Archive for the 'trauma' Category

There’s (always) something wrong

February 13, 2015

I’ve probably written about this before, but I have been thinking about it recently, in part because of the challenges our weather in the Boston area has been bringing.

The difficulties are real, from finding parking at the supermarket because of the snow piles to water damage in the house from ice dams to delays in transportation and communication and to just being able to get stuff done.

So I try to see these difficulties objectively, and when I find part of my mind wanting to see them as more existentially threatening than they are, I start wondering what lies behind that.

For me, it’s the legacy of the Holocaust as my family of origin seemed to process (or not process) it.  “There is always something terribly wrong, threatening, and dangerous, perhaps it is obvious, perhaps it is lurking in the shadows,” was the message.  I think that fundamental attitude results in that part of me trying to tie any new challenge to existential issues.

I didn’t see things this way until I heard of a similar issue in another context.  It was about families struggling with a member’s alcoholism who are pressured to subscribe to the idea that no one can be happy until the alcoholic is happy.  Something like that.  Anyway, it got me thinking about family habits of mind about how to handle the very real suffering of some members.  Putting everyone in an emotional prison does not seem to be a helpful answer to the suffering or to the needs of the others.

The Holocaust issue in my family included the more obvious factors, but it also included a sense of betrayal, and not just by gentiles.  My dad never got over his sense that the rabbis, at the very least, let down their communities, by not adequately reading the writing on the wall and guiding their congregants to plan and take steps while there was still time.  So I grew up with a sense that it could be around the next corner again, something that we are not prepared for and is an existential threat.

I’ve had many personal losses that came quickly and as a shock to me, that were surprising and devastating on that account as well as in their own right.  Some of them also involved people who in the structure of the situation would be thought to know better but dismissed my concerns.  Ultimately what I took from this is that the universe will guide me through these experiences, I may get dinged up, or worse, but if I open myself to the universe, I get through (and I learn, as a consequence, how to mesh with the universe in a way I probably wouldn’t otherwise).  A lot of it for me is learning compassionate detachment and a lot of it is learning to reframe.

On the reframing front, since I wrote my fairly recent post about lava, it occurred to me that my struggle with feeling slimed by others dumping their stuff on me and my having to process it (kind of like cleaning up somebody else’s mess) could be reframed so that I take such episodes as indications that I am doing my job and things are going well — if water ends up in my “sump hole,” so to speak and my pump is working, maybe this is evidence that things are in order, not that something is amiss.  If I take it that way, that I am just doing my part, and being given opportunities to do so, my resistance diminishes; it has seemed to me that resistance usually is a large part of the problem, even if the underlying situation is painful and unpleasant and I don’t like it in some way.

I don’t see who it serves, even the innocent who have been slaughtered, if the living are paralyzed and miserable, or angry and belligerent, or bitter and ego-centric, or anything else that cuts us off from the universe and each other — I don’t think that can be the response to which we are called.

Earth and sky

April 7, 2014

Many religions seem to focus on developing our relationship with the divine who is out there and up there, not (also) the divine who is in there and down there.  In a way, we connect more to the sky than to the earth in our spiritual lives, perhaps because we are aiming to transcend our material world and foster a relationship with something else.  But that something else also abides in the earth, and that aspect of it we connect with, I think, by going deep within ourselves.  We are conduit between earth and sky, a mixture of many kinds of energy.

When I connect with the earth, I feel, among other things, her pain.  I feel it as the pain of a mother who has lost some of her children, who has been battered by the impacts from heavenly bodies crashing onto her surface, who has been exploited by some of her children — that is, by us humans.

Some of that pain may be my own, but when we pray, our pain and divine energy mingle, I think, and we experience one another’s pain.  Our own pain may give us a pathway to feeling the other’s.

So when I am reminded of divine suffering, I feel called to draw attention to the suffering within and the suffering of that part of our heritage — the earth.  We pay lip service to being made from dust and returning to dust.  That material contains the divine spark, too, I think, and it also contains suffering.  I think it is helpful to give respectful and loving recognition to that aspect of our connection to the universe, too.

How will I know?

October 18, 2013

I’ve got someone after me who has done me harm chronically and knowingly.  They want to have a closer relationship with me.  I say not on those terms, that something has to change on their part.

I got a call from their psychiatrist last night, pushing me, telling me it is now time for a meeting with this person.  I explained, for not at all the first time (including not for the first time with this psychiatrist), no, I can’t do that.

The call and the conversation triggered me, in terms of reliving past traumatic events.  I could tell from my shaking legs, from my sudden catastrophizing about why Jordan wasn’t home yet (it turned out he was out at a dinner celebrating a friend’s birthday).  And then I had to clean up, as well, my resentment that people cross lines in ways they may think cause little harm, not thinking about how when the harm is done to people with past histories, it can be far greater — we used to talk about this in law school as striking the person who happens to have an eggshell-thin skull.

But here’s the more interesting issue (and I do gravitate to an interesting issue), how will I know when things have changed and it is okay for me to try a relationship with that person again?  When they stop demanding it, let it go, and leave it up to me.

Artificial byproduct or precious goal?

October 18, 2013

Well, I’m glad somebody had more patience with the NYTimes and their focus on debunking faith than I do.  There’s a letter today that talks about the writer’s research finding that people who endure trauma need their faith.

This way of stating the scientist perspective makes it easier to see the resolution:  faith is both a byproduct of trauma and a goal of development.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations of late have talked about the role of suffering in our spiritual development, including today’s.  Religion and the letter writer (Shane Sharp, an assistant professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University) are in agreement:  trauma can result in the state of mind of faith.

Scientists seem to think of this result as an artificial state of mind, while the religious camp sees it as reaching a desirable goal.  They are describing the same thing, only characterizing it differently.  The disagreement is all about the adjectives, the judgment of the phenomenon.

That leads to the questions of, why we are judging the phenomenon, how we should judge it, by what criteria are we judging it, etc.

But it also, for me, provides the unification of the two competing camps:  the phenomenon occurs, our need to appraise it is just our human need, not one that exists outside of ourselves.

At the highest reaches of the universe there is no appraising and judging.  It is the state of achieving “Let it be.”  In scientific circles I thought we focus on the objective and withhold our editorial response.

We can all just rest on the narrow point of equilibrium that suffering produces the phenomenon of faith, that faith exists.

Some of us celebrate it, some of us deride it, some of us rely on it, some of us wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.  But we agree that the phenomenon exists.

That, to me, is an example of how we bridge a perceived gap.

Connections and disconnections

December 15, 2012

I was interested to read an explanation of sort for why a person might shoot small children at a school:

Often in a haze of illness, the schoolhouse gunmen are usually aware of the taboo they are breaking by targeting children, said Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project. “They know it’s a tremendous statement that shocks people,” Dr. Cornell said, “and that is a reflection of their tremendous pain and their drive to communicate that pain.”

That’s quoted from

Nation’s Pain Is Renewed, and Difficult Questions Are Asked Once More

Published: December 14, 2012

in the NYTimes.

I had written a comment (to Gail Collins’ op-ed column; I wrote it before I read what Cornell said in the article, but after I had heard him on the PBS NewsHour), about how I have been taken aback by the crossing of a line in the shooting of small children.  I compared it to a similar reaction I had to the slamming of planes into sky scrapers.  I want to say, “We [humans] don’t do that.”  The apparent coldness, the disconnectedness from fellow feelings for others are what strike me.

So, being the person I am, I have the urge to harmonize in some way Cornell’s explanation with my own reaction.

When I myself have felt what I want to describe as unbearable pain, the kind when you can’t stand being in your own skin, in your own body, my response has been to try to escape up into the spiritual realm until I have enough distance to process the event.  (Watching my child being beaten is an example.)  It’s hard to do in the moment, at least for me it is, because the pain seems to close the heart and my heart needs to be open to receive the help.  I suspect that this is why prudent people pursue training, usually through religious practice, to keep the heart sufficiently open even in these situations.

I wonder if people who cross bright lines in their pain lack even more on-going connection to what I call the spiritual realm, but which can also be thought of in other terms, like Plato’s forms or forces in the universe or the collective unconscious or Source.  I wonder if they are, first, cut off from themselves, and then, cut off from others and from a sense of community probably most of us have without being fully aware of it.  And if a person is cut off from themselves, I think their awareness of the universe at large and of other people is not mediated through a conduit that includes compassion — I suspect they are using a mental process that includes information but lacks other components for understanding the world.  So when pain is overwhelming for them, I’m thinking that they don’t have a safe harbor to escape to and that they don’t have in place the internal equivalent of Jersey barriers on a highway — a strong (internalized) connection to identifying with others and with community —  to keep them from crossing bright lines.

For me, then, the issue turns into how to foster people’s feeling connected and how to coach them or encourage them to locate in themselves that part of our mental apparatus through which we connect.


November 20, 2012

I had Tony the Treeman over last week to inspect some swamp maples, one of which shed a large limb during the Sandy storm.  I wondered from something I saw if there was some indication of rot or weakness elsewhere in the tree.

I took the opportunity towards the end of the conversation with Tony and my neighbor (the trees straddle the property line, I was told by the previous owner of the neighbor’s house) to ask about something I had noticed and puzzled me about the large trees toppled completely in storms.  Where are their large roots?  The general teaching I remembered was to expect a sort of mirror image in the root system of the limbs, branches, and canopy above the ground.  The bottoms of these tree stumps, even when they’re lying in place, don’t seem to have large roots.

Tony said insects.  Critters (I suspect Tony meant “insects” in a broad sense) eat away at the roots, then when there’s a storm, there’s much less anchoring the large tree and it topples.

That’s us, too, I think.  We don’t realize our root system has atrophied until we’re in that metaphorical storm.

What I notice is a “three-little-pig” syndrome.  If someone has established and maintained a healthy root system (analogous to the brick house built by the third little piggy), in a crisis others lean on that person.  I’m talking emotional leaning, not logistical help, which is much less draining.  One of the most helpful things I heard in a grief group at a neighbor’s church years ago was from a young widow on a video tape talking about how some of our problems cannot be handled by our fellow human beings, and how we overburden our relationships if we ask these people to try.  In her general vocabulary, some problems we need to bring to God, to ask for our help from God.  The help is much better (more helpful), too.  Some people, in my experience, who don’t believe in God or in some more impersonal concept of forces greater than ourselves and beyond our control, are happy to try to draft along, or worse, on another person’s strength through faith.

I’m willing to believe that some people have a different root system, one that also works in a crisis and is not one that I’ve referred to directly here, but my point is we need some functioning root system.  The insect issue brings to mind how we may be unaware of the damaged state of our root system.

I think we need to pay more attention to helping people develop their mental hygiene, so that they are not overwhelmed in a storm.  And even people with a pretty good system can have the experience of finding out it has weaknesses, and where they lie, during a storm.

What she couldn’t say

October 27, 2012

Once upon a time in a medieval village, there was an elder who was trained in history, law, and the healing arts, who told this story:

“There was once this woman, of indeterminable age, very thin and nervous.  She didn’t meet your gaze or say very much, she was clearly holding on tight to getting through each day.

“At some point she starting talking about women’s property rights, about her rights in property on account of her having been married.  She talked of unrecognized rights of succession through female kin and she talked of legally recognized but ignored rights she had in property held by her husband’s family.  She wanted me to believe the source of her agitation and sorrow lay in these disputes.

“So I duly investigated her rights and the rules, but at some point I found myself studying the story of Lucretia, her rape and the overthrow of the Tarquins and inauguration of the Roman Republic.

“The telling of Lucretia’s story that attracted my attention made it clear that she was coerced, and at knife point.  But she didn’t choose death at that juncture because Tarquin’s threat was that that would bring her family deeper shame if she did, as he would make it look as if she had been caught in adultery with a slave.  She had no good choices, and she tried to walk a line between self-blame for dishonor and belief in her own virtue.  In her culture, suicide allowed her to resolve this conflict in some way.

“I could see too great an internalization by Lucretia of a culturally contingent blaming of the victim for having been overcome.  That turned out to be my own interlocutor’s source of damage: she blamed herself for having been overwhelmed.  Paradoxically, it left her wanting to be emotionally overwhelmed by others in order to blot out the trauma and to push everybody away and lock herself inside herself so as to make any emotional engagement with others impossible.

“This state of things left her alternately imploding and exploding, until I finally understood the root cause was that in some way she really was blaming herself for not being able to protect herself from being physically overwhelmed and raped.  That helped her see a way out, just the recognition that she was blaming herself suggested that there were other ways of reacting.  The recognition made it impossible to be 100% swept up in the reaction as if it were the only reality.

“Part of this woman’s horror was the aftermath of the rape.  She became pregnant and she didn’t like the child’s temperament or behavior as he grew up.  I suggested her experience was a shadow play of the earth’s experience of giant meteor impacts and the new turns in the development of animal life those brought forth.  The woman found a purpose for her life through this, and she reconnected to the physical world.  And gradually a sense that things, and she, could be okay again replaced her despair.

“I was relieved.  I wondered whether her assailant and the guardians of her culture would ever realize how damaging it is to make an innocent person a contributor to their own destruction.  At least I had had a teacher who had cautioned me not to expect more of people than they were capable of, not to take on the stupid cruelness of a situation to my own detriment — here I can see that it wouldn’t have helped, it would have hurt, but oh, it was so tempting.  Especially in light of all the equally misguided ways these people tried to ‘help’ this woman resolve her disquiet before she came to me.  Compassion for people’s limitations, grace for when I can’t locate enough on my own behalf.”

That’s where the account of this story ends.  I am happy to pass it along, with my apologies for any anachronisms in the way I’ve retold it.


October 10, 2012

I wrote about appreciating human flawedness yesterday, in my last post, and this morning I was reading about accepting the body as “good, worthy, [and] holy” in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation.

It got me thinking about bodies, how they can be a source of pain and disappointment, how some people find a way during extreme difficulties experienced through their bodies (I’m thinking about rape and torture but also about illness and accident) to attenuate their relationship with their own.  I don’t doubt that Father Rohr is accurate that this leads to trouble in the long run.  Techniques like disassociation have drawbacks, too.  They’re coping strategies but they are only stopgap measures for people who were unprepared to deal with the difficulty in some other way without these costs, I think.

But, as a general proposition, old coping strategies can be transcended.  It’s much harder, I think, when the difficulties are on-going or there have been secondary consequences to the difficulties that led to a rejection of the body, consequences with their own difficult dynamic, but I don’t doubt that making peace with the body and bodily existence will result in new possibilities, even if it doesn’t lead to repair of old ones.

I wonder how much of addictive behavior, which Father Rohr relates to this issue of alienation or separation from the body, is really just a distraction to keep from dealing again with that which was so painful or which actually no longer works, or never worked, and for which an alternative (without the downsides of addiction) should be sought.  Maybe if we let go and wait for an understanding of where might lie an alternative to experiencing the situation as too difficult, and an alternative to using a maladaptive response, we find some progress.

Emotional regression in adolescents

August 15, 2012

I’ve seen it happen in many cases, people I know, or have known, who go into adolescence with so much potential and never come out the other end, in terms of exiting onto the solid ground of a healthy and mature adult emotional life.  I think adolescents must be particularly vulnerable to trauma (maybe there’s even a vast psychological literature on this).  Maybe emotional growth involves taking risks and traumatized teens refuse to take them.

Both members of the Republican ticket in the presidential race have trauma in their histories — Ryan, the death of a father (including discovering the body), Romney, a car accident in France.  Given some of the behavioral and policy tendencies of both men, I wonder just how thoroughly either man has processed his emotions arising out of his experience.

Both come across as callous, for instance, especially about people outside their apparently pretty narrow circles.

I think this sort of analysis is important, not to judge the individuals but to suggest that without a healthy inner emotional life their insight into developing policy that affects others may be limited.  I think a Paul Ryan or a Mitt Romney has potential to do much better than they do but that they won’t if they never address their own issues first.  I think others can rail at them til the cows come home about particulars in their policies and how problematic they may be, but I don’t think it will ever register with them until they can see with unclouded eyes themselves.

To put it frankly, they come across to me like people who have “stuffed” their emotions rather than processed them.  This is a pretty standard coping strategy, as I understand it, with pretty standard negative consequences.  But if such people flock together, they reinforce one another and none of them feels compelled or inspired to finish growing up developmentally, I think.

That seems to me to make it a public issue, that such an emotional profile seems to have become a defining one for a major political party, one complete with its own apparatus of media outlets and think tanks.  This, to my mind, has institutionalized emotional unhealth, and I think it needs to be dismantled from the bottom up.

Comforting the bereaved

July 27, 2012

I had mentioned to my dad that I was going to the cemetery where Willy is buried, so I thought I’d tell him about the Auschwitz ashes buried there, too, when I spoke to him today.  He and his immediate family fled Germany in November of 1938.  Not all of his relatives got out, including a grandmother he was particularly close to.

He told me he had read about that practice, and he wondered how it made sense given that the ashes were unlikely to be those of a relative’s.  I tried to explain how maybe focusing on part as a substitute for the whole was effective not just as a literary device.  I talked about how the living express their caring, remembrance, and respect for the dead, and not just the dead whose ashes they are burying, in the process of interring the ashes in a cemetery, and how that might be efficacious in helping both the living and the dead.  I mentioned a concept of grace, how when we do all we can, sometimes God and the universe fill in what we can’t.  I pointed out that the issue was not just about physically burying ashes but about emotions, about other aspects of our lives.

Those ideas didn’t speak to him.  He’s caught in needing it to be the remains of the particular people for it to be an effective rite.  That’s, I guess, where what he went through left him, those are his needs, and this sort of interment doesn’t meet them.

That’s another layer of sadness in the legacy.