafe, insecure, and extremely stressed environment. When my father was just 2 & 1/2 years old, the Communist Party established its hold in my hometown, and my grandfather, a landlord, was denounced as a class enemy by the workers party. Thus, my father’s toddler years continued to be unsafe, insecure, and extremely stressful. By 1953, when he was just 6 years old, my father's family was stripped of all the land and property they owned except for a tiny piece for the family to live in in a countrywide Land Reform, which was carried out in brutal violence against the landlord class. An estimated 1-5 million people perished during that period simply because they owned land. From 1958-60 Chairman Mao launched a most ridiculous campaign called the Great Leap Forward, where he ignored agriculture and prioritized industry by forcing everyone to focus their energy on making iron and steel. Chairman Mao was going to make China into the greatest industrial country in the world. As a direct result of such inept and irresponsible leadership, the Great Famine ensued, where an estimate 45 million people died of starvation between 1958-1961. My father was at the beginning of his teenage years then. Chaos continued to rage around him: everywhere he turned and looked, there was not a semblance of normalcy. After the Great Famine, the biggest ever recorded in human history, Mao “apologized” for his mistakes, and the tormented new country got a few years of respite from his, shall we call it politely, overzealous leadership. But by 1966, at the age of 73 and sensing the wane of his power in his advanced years, Mao decided to wage his last war against humanity to preempt Revisionism. His fear was that revolution was losing its fervor, and peaceful evolution could be taking its place. For 10 years since then, armed with the Chairman’s words and speeches in what’s known as the Little Red Book, tens of millions of Red Guards stopped going to school and joined the Cultural Revolution instead, persecuting and killing anyone who they judged to be a threat to Mao’s supreme leadership. Millions of innocent people died as a result of this cruel and senseless movement again.

When the Cultural Revolution started, my father was approaching the end of his adolescent years. He’d already been working in a factory as a mechanic for 5 or 6 years. By the time Mao Zedong died in 1976 and the Cultural Revolution came to an end, my father was 29 years old, having spent the last 10 years in hell. I was born in October of that year, so my father became a parent of two girls.

Reading Dr. Maté’s research and applying it to my father’s childhood experience, I realized that my father’s depression and addiction to alcohol and nicotine were almost inevitable. His brain never had a chance. His generation’s brain never had a chance.

My mother was 4 years younger than my father. The oldest of 6 siblings, she was born to a couple who loved each other and lived together happily till they died in their 80s. My maternal grandfather joined the Communist Party in his teens and served as the station chief of a “hygiene facility” (in charge of taking the household waste from each family and transport it to the countryside as fertilizer for the fields), so my mom grew up in a relatively stable family despite the chaotic times. When the Cultural Revolution started and all schools closed so that the Red Guards could hitchhike all the way to Beijing to meet the Great Chairman at Tian’anmen Square, my mom naturally stopped her schooling as well, and soon afterwards started working at the same factory my father worked at as a manual laborer making coal bricks. Meanwhile, my grandparents had 5 other kids under their care, the youngest of whom was just 4 years old. My mother, the oldest daughter, was viewed as an adult at 15 years old and cast out. My mom would recall bitterly later how she was refused refuge when she was trying to flee my father after discovering his addictions and anger issues. She was just 19 when she got married. My grandmother, a mother of 6, was just 39 at the time.

When I was 15 I was finishing middle school. At 19 I was in college. At 24, when my mom became mother of 2, I was in the first years of graduate school in a different country. At 40 years old, when my grandmother became a grandmother, my oldest child was 6, and my youngest was 2.

When you put time into perspective, people’s actions and choices become more flesh and blood. What would have become of me if I had been forced into a factory to make coal bricks at 15, or repair trucks at 13? What would have happened if I had gotten married at 19 and given birth at 20? How would my life have turned out if I worked full time in a paper factory at the age of 31 as a mother of 6 like my grandmother did?

For almost 30 years my parents lived in a space no more than 700 square feet they called home, afflicted by addictions, depression, rejection, abuse, and hopelessness. When they finally moved out of that hell hole, my father was in his mid-fifties. He had always equated that dwelling as his curse, and desperately looked forward to the day when he would get out of there. He would enjoy his new and spacious apartment for a few short years, and die in it after a few more years of torment from cancer.

I sit in my office and look out of the window into the woods right in my back yard. My father would have loved it here, all this space and quiet that he wanted but never had. They had 1 bucket to relieve themselves in for 30 years, the contents of which they had to carry to an open manure pit about 500 feet away, a place of unbearable stench that I walked by with nose pinched every day to go to my middle school for 3 years. In my current home we have 5 flushing toilets, one of which we never use.

While the parents lived in abject and helpless mental and physical prisons from which they yearned for release, the daughter live in abundance and freedom through which she heals the wounds of her childhood and begins to see into the source of the misery that was not just done to her, but more to her parents, longer and deeper. While the daughter caught a severe cold from which she could recover with proper care, the parents caught terminal cancer.

Ah, the times. My father’s name was Liangzhi, or good will. My mother’s name was Haifeng, or the ocean’s edge. Such lofty aspirations and poetic outlooks, all to the dust, starved, persecuted, pushed around, trampled on.

My name is Lijing. Li has many meanings, including to stand, to set, to establish, to exist, to take the throne, or swift. The word Jing means peace, and is made up of a left and a right part. While the left part is used as basis for the pronunciation of the word, the right part, zheng, means fight. Strange, isn’t it, that fight is embedded in peace. The road to peace is fraught with fight, and peace doesn’t mean the end of fight. It means, rather, the containment of fight, the direction of the energy to fight for peace rather than war.

My parents named me Lijing. Whether or not they intended, by my name I was charged to find peace, hold peace in the highest regard, and live in peace. I was the product of good will meeting the ocean’s edge, where peace is swift and infinite. Plenty to share, mom and dad.

So please, Rest in Peace.

My dad and I in 1999, at my farewell dinner with my dad's side of the family before I took my first flight to the US.

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