“We all struggle to understand why some people who have survived trauma-be it combat, domestic violence, sexual or physical abuse, or the quieter but equally devastating covert traumas of oppression, neglect, isolation or living in extreme fear or stress-exhibit tremendous resilience and lead full, Wholehearted lives, while others become defined by their trauma. They may become perpetrators themselves of the violence they suffered, they struggle with addiction, or they’re unable to escape the feeling that they’re victims in situations where they’re not.”
“After studying shame for six years, I knew that part of the answer was shame resilience-the people with the most resilience intentionally cultivated the four elements that we discussed in earlier chapters. The other part of the answer felt elusive to me until I started my new research interviewing people about Wholeheartedness and vulnerability. Then it made perfect sense. If we’re forced into seeing the world through the Viking-or-Victim lens as a survival mechanism, then it can feel impossible or even deadly to let go of that worldview. How can we expect someone to give up a way of seeing and understanding the world that has physically, cognitively, or emotionally kept them alive? None of us is ever able to part with our survival strategies without significant support and the cultivation of a replacement”- Brene Brown.
Reading this quote, I was immediately reminded of Dally from The Outsiders. “Stupid, Johnny!” he screams, frustrated as he slams his fists against the wheel, “What was he thinking? Running into that church to save some kids? You got to be tough, like me…” The irony, of course, is that as he preaches the gospel of acting “tough,” tears well up in his eyes. Dally exemplifies what scholar and vulnerability expert Dr. Brene Brown would call the Viking mentality as a means of self-protection.
A Greaser-like Johnny and Pony Boy-from the wrong side of the tracks, Dally was born into a world of switchblades and gang violence. But unlike Pony Boy- who cultivates shame resilience in response to his environment by finding refuge in the pretend worlds of movies and books-Dally reacts by fortifying his emotional armor. His emotional vacancy behaves as a survival mechanism as it provides a means of coping with the brutal, senseless violence he witnesses on a daily basis. The ongoing war between Greasers and Socs constantly has him on the defensive, looking over his shoulder, glancing behind his back to check if anyone’s there. And why wouldn’t it? His leather jacket and greasy, unkempt hair always make him a potential target.
In psychoanalytical terms, Dally’s masculine insistence on “being tough” represents a refusal to be vulnerable enough to experience human emotion; it’s a coping strategy. In his vicious, cutthroat maze of allegiances where, at any moment, a trivial argument between a Greaser and a Soc could erupt into a deadly brawl, this defense mechanism has served him well. After all, if he allowed himself to really mourn those he’s lost to either street fights or jail, if he permitted himself to really feel the fear of walking home alone at night, how could he go on?
Dally’s philosophy on “being tough” may prevent these traumatic experiences from penetrating his emotional armor, but his insensitivity is a double-edged sword. Because he shuts out painful experiences like parental abuse and neglect, Dally must also deny himself acquaintance with more exulted emotions like human love, connection, and the simple pleasure of a sunset.
“Tough” may be synonymous with “resilient” in the dictionary; however, it is exactly Dally’s toughness that impedes his ability to cope with Johnny’s death and eventually leads to his demise. Had Dally the vulnerability tools to handle something as devastating as a friend’s death, he may not have channeled his rage into as illicit and hostile activities as robbing a liquor store. Before even pulling out a gun on the cashier, his behavior is rude and confrontational: while browsing through magazines, he slams his hand against the stand and-when the cashier with glasses asks if he wants to buy anything- he starts pulling pages out of Sports Illustrated one by one.
Why is it that certain people react to tragedy with sadness and others with anger? For Dally, to truly feel the enormous loss of Johnny would be intolerable. Sadness would make him feel weak. Anger, however, makes him feel strong; it gives him a sense of control.
Like anger, violence empowers Dally by allowing him to enact his will upon other people. If he can shove his fury at someone else, he thinks, then he’ll feel better. That’s how he’s been raised. Abused? Abuse. Fight? Fight back. For men like Dally who’ve been taught violence as a means of releasing emotion, anger is far more manageable than grief. You can fight a gang of Socs who corner you in a dark alley but you can’t defeat difficult emotions like those of losing someone. Dally’s homicidal rage and consequential death at the end of the film only prove what Brene Brown found in her six year study of vulnerability: vulnerability is necessary to joy, love and belonging while its opposite-invulnerability-is an ineffective means of coping with loss.