“What has been wordless now is coming into words.” – Annie Rogers
What opens up in the gaps inside of us, if such things can be accessed like a clear and knowable thing, and for many trauma-stories, seldom are the odds that it can be, is less as important, sometimes, than the fact that we feel something emerge, something that we hadn’t known was waiting for us to feel its presence. Often we are moved by sensation, a thing without a clear language of its own. Something surprises us, impacts us, reroutes where we were a moment ago, and suddenly, as if pressed into by very real hands, we are moved into a memory without a shape, without a name.
What happened in that place? That place we cannot name or know? Who lived there? How old were they, how young, how broken, how scared?
In reading Annie Rogers account of her own horrific childhood abuse, and of something very specific and powerful that Annie’s loving therapist says to her late one night on the phone, I fell apart. A great sadness rose up in me from some long unaccessed place. I wept as if I were hit in the stomach. I doubled over. Not a sadness brought on by a touching scene from a film or a lyric that tugs at one’s heart, this came from someplace else. I am not familiar with this place. I do not know its language, its landscape. Or maybe I am half familiar with it, have lived in and out of its haunting for most of my life.
Something happened, but what? I may never know. But suddenly I could feel the space from which such not-knowing arose. It was in my body. I touched my feet to the floor, as Annie does when she can feel the words “my life” in her own mouth and in the gentle breathing of her therapist who matches her own, like a heartbeat, in unison over the phone.
Annie awakes from a dream in which her father does the unspeakable, literally, for Annie, it has never been spoken. She has the urge to take her stuffed rabbit and gut it in the kitchen with a knife that she realizes she left in the care of her therapist, the knife. A box of her “things and missing things“. Annie calls her therapist at 3 in the morning to tell him of her father and the dream.
“I’ve had a nightmare,” she tells him. “I’m not sure what are waking dreams and what are dreams. Just now, I wanted to rip my rabbit into pieces. Then I realized you have my only knife in that box in your closet.”
“Yes, I have your knife, and all the other things in that box, and the missing things too. But, Annie, you could tear your rabbit apart in many other ways, and you have called me instead. So you must know that she is already in pieces.”
“The Little pieces” Annie asks?
“The little pieces remember,” her therapist reminds her.
“I’m confused,” Annie replies. “I can’t tell in what dreams I’m sleeping and in what dreams I’m awake. I can’t tell what is real.”
“Annie, you are trying to make some funny distinctions here. Everything you dream is real. What is confusing you?”
“I don’t know, something about words.”
“What was most real in your life, Annie, perhaps most real of all, was the injunction not to use words, not to speak. If to speak is to risk irrevocably hurting someone, hurting someone so much that they will be lost to you forever, then you had better not use words. Annie, it is so much worse for a little child, well, really for anyone, to feel helpless terror than to feel that he or she is at fault, somehow wrong. Especially if that child feels helpless terror with someone she loves and has to go on loving, it is so much easier to bear a terrible guilt than to feel helpless terror.”
“I have to cut myself other times, my stomach and my arms and legs, but I didn’t tonight. I was in the rabbit. I was the rabbit.”
“Yes, when you were very young, Annie, you were the rabbit. You were in pieces and the rabbit wasn’t in pieces. And, when you were very young, you couldn’t figure out which father was which. You must have felt that your life depended on figuring that out.”
“My life,” Annie says.
“And in all your short, little life with your father, he did not really recognize you, Annie. He did not really see you, or he could never have hurt you as he did. And then he left you.”
This connects with Annie’s abandonment by her last therapist which had left her reeling. One trauma overlaps into another. One waking dream finds another waking dream. One terror, another.
Why was I so undone by this exchange? I might never know. I might always know. But I dropped my feet onto the floor, feet that I cannot really feel, feet attached to a body that I have great difficulty connecting with, a body that is like a stranger to me, impossible to feel as ones own. I try so very hard to make contact in my sorrow. I wipe my tears onto my bare arm, and suddenly I could feel two parts of me touching. Most of the time my body is numb and completely undifferentiated, as if I have no parts to me at all.
Suddenly I had limbs which could wipe away tears instead of hands. Suddenly I had several selves feeling something unnameable rise up through the gap inside of me. My narratives are cut, perhaps irretrievably. Will I ever manage to mend them together again? Will I ever know? What happened? Can I bear not knowing? Can I bear knowing? What matters most is that something has risen in between what may or may not have happened and made contact. Every dream is real, I tell myself. Every terror.
“What you fear most has already happened.” Its reminder is lodged somewhere beneath my breast bone. I felt what I felt splinter up from the darkness inside my body. I reached out to turn off my lamp so that I could cry in darkness. But I stopped my hand with my other hand (who’s hand was this) “you’ve had enough darkness. This time, dear one, won’t you cry in the light.” And I do. I cry into the light. I wrap my arms around myself and I weep and I weep and I don’t why or for what exactly anymore. What had been wordless is now coming up in tears. The light is on my skin, and for once, I am not reaching for the dark.
“My grim little play needs another ending – one that is real, and therefore satisfying and healing.” – Annie G. Rogers
With trauma there is a horror that cannot be seen head on, fully formed. The mind protects us from seeing too much, all at once. One should not, supposedly, see the face of the Gods or even speak their true names, so too with trauma, we cannot afford to know it for what it was. Not exactly, in every unbearable detail. What it is, what it has become, however, allows hope to emerge in an otherwise completely shattered world. Because the creativity it took to dissociate can also, in time, become the vehicle of the soul’s repair.
It isn’t only a matter of specific memories that are the work of working through our trauma, more importantly it is the understanding that with every traumatic event is a concomitant traumatized state of mind, a trauma nucleus, a dark winter of the body and mind, an affect state where sounds, smells, tastes, colors, all carry certain experiences which were developed under duress in a great and early shattering.
Poet Paul Celan carried too much horror, head on. The unbearable details of the holocaust, for him, would not go away. He fought so hard to stay in this world, but in the end flung himself into oblivion “They’ve healed me to pieces,” Celan once wrote, because for him, as for so many other survivors, the war can never truly be over.
“In the air, there your root remains, there, in the air” it is as if, with trauma, there is no place from which one comes. Roots are planted in the air, where nothing can possibly take hold and make a home for itself in the world. Trauma is also a state of homelessness, an exile from a body, the first of many homes from which we are evicted when trauma strikes.
Yet language also carries with it an impossible hope, a light without a switch, a place where “you’re rowing by wordlight”. Celan knew that there was one thing that could house us in the midst of the full faced horror; “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.”
One wonders if trauma cannot also warp a language. The way one holds and uses words could be entwined with the unspeakable inner dark shatter. The words not used would be as important as the one’s used. In a shattered place, a simple goodbye turns into a loss that cannot be tolerated. For some, goodbyes are never just goodbyes. For some, there is a certitude that with every departure is an abandonment.
Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas attunes himself to these slight gestures as clues into an environment that every traumatized person brings with them into the room. To attempt to listen close enough to hear a mother or a father’s voice through a person’s recounting of their lives is to listen to what trauma must have sounded, felt, smelled and tasted like as it happened so long ago and as it still lives on in the suffering body trying so very hard not to fling themselves into oblivion but instead to communicate and share their shatter. It is not only language that can become warped, but a body’s posture, the timbre of the voice. Roots are planted in air and there is a nuclear winter afoot.
As Bollas says of his work with autistic children, even beyond language we are clued into one’s breakdown; “An autistic child may not utter a word, but his cries, dense preoccupied silence and his mimetic use of people is his language. He lodges himself inside the other, compelling the other to experience the breakdown of language (and hope and desire).” Not only can language be warped, for some, it can also disappear. If language is the road toward repair, what happens when it evaporates from use?
“The autistic child taught me how to attend to this wordless element in the adult,” continues Bollas. Every human records his early experience of the object (the other) and there is a shadow that falls upon one, leaving a trace of what happened in the traumatized adult. And in every shadow there is wordlight, there is unactivated hope.
“The object can cast its shadow without a child being able to process this relation through mental representation or language… While we do know something of the character of the object which affects us, we may not have thought it yet... (We are able, one day, with much work) to relive through language that which is known but not yet thought; the unthought known.”
Such work is a perilous journey into the depths of our inner shadow, across a mental River Styx, in a boat, a body, that has not always fared well or safely with such crossings. “What are the sounds we will whisper to one another in this new territory where nothing is certain,” asks Annie Rogers. Because to live out from under the terrible shadow cast on us from trauma is to live an unknown and unknowable future. We risk what we can in the place of our “deepest wounding and loss.”
For those who’ve been cast into the world of deep and abiding trauma, magical thinking is one way, among many, that serve to save us from total mental collapse, for who can admit to themselves that those who love them can also hurt them so terribly and so early. Even the worst of homes is not without its love, which makes things more confusing. We need the future to be unknowable in order to exit the place of shadows. It is wordlight we hunger for and do not always know where to find.
“When your father is tearing your insides apart and your mother is attacking you from behind, you’d better be able to imagine that you can get them to do what you want. You’d better be able to believe that you can do the right thing and it will make all the difference!” Annie Rogers
We had to believe we could fix what someone else broke in us, with a magical and perfectly placed word, with an eloquent child’s plea perhaps we could call down our parents hidden angels, and when none arrived disaster truly struck, we split our inner worlds apart in order to survive the nuclear fall out.
“The future has already been laid down in the vanishing tracks of the past. It is as though I have forgotten that those tracks were laid down someplace within my child’s body. This child could already foretell the future through the past…All my life it becomes clear, I’ve been living within a particular play in the endless past…The pain of it is so unbearable that it surrounds [one.] When there are no words for this, no thoughts, then it can only be lived out… My fear of being abandoned, a terror in my body like the terror of immanent death, is the play I have lived all my life trying to escape… Fleeing my own terror, I created a play of vigilance and waiting – waiting for the appearance of my (remembered) mother and father, or waiting for their surrogates in later years. To stop this vigilance is to know the terror of “I will die.” Perhaps if I could play my part just right, I could magically find the feelings and gestures that would conjure up the mother who sometimes comforted me, the father who swept me up off the floor and sometimes danced with me. Who has ever loved and not learned to do this – to conjure oneself and others with the most loving gestures?” -Annie Rogers
And what if they were both, loving and cruel? What if they obliterated and comforted us, in that great and eternal cleavage of our soul, where would we find our wordlight? Surely not every home is also loving. As Paul Celan knew all too well, one could be nothing but dark, a holocaust-home where there is only destruction. How does hope survive there, if at all? Even then Celan struggles to stay afloat on words, words that carry a broken man like a raft, and that sadly fall apart in cold, cruel waters. Celan’s words flickered with light for as long as they could. They sustained him for a while. Could he have dug for more? It is not right to ask this. I think when a person goes there was truly no way for them to stay, in that moment. Wordlight went dark. But Celan left us with the very real possibility that language could sustain us even after the worst of human cruelties.
“I wonder if the basic tragedy of trauma is not so much the fear of dying as it is the denial of death itself. Ironically, this denial does not work, because it sits beside the grindingly repetitious (and sometimes dangerous) plays we create to transform mortality into invulnerability. The denial of death sits beside a repeated fear of unexpected annihilation for those among us who know fear much too intimately… I might learn to live with an unknowable future, unknowable in all ways except for the certainty of death. Knowing that “our little life is rounded with a sleep,” I might be free to live fully and to love again.” -Annie Rogers
To rework a Greg Brown lyric, perhaps we are never so far that the unknown cannot once again find us, and in finding us, set us free. But I believe, when it comes to trauma, we are never fully free or fully whole. But we are also not entirely shackled. Our shadows are stitched to our heels, as it were, but wordlight might also undo some stitches that are no longer needed, bits of skin that have healed and are ready for all that it cannot know, even for the angels that it cannot call down from on high, for the terrifying and mighty disappointments which must find their part in our new, eternally unfolding play.
Perhaps it is something like that place in the air Celan describes:
“To stand in the shadow
of the scar up in the air.
for you alone.
With all there is room for in that,
To stand for you alone, even when wordlight seems to have forsaken us. We wait for its return.
“We are born all life long.” -Michael Eigen
If I can just get the bad thing out of me and onto you I can think less of the monster-parts that make up any human life as something that I must work with, and through, and instead see it as something bad-you possesses and good-me does not. We alleviate our deepest anxieties by projecting what we fear most about our own impulses and flaws onto someone else. Politicians become easy targets, or voters who we don’t agree with, because they are seen as possessing the bad object of which we surely have never handled ourselves. There is something childish in this tendency, and I don’t mean childish as a way of demeaning the tendency but rather as a way of honoring it for what it is; a complex attempt to survive ourselves and those who sometimes fail to give us what we deeply need.
Can we work with our destructive impulses? A lot depends on whether or not we can first admit to having them. Melanie Klein’s work tracks this process by which all early and lasting relationships and experiences of the other are bound, the realms of love and hate.
“the infant sees objects around it either as good or bad, according to his/her experiences with them. They are felt to be loving and good when the infant’s wishes are gratified and happy feelings prevail. On the other hand, objects are seen as bad when the infant’s wishes are not met adequately and frustration prevails. In the child’s world there is not yet a distinction between fantasy and reality; loving and hating experiences towards the good and bad objects are believed to have an actual impact on the surrounding objects. Therefore, the infant must keep these loving and hating emotions as distinct as possible, because of the paranoid anxiety that the destructive force of the bad object will destroy the loving object from which the infant gains refuge against the bad objects. The mother must be either good or bad and the feeling experienced is either love or hate.” -Wikipedia
In some ways this tendency is at play in the denial of our own destructive capacity. We see those who act out their own monstrosity in a blatant way as being purely “bad”, rather than the more integrated view of co-existing states, bad, but also good. The place of refuge from which we must hole up in against the forces of badness is indeed the self. And if the self is also sometimes bad how could we seek safety there? How could anything about ourselves or the world be trusted? If the bad thing is not just in you but is in me too, how can any of us survive?
The irony is we have much less a chance of survival in a place where we constantly deny ourselves the sobering acceptance of our own mixed state of being. Scapegoating may be what we do best, but it isn’t what we do most beautifully. It takes courage to admit when we are wrong about something, and when the thing we are most wrong about is ourselves, it takes an immense amount of struggle to get to the kind of place where we can begin to view our side of the street as being mixed with the same kind of pavement as everyone else’s.
Klein further notes that “as the infant develops the potential to tolerate ambivalent feelings, he or she also starts forming a perception of the objects around it as both good and bad, thus tolerating the coexistence of these two opposite feelings for the same object where experience had previously been either idealized or dismissed as bad, the good object can be accepted as frustrating without losing its acceptable status.” -ibid
It seems likely that the acceptable status is the state of being human, and of honoring what Michael Eigen has called its wound. Eigen has a keen appreciation for the inner bomb depths of our being. Refusing to either idealize or demoralize our nature, he instead pays close attention to the mixed capacities we all bring to the table. To prepare a good meal we have to know all of the right ingredients, but since there are no transcendentally “good” humans we learn that some ingredients are better suited to certain moments and meals than others. Sometimes what is right isn’t necessarily useful to us. If proving that I am right at the expense of working with complicated and messy feelings and states that need my attention, and in getting my attention, might also benefit the one I see as wrong, then the old adage, “would you rather be right or would you rather be happy” might also be said as “would you rather be right or would you rather honor the wound of simply being human?”
Perhaps honoring the wound can become an invitation, not just to the other, but most importantly to ourselves, to delve deeper below the surface of what we think we know to be true about who and how we are. None of us are one thing alone. Good, bad, holy, evil, beautiful, ugly, right, wrong. These are binaries that simplify but also shrink our understanding of the world.
In “The Challenge of Being Human”, Eigen writes:
“We are misled by the media world we live in, a world of hype and pictures, news frenzies, hysterical feeds. We see the rich and famous and hear about their amazing wealth. It obscures the fact that life is much more difficult and always has been, and, as human beings are subject to themselves, always will be. Fantasy life obliterates real life and appreciation for real daily existence as it is. For many, Trump is a cartoon, an underside of Disney world… Yet, I am afraid to say he is a mild version of a “Trump-spirit” in the world, infectious affective attitudes and forces he weakly represents and expresses. The world has outlasted, and will outlast, all of us. It is still going after atom bomb blasts that should not have happened. There have been worse times in history, yet I am not sure I have ever lived through a crazier moment of abrasive fragility. Tension between self-hate and self-love increases… We are more than compliant-defiant beings. Can we, little by little, discover ways to offset self-hate with deeper love? Not the self-love of egomania, which tramples others and damages oneself as well. There is another love, deeper love, that helps, or tries to. We have a deep need – but I cannot quite say what it is. Faith is part of it, but it is much more.”
Why can Eigen not quite say what it is, this thing that we deeply need? Because the ingredients of our lives, of our wounded and often wounding humanity, vary. Dizzingly so. To begin to contemplate our makeup is like trying to reach the bottom of an endless ocean. It seems the further down we go, the darker it gets. And yet, as Matthew Goulish writes; “the brightest thing in the world is not a leaf in sunlight. It is a ctenophore, a ribbed or combed jellyfish… a deep sea creature that invents its own light within the darkest place in the world. It does not reflect the light of the sun but generates light immanently from within its black universe, its midnight zone“. Supposing such a creature is equally made of an inner darkness as well, would it be so odd to say that this dual capacity, among countless others, makes it impossible to ever say that we are one thing alone.
“Our minds grew up as survival minds. Hiding, tricking, aggression helped us live in dangerous environments. At some point, we developed concern not just for physical but psychical survival, who and what kind of being we are. Capacities to work with ourselves are still embryonic… We have a mind that has grown up to win, to survive, to stay alive any way it can, dealing with issues of personal integrity and expression, a work very much in progress. Where will we go together? How does each of us navigate our mixed nature, contribute to growth of possibility, honor the wound of being human?” -Michael Eigen
How do we honor such a wound? It is all to easy to pretend that the bad thing is in someone else and not also in me. But the hard and beautiful work of co-habitating and building a livable world, both physically and psychically, demand a much deeper dive. For even in midnight zones we are also capable of generating our own light. And vice a versa. We are not one thing alone. We are many.
“It’s like I missed a transition in my life, so when I cry I feel like a child. It’s like I never had anyone there when I was crying and not a child. Babies cry. Adults suck it up. I lived by that for a long time. It’s how I got through things. But I’m an adult, and adults do cry. I don’t know how to cry and feel like an adult. But I know it’s possible, and I want to learn how to do it.” -Therese Ragen
Sometimes I fear that I cry too much. I cry on trains, a lot. I don’t think about it much, how it must look, a grown man crying on public transportation. I have gotten to a point in my life where I cannot and will not fight the feeling when it arrives. Something is trying to tell me something. What that something is, I suppose, is very young and very wounded. But I am no longer so young or so wounded. So, why the tears?
A body remembers even if our minds cannot. The immensity comes in waves, it washes over me when I am a public body and when I am a private body. It doesn’t respect boundaries all that well, it doesn’t play well with separation, a time and a place for everything. It’s early, young, and ever hungry to be felt. Sometimes, I think, it feels too much. Grief that is unserviceable to growth recurs again and again, at a certain point, the ability to track its change in temperature becomes compromised. Not just sadness for what is missing, but sadness for what is gained alongside what is missing. This is the thing to lean into.
I am aware of it now in moments of silence. There is a room I go to once a week, and inevitably there is a moment of silence so long that it can seem either beautiful or terrifying or often both. But the silence is shared. And its change in temperature took a while to register with this particular body. One day, towards the end of a session with my therapist, I am aware of a silence between the two of us that doesn’t need to be filled or denied, a sacred holding of minutes marked by the gentle rise and fall of our shared breathing, our bodies at ease with one another’s rhythm. At 3 pm the church bells across the street will ring, and we will both smile at exactly the same moment, an unbidden exhalation of breath. The light is falling softly on the carpet. I don’t want to get up but know that I have to. Get up, body, I hear myself tell myself.
Growing up there was not a lot of silence in my home. There were loud voices, rage, aggression, threats, curses, slamming doors, unhealthy communication from adults to children and vice a versa. The body remembers the loudness of it all. And so when silence comes it can so often be filled with the residues of past screams and haunting’s. If I was observed as a child it was in the context of there being something wrong with me, defective, bad.
My therapist tells me that she has been watching my body as I speak, tracking my movements with certain stories. “There is a rhythm where your body and your words meet that I have only ever caught glimpses of before, but today it is palpable, it is everywhere.” It catches me, not off guard, but somewhere in the middle. I feel, for the first time in…forever, some kind of physical spontaneity in my pores. It is nice, for once, to be watched for small signs of life and not for blame or defect. I am not bad, wrong, ugly, defective, I am changing, right here, right now, moment by moment. There are so many ways this could have turned out and yet the very worst was kept enough at bay.
My father is the most explosive man I know. I imagine he has come close to murder countless times. And I think of the murder he himself witnessed at seven years old, playing marbles in an alley beside his apartment, where a man was stabbed to death right in front of him. Did that moment forever alter my father? The world is not a safe place, it taught him. But this he already knew. In his home with his mother’s schizophrenia and his father’s alcoholism and blind rage. “My father almost killed me one day but my mother stepped in between us and stopped him,” he tells me. Mental breakdown did not stop a mother’s loving instinct to protect her son from his father. I remember moments when I was also sure that my father would kill me. Slamming me into walls, he would bite his finger so hard as a way of diffusing what would happen if he didn’t. It was his trademark, or more aptly, it was his fathers.
I have never bitten down on my finger, not once. I cry a lot, too much, I fear. And now I have a better sense of what these tears are communicating to me; that it is okay to be soft. There is a method to it all. It protects me from something else. Something explosive. The fear behind the fear, or the sadness behind the tears is what could happen if the capacity to feel vulnerable were not strong or pronounced enough. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers. The transmission of energy from one reactor to another, if not handled carefully, an explosion could and most certainly would occur.
The body remembers. It remembers the rage and the loudness of my home. And so it prompts tears that feel young because they are protecting me, then and now, from early damage. And the damage is never done. It is never over. And yet, it does change.
Something about silence was for so long intolerable. It had to be filled, with music or films or ideas or self recriminations, but never with silence. There had to be some kind of noise in between the spaces, an audio dissociation. But now I can almost taste the silence. I am waiting for the sound of the church bells, I know they will come, and I know that it is safe to sit here and wait for them with another. We hold this moment together, the two of us. We have survived the very worst, the early years. And while this is not graduation day, it is a sacred moment felt between the two of us that is decidedly different, absolutely palpable.
In therapy with a patient named Ben, Therese Ragen writes of a moment not unlike moments like this;
Therese: You live in an emotional triangle of longing and fear and shame, moving back and forth among them.
Ben: So other people have this problem too? Why aren’t there any 12 step programs for it? Why isn’t there a place you can go to get over it? I mean, aren’t there some exercises that I can do?
Therese: We’re doing what you can do. We’re doing it as we speak.
Ben: But aren’t there some remedies, some life remedies, or whatever? Like get a dog, learn how to take care of it, let it depend on you, depend on it, exercises in life like that?
Therese: That couldn’t hurt.
Ben: But seriously, suppose the antidote is something like that, just as a category to sum up a variety of things that are probably needed, love. Suppose that getting through the fear and shame of being exposed as not worthy, getting through that to finding – and I’m not sure how much of it is finding and how much of it is creating this deeper, truer self – this self where there is passion and life – if what is needed is this category of responses called love from another human being but you’re not ready to be loved – it’s too scary and too exposing – then where does that leave me?
Therese: One place that leaves you is right here. (I told him, slowly and deliberately) right here.
For now, this silence feels like it could go on forever. But the afternoon church bells across the street will ring. And it is not the loud shadow of my past homes that scares me the most… sometimes, sometimes, it is just this; that although I still carry all that happened to me I do not necessarily carry it with me in the same way. It scares me because it is a large part of my story and because I must let part of it, the part of me that was in it but is no more, go. I must welcome a new presence on board. I must get better acquainted with this new me that can now appreciate silence, cherish it, even. If I keep one foot in tomorrow and one foot in yesterday, I am missing today. Today, I am not missing anything. I am waiting for the soft sound of the bells.
“We are humbled by our imperfection – but let there be no mistake, humility is the ideal state for us to be in” The 12 & 12 of Narcotics Anonymous: It Works: How and Why
I come from wild stock, I come from broken things. The less you have to work with in your environment, always, always, rougher the terrain, the skin of your feet adapting to stones in the road, the hot asphalt, the unforgiving-ness of all things. I grew up around drugs, poverty, violence, shouting. I grew up scared, ill-equipped, side-lined, outcast, angry. I grew up in smoke filled rooms where recovering addicts and alcoholics met every day in order to survive, to become better people. I grew up surrounded by adults who, as it turned out, still needed a lot of help learning how to live, how to love.
I never really wondered, then, what my father had had to do in order to survive, to get his fix. It wasn’t until my life took a similar wrong turn that I would come to know what happens in the dark with no light to lead us, the raging fire we become.
My time line is filled with people who were broken and who broke others. Everyone I knew had either done jail time, been in a straight jacket, been shot and stabbed, lost everything, their house, their family, had slept in cars for years and years. And who also, impossibly, had found ways to come back to life.
One of my very best friends, a gentle and troubled soul, went over an edge none of us who knew him had seen coming. He hit his girlfriend in the head with a hammer, then stabbed her. She jumped out of a window in order to survive. She survived. Thank God she survived.
But the last memory I have of my friend is the one I choose to carry with me. It is just as much a part of who he is as is his tragic mental breakdown and horrible crime. We took a trip to Mammoth Cave State Park in Kentucky. We were mostly silent all day, wandering around, sipping at the gentle hush of nature. I remember we walked out to a small islet in the middle of the rushing water. I picked up a stick and drew a heart in the sand at the edge of the water. My friend took the stick from my hands and he drew a circle around it. We looked at each other and we smiled. We stood, still and quiet, at the foot of a circled heart. Both of us broken, each in our own unique, but familiar way.
I choose this memory. Not because it erases the horrible thing he would, in time, do. But because without this other part, who my friend is becomes but a sound bite, an example to be made. He is doing his time. A long time. He is becoming a better person. He leads a men’s group in his prison that works on confronting their domestic violence and owning up to the path that led each of them there. He plays guitar in the prison’s church service. He is grappling with a bad thing he did that will haunt him and his loved ones for the rest of their lives. As it will his girlfriend, who will never forget and probably always carry that trauma with her. It cuts so deep, in every direction. But my friend was a kid once. It’s not often said, but it should be. Every dark and troubled soul was something else before they became dark and troubled.
Lucretius once wrote “We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly embracing one another.” And some of us only have half of half a wing. Four broken beings helping one another take flight. Pieces of a wing patched together with twisted wire and duct tape.
I have lived many lives. Mental institutions, jails, rehabs, half way houses, recovery, activism, and now, the literary world. In that order, it should be said. Who I am is informed by that order of events. The good and the bad. It could have gone so many ways for me. I could have ended up hard and mean, but I chose, instead, to become softer and kind. And I fought to become that way. I fought hard.
My ethics is informed by my own imperfection. Too many decry in others what they also have in them. They take the argument that calling them out as a bully in calling out other bullies is a straw man’s trope. In psychotherapy there is a measure for action; it is timing, dosage and tact that guides the healer. Because you see, the wounded and broken will dissociate anything that becomes too much for them to bear in the moment. It is how they survive. This is true also of those who call out what needs calling out, but who often do it in a self-defeating way. In a way that traps somebody into the identity that is being denounced. This doesn’t make the world a better place. Quite the opposite. It makes us all retreat into our inner, walled off hearts.
One must call out abuse, speak to hurt when hurt has been caused. But if the only way we’ve found to do so is from a tower that looms above, we will find that voices do not carry down from such a height without also being distorted on their way to the source of harm.
If I am to be told who I can and cannot be friends with, that I am not to have compassion for those who have caused harm, then I must disown my own life, and every one I have ever known. My parents, my family. Both blood and muddy water. But this seems to me to be the poorest measure of friendship. Those who find it hard to live, live a little harder, as Carson McCullers put it.
We are, none of us, without fault, stain or scar. We have been doer and we have been done to. I find it odd that some would present themselves as almost haloed and perfect creatures. I am leery of using the term hypermoralism because it is most often used by the Republican right in order to look away from their own impropriety. But perhaps this is equally so for those on the left. A kind of moralism that looks away from one’s own share of caused harm.
I’ve learned how to live, honestly and feet to the ground, through the 12 step fellowship of N.A. One of the most beautiful passages for me has been the following;
“We are humbled by our imperfection – but let there be no mistake; humility is the ideal state for us to be in. Humility brings us back down to earth and plants our feet firmly on the spiritual path we are walking. We smile at our delusions of perfection and keep on walking… We gain more tolerance for the defects of those around us. When we see someone acting out on a defect that we have acted on ourselves, we feel compassionate rather than judgmental, for we know exactly how much pain such behavior causes. Rather than condemning the behavior of another, we look at ourselves, we can extend compassion and tolerance to others.”
We open our spirits to healing through and beyond the harm that we have caused. We make amends with no expectation of forgiveness. Forgiveness, here, is an inside job. We stagger into the light. Ill equipped, more often than not, for the journey that lies ahead.
After having spent 2 years in a mental institution I found myself back in a public high school with sea legs floundering on terrifying land. I had this teacher in special ed math, Mrs. Tompkins. She had worked in one of the out patient hospitals I previously attended. I remember staying after class with her as she taught me math by counting out dried beans on the desk, a visual aid that helped me to make sense of the confusing mesh of abstract numbers. She knew what I been through. We would talk about that urge to disappear and rock back and forth forever in a corner in the depths of our despair. She shared with me, how, in her deepest depression, she would sit on the floor in the corner of her darkened room, knees to chest, rocking, just rocking in unshakable sorrow. “I could have stayed like that forever” she said. But my husband would come into the room and he would say gently; “you’ve gotta get up now dear, you’ve gotta try and fight this.” And there’s a moment when we must choose, she told me, when we must choose to either spend the rest of our lives rocking in that corner or to get up off of the floor and live again.
“Lord, let me live again,” was my mother’s favorite line in “It’s A Wonderful Life” as George Bailey stood over the snowy bridge from which he jumped after wishing he had never been born. My mother has always sought a magical way to become a brand new person again. She is waiting on God to lift all of her bad from her, but her defects have always gotten the best of her. I love this woman dearly, this woman who birthed and broke me. Abused and held me. The cruelest household is not without its love. And we are, none of us, without our ability to harm the one’s we love.
There was a boy in that same math class, Teddy, easily profiled as a simpleton, a redneck. He would chew tobacco and spit it into the rug rubbing it in with his cowboy boots. One day Mrs. Tompkins caught him, she lost it, called Teddy every name you could think of, stupid, disgusting, no good, son of a bitch, bastard. To this day I cannot get the look on his face out of my mind. He looked like an abused and defeated dog. He winced with every expected blow, always expected, he saw it coming. He was used to be being called these things. It was like these words were merely his other names.
My heart broke. Why did Mrs. Tompkins have to be so cruel to him? I admired her deeply but here she was being as cruel as a person, who is supposed to care for kids and their intellectual development, could be. Yes, what Teddy did was wrong, but he didn’t deserve the verbal beating he got that day. He walked from the room with his head hung so low to the floor I thought he might topple over. I never really knew Teddy to say more than a few words. And while I did not know the specifics of what his life was like then, I assumed that, like most of us in that special ed class, it was a chaotic and impoverished home life. Mrs. Tompkins was capable of good and of bad. Isn’t this the state we all find ourselves in?
Four years into my sobriety, my friend and I drive out to have dinner with a couple from our N.A. home group, Donna and Daryl. They live in a small sweltering trailer but it feels like a castle to them compared to years in a maximum security prison and a life spent on the run. They told us their story, how the FBI had been hunting them both down as they fled from motel to motel. Daryl would shoot up the forest with a double barrel shotgun some nights, high on meth, thinking he heard footsteps nearing, an invisible raid.
Suddenly I noticed a picture of their son sitting atop their small black and white television. It was Teddy. Donna and Daryl were his parents. Teddy was in prison now and Donna was heart broken and blamed herself. She hadn’t been there like a mother should be for her son. Suddenly I knew what Teddy’s life had been like, and that moment in that classroom came flooding back in and breaking my heart all over again. His parents had been living a harsh life back then and Teddy, that kid never stood a chance at normal. Teddy was a kid once. And these were his parents, repentant, and softer. If they could have had Teddy now they would have been really good parents, I think.
Donna works at MacDonalds, and shares every night how grateful she is to draw an honest paycheck, come to meetings after work to be with people who have been in her shoes before, who understand her pain, and to be able to go home and get on her knees at night and pray for the strength, courage and hope to stay on the right path. She is a soft, gentle woman now. But I know this was not always so. Donna, in her day, was as fierce and scary as they come. And Daryl, he’s still got a gruff and rough aura about him, but even this has been watered down. There is a kindness and generosity to Daryl that you would not have recognized in his prior life.
So much trauma passed on by complicated people. We are, none of us, one thing alone. Nor are we the things we’ve done.
One night I was shopping at Walmart, far from my apartment, after work at a shitty factory that was wearing my soul and body thin. I was waiting on a cab I could barely afford to get home. Mrs. Tompkins and her husband came walking out. They gave me a ride home in their truck. I had dropped out of high school and Mrs. Tompkins was the only person who gave a damn about my decision and pleaded with me to stay. “Alright, if you’re gonna drop out then you have to promise me something,” she said. “You have to go and study for your GED and take it now, because if you don’t do it now, you never will. I’ve seen it too many times before. And you’re too smart not to.” I followed her advice and got my GED the same year I dropped out. I will always be grateful that she pushed me to follow through on that.
As we drove home in her truck we talked about all sorts of things. I told her about my shitty factory job and she looked concerned, she had this look on her face that said “goddammit kid, you’re capable of so much more.” Only this time, she didn’t say it, she didn’t have to. Mrs. Tompkins hadn’t been able to be there for Teddy as she had for me. But things could have been so much worse for me if she hadn’t have been there for at least one of us. That’s not nothing, that’s everything. The success and the failure. Human frailty. As I got out of her truck, I thought of Teddy once again, and felt a pain in my heart.
Mrs. Tompkins had helped me to survive when I really did not think I would make it through. I was grappling with the pain and trauma of being gang raped in the mental ward, I was trapped in the back seat of my own body and had little to no hope in my broken heart back then. In my future. But this woman cared about my fate. She pushed me to give a damn about myself. And she also tore poor Teddy apart when what he had needed most was exactly the same thing that she gave to me. Sadly, Teddy would not get what he needed from anyone.
When Donna and Daryl talked about their son they did so with a foggy and tearful look in their eyes. At one point, Donna grabbed Daryl’s hand and squeezed it tight as she said what he was in prison for. She wiped a tear from her cheek.
It’s funny how life brings things full circle, how our hard traveled roads criss-cross into one another. Donna, Daryl, Teddy, Mrs. Tompkins, me. All of us broken and staggering towards the light. I could tell you twenty more stories just like this one. I could fill a whole book with them. Would it change anything in the literary community, to sit with and know how complicated and mixed we all are inside? Each of us capable of the best and the worst.
We are the best of people and the worst of people.
These, these were friends of mine, as Jim Carroll put it. Another fellow recovering addict who devoted his life to service and carrying the message of hope to the still suffering addict. An imperfect and broken poet. A dark and beautiful spirit. He surely caused his share of harm and he also helped those with no hope step back into the light again.
Francis Bacon once wrote that “without friends the world is but a wilderness.” And every friend is fucked up and full of shit, as was said to me once by a counselor when I was in rehab. Every friend is imperfect and bound to fail at unspoiled goodness. And, also, much, much, more than this. Every friend is an angel with only one wing and every angel is terrifying.
Some would seek to penalize me for who I choose to love. I love my parents, who have caused so much pain and damage, and not just to me. I love Donna and Daryl, I love Teddy and Mrs. Tompkins, and, hardest of all, I am learning, little by little, to love myself. That makes me human. Makes us all human. And broken. We were, each of us, kids once. Kids who asked for none of what happened to us. Kids who were broken by the places and people we came from. Lord, let us live again. Let us live again.
And love. I will love, always, the ones who stagger in and out of the light. Those who have found it hard to live and therefore have had to live a little harder.
I’m still learning. We all are. Painting by numbers in the dark. Aiming, impossibly, for light.
“The Internet is a prosthesis of [the] unconscious in the sense that it is a virtually limitless digital repository of all of the features of the social world that have imprinted themselves on the subject…collective element[s] of group subjectivity, until [they are] made accessible…function as a blind spot. A source of judgment and action that remains hidden from conscious thought” – L.M. Sacasas
As the conscious mind can grapple with only so much at a time, we find ourselves quickly undone, over flooded with so many traces which chase after the tail end of other traces. We have learned how to be “alone together” as Sherry Turkle aptly terms our new irrational relational wrong turn. Families sitting in the same room of the i-phone glow, each no doubt drowning in painful anxieties and paranoia around the lapses, missed beats, and evacuated fleshiness of intimacy and of mattering.
I have been wondering why it seems so easy to abstract who a person is online, to have almost no regard for what their “right now” moment in the world consists of. Disagreements with someone’s ideology on social media almost instantly take the form of snarky, sarcastic, and I would say, violent attacks on a person. Such behavior is reinforced online in ways it hardly ever is in the real world. Decorum normally keeps us in thrall to social cues, emotional and body language reads, knowing the drift of where we are and who we are with.
Online all of this seems to disappear. A type of psychological anarchy grips our use of things. And indeed we quickly turn people into things. Yet this is anarchy without its messianic moment. It is purely Hobbesian, a war of all against all.
Perhaps part of it is that being online allows us to find the perfect comeback, the thing we always wanted to say in the moment but were never able to find the right words for.
Imagine someone tweets an insensitive comment while undergoing chemo, their body wracked with pain and emotional turmoil, abandonment by friends and family, alone in a scary confrontation with their fragile mortality, because, you see, not all who are dying are noble, easily lovable spirits, or go gently into that night. There is context here that comes up missing online. Does it matter, the circumstances surrounding an event?
A comment is made, and suddenly who a person is, their whole story, the span and arc of a human life, becomes reduced to a single moment in their evolution. They are fixed into an identity we form for them. Why does the rest no longer matter to us?
A “good person” rebuts with a sharp barb, lol, emoji’s, ‘oh snap’ GIFs, a cascade of vicious critiques and comebacks all seemingly meant to demonstrate one’s higher moral standing than the one who is paying the cost of their words.
Here’s what haunts me. Why is their no cost to the words of those who, seen as on the right side of whatever, are just as viscous and in need of condemnation as those of the chemo patient? Group reinforcement takes over with a vengeance. If the tide is moving one way you’d don’t swim out against it. Yet we know that out humanity consists in precisely this. There hasn’t been a more noble moment in history than when a person risks everything to go against the mob.
Sherry Turkle writes;
“We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.
At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.“
To seem present when one is anything but, is this part of what splits our ethical decorum while engaging in online communication? If we’re not even reading the relational cues of our physical surroundings how could we possibly hope to translate that kind of attention to our online selves and to others?
There is a scene in Life As a House, where Kevin Kline’s character is in the hospital with a terminal cancer diagnosis. He tells the nurse who is attending to him (changing his IV) that he hasn’t been touched in years. “Really” she asks, “That’ can’t be true. Not even by a loved one, your family, no one?” “No one” he says, teary eyed. “Everyone needs to be touched”, the nurse says, now also teary eyed, as she reaches out her hand and touches his face softly, he lets out an existential sigh, tears rolling down his face. “I’m sorry”, the nurse says, pulling her hand away, the intensity of the moment almost too much to bear.
What took place here is genuine connection. Navigating the risky terrain of the here and now. We are different people when we are together and present with one another, even as perfect strangers. We recognize more easily our common humanity, our common fates of joy and sorrow and in time, of death itself. Ethics is predicated on vulnerability. If I cannot recognize the harm I cause you, then I cannot access my ethos, my way of authentically being in the world.
“We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.” Ibid.
The thing we know about human attention, it is so rarely a thing completely under our control. Being two places at once has cost us, I fear, the largest part of our core humanity. Our ability to connect with one another is about, in part, recognition. It’s harder for me to recognize you as human in the technological sphere than it is in a solid, tangible social space. Intellectually I may know you are human but am less able to know it emotionally, especially in heated, quickly down spiraling, online exchanges.
“A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.” ibid.
Trauma also disconnects us from the ability to make such connections. How might technology and social media be seen as re-traumatizing instruments, almost parental failure/abuse like in their feel and effect on the shadow side of our earliest experiences? Why is it so hard to say we are sorry when have been wrong and hurtful online?
A large part of our new lives online entails a constant editing and reconfiguration of our frailty and vulnerability. Delete or edit, polish and shine, we never have to accept the painful unknowing of our current state. Again, for those of us with deep trauma the risks here are always more perilous.
So often traumatized individuals traumatize each other online.
If we think we are in the right while doing so then we might never be able to wrestle with our own imperfect and harmful way of moving through the world.
“In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right.
Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.
Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.” ibid.
Forgetting the difference, the feel of vulnerability, this deep amnesia, perhaps partly chosen, partly enforced on us, is making our souls sick. A sickness unto death without a messianic moment, a sabbath for the dark and tired soul. Civility cannot be sustained. Worse, we lose contact with ourselves, the selves we find in moments where we are truly alone, our inner thoughts carrying the breath of who we are to the deep inner messy heart of us.
Cruelty will always, no matter the context or platform, be an impoverished form of love. A trauma passed on under the guise of the perfect comeback. The thing we could never say otherwise.
“I think the more we know about what makes people the way they are and how hard it would be for them to be otherwise, the freer we are to be more generous.” -Robert Karen
Do we ever arrive at a place just beyond me vs. you? Are we ever complete enough, fully grown, fully measured? I don’t want to be right, I want to be, in a place just between what I think I know and what undoes me.
When I feel hurt and wounded I can all too easily slide into the state of mind that says; “only one can survive here.” And yet the very thought suggests otherwise. Only one cannot survive, and the struggle is to lean into the place where all can survive. But this takes time. Not always very long, but who can measure? For the wound is a wound and it needs dressing. Still, “The mania of number one is supported by many agonies.”
“Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy,” an often asked question in recovery. With specific hurts, especially when the inflicted wound seems so unnecessary, when it seems to arrive from a place where there is no there, there – it becomes easier to cast off the question, to dig in and say “but I am right!” Why would that matter? Isn’t this, after all, what the questions begs of us? Why would that matter?
It doesn’t. This too, takes time to arrive at our door step. Attentive waiting, an art of indecision, this is never something that comes with the deal of being human. It is something that has to be wrestled with. To bear the tension of failing to enter the revenge chain, which only ever continues to fertilize us with the idea of destruction as corrective. This, Michael Eigen suggests, requires something new of us, which, when it comes to Hamlet, would require a new kind of man, which “from the warrior viewpoint, might be weak, sissy. Isn’t it amazing to be proud of being non reflective? Ashamed of being self reflective? I’m rooting for Hamlet to endure more shame. It’s now up to us. It’s our turn.”
In rehab I was taught that it was not my shame, the collective scars of trauma that I had been left with, but perhaps here, this certain kind of shame that comes with being sensitive, is one that I should own. “I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way” as Jewel once sang.
My version vs. your version, my heaven vs. your heaven. Or is there a place where there are “different Gods but the prayer is the same?” I do not actively root for people to fail or to hurt, in part because I have known too much of that in my lifetime already. Failure and hurt, these two things seem to have something in common, don’t they? Often those who failed us, hurt us. Many, I think, yearn not to do the same as was done to them. Yearn to wait, to hold the tension, to watch the clock, count the minutes, hold the breaths, rock the body, feel the floor.
This is not some graceful or easy task. This is sometimes hell. Not the hell of other people, but the hell inside us. Can we climb our way toward some sort of limbo, and then beyond? Kindness is always courageous. Our society teaches us that sensitivity is a negative trait; you’re too sensitive, grow a thicker skin. Have you ever noticed that the human body actually doesn’t physically have such a thick skin? It is easily broken into, scraped, gashed scarred. And it not so easily heals, also.
What would having a thicker skin mean? That I pretend that things that hurt me actually don’t phase me at all? That being on the receiving end of cruel or mean statements are like hearing the words “good morning” or “I love you“? Perhaps I have always “thrown like a girl” (meaning; I’ve not fit the perfect mold for boy“) growing up I was told this often. Why would that matter, I always wondered. And still. Why would it matter if I were sensitive, soft? If I didn’t throw a ball hard enough maybe it was because throwing things wasn’t something that I felt in my body and in my heart. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it.
Protecting the self, setting boundaries, is really the only option that does the least amount of harm. Some will go out of their way to find a there, there where there is none. They will call you by name, they will say this one, he/she/they are this or they or that. Am I this or that? Are any of us? Then I need to extend this to the ones who would go out of their way to hurt me also. I must wager that they are not this or that. That they are more loving and kind than they have been to me in a single moment. (Haven’t I been here before myself after all, on the other end?) Maybe my heart is in this and not in throwing.
“Don’t force your heaven on others or give yours up too long for someone else’s version. There’s Heavenly etiquette. It’s quite a currency we’ve discovered, negotiating heavens, emotional riches. An amazing thing is heavens keep changing. By going into one, others open. At some point, the I-you business becomes less important. You get tired of having to be in the I vs. you mold too long. It’s nice swimming with someone, bobbing up in different places, light glistening in the waves. No one pays much attention to who’s where and we don’t try to drown each other or want much more than what’s happening because it’s so good bobbing about. We bump and bounce, toward-away-in-through-with-against, under and up again: “There you are. Oh, you’re the one I was mad at because our heavens were different, the one who wouldn’t share the way I imagined things might be? And here we are!“. -Michael Eigen “The Sensitive Self”
That’s how I would like to be. We all know this isn’t a place that we can always find or live in easily. We come and go, move in and out of it, like a road side motel that we must keep returning to. On the road we have our rage but in our rooms, in the water, in our hearts, we say; “Oh, there you are, the one I was raging about, you aren’t so different than me after all, are you? Good morning, I love you.” This might require a new me, or the only me worthy of me and of us. Sensitive, yes. What if sensitivity were the thicker skin?
“If only we could trace life to its beginning, we might be able to hold its secret in our hand. To open and close a hand, all the things hands do, signalling peace or war, putting one’s palm to one’s heart or to the heart of another, signalling a caring core – such sensitive hands. We try to get into each other’s sensitivity in good ways, in bad ways. We need each other’s feelings as much as, sometimes more than, food. Survival needs are embedded in emotional contexts.
Sensitivity is more than twitches in response to physical stimuli. Beings are sensitive, and by the time we get to the use of touch to mediate emotions we must say that someone is sensitive. When a mother touches a baby it is not one blank body touching another. Someone is touching someone. There are physical tasks to be taken care of, but these occur in emotional fields. Any touch has tone and texture, and its own kind of meaning. It takes a particular kind of touch to say, “I am not touching you feelingly but simply to dress a wound or clean a mess.” If you ever need a mess cleaned when you are old and helpless, the feel of the clean can be more important than the clean itself. This we know, because old people tell us so. A baby cannot talk but expresses itself all over, and we can feel it tingling or tightening and everything in between. A body is an emotional body, an imaginative body, an expressive body. It is amazing we have managed to abstract an anatomical body from the person who permeates it, as if it were an uninhabited shell.
We are alive in the under- and over-side of our skin. The same might be said of our gut-mind, how sensitive intake-output is to changes of feeling and fortune. Add breathing, heart, nerves – all tied to the felt meaning of things. Our organs and their functions contribute images to the language of joy and injury.
Words cut deep. Looks cut deep. Where are these deep cuts? We point to our heart or gut or neck, but their pain, an emotional pain, signals a living being, a person. Someone is injured. And someone is uplifted when the spirit of a word uplifts…
Emotional reality appears now this way, now that way, and waiting on the unfolding of alternative views is some insurance against being swept off by a single, destructive conclusion.” -Eigen “The Sensitive Self”
In being hurt, at first, we sometimes conclude that the person who hurt us must be a weaponized body, when the truth is that like us, they are a sensitive body. And part of knowing this in our hearts means knowing and remembering the hurt that we have caused others in the past, whether with an unkind or impatient remark, a rude gesture, a failure to be of aid or comfort to someone who needed it. We’ve all been the doer the done to. And something more loving and in-between than this.
Yes, it’s true; I would rather be sensitive than not, happy than right. I would rather extend compassion to the one’s who hurt me than fulfill/travel a dead end street/cycle of revenge, of trying to prove a pointless point.
At what point do we say, instead; “There you are. Oh, you’re the one I was mad at because our heavens were different, the one who wouldn’t share the way I imagined things might be? And here we are!”
With more than enough room in the water for us both.
I was thinking that I might fly today
Just to disprove all the things you say
It doesn’t take a talent to be mean
Your words can crush things that are unseen
So please be careful with me, I’m sensitive
And I’d like to stay that way.
You always tell me that is impossible
To be respected and be a girl
Why’s it gotta be so complicated?
Why you gotta tell me if I’m hated?
So please be careful with me, I’m sensitive
And I’d like to stay that way.
I was thinking that it might do some good
If we robbed the cynics and took all their food
That way what they believe will have taken place
And we’ll give it to anybody who has some faith
So please be careful with me, I’m sensitive
And I’d like to stay that way.
I have this theory that if we’re told we’re bad
Then that’s the only idea we’ll ever have
But maybe if we are surrounded in beauty
Someday we will become what we see
‘Cause anyone can start a conflict
It’s harder yet to disregard it
I’d rather see the world from another angle
We are everyday angels
Be careful with me ’cause I’d like to stay that way”
“As long as feelings are second class citizens in public dialogue, people will be second class citizens.” -Michael Eigen
“I feeling” statements may not be our first impulse to tumultuous moments, mishaps, collisions, the many and complex missed meetings of different, but also not so different minds. When we feel attacked we get defensive, ‘How dare you”, “who do you think you are” etc. Hopefully, in time and not without great effort and internal maneuvering, we move past these initial reactions. If we are unable to disentangle blame/revenge from injury then we become incapable of nurturing new dialogue and possibility for genuine relating, for transforming injury into a repair that exits the circle of endless blame and finger pointing.
We know it in our own families, the great and tragic histories of who did what to whom. And those we love most sometimes never fail to remind us of these age old grievances. They are like sacred stories that some families could not live without. And societies. But something else is there also, and it’s not always the easiest thing to detect. One day we’ve let go and we don’t always know how but it shows, in small, significant ways. Sometimes it’s easier to detect those changes in a family, not at all easy in a society.
Blame seems to be an internal origin story. We desperately need someone to confess, as if the only way to make something right is to make a person admit that what they did was not just wrong, but totally and completely wrong. We take a piece of reality and use it to symbolize the whole.
This is why, as Robert Karen writes, when it comes to forgiveness it’s seldom as simple as doer and done to.
“When we think about forgiveness we tend to imagine one person deeply and decidedly wronged by another. But most of our relationships with one another lack such simplicity. So much good and bad is going back and forth, and each person is so deeply implicated in everything that happens, that it is not always so clear who needs to apologize and who needs to forgive. The struggle to forgive and the struggle to apologize are barely distinguishable.”
Part of what makes injury so hard to sort through are internal systems of blame, systems that are par for the course in our society. The challenge is to find a more spacious meeting ground for the resolution of our grievances;
“All of which is to say we emerge into a more fluid, alive, dynamic world, a world where embracing ourselves obviates the need to police others. Blame, by contrast, collapses the world. It makes it rigid and binary, with moral winners and moral losers, and the imperative to control. The need to blame (ourselves and others) runs so deeply at times that it can feel like a basic necessity. Part of the need arises as a defense against shame. As shame encroaches, fending it off requires that someone else be proved the villain. And it is not enough that we protest what they’re doing, that we have our say. We have to nail them to their crimes, make them confess, make them feel bad and promise to be better. Only then can we finally have the satisfaction of being free of the denunciation we direct at ourselves, which is now safely directed at them…
Knowing oneself is integral to growing up. But, to the extent that we live in a blaming system, we do not want to know the truth about who we are and, therefore, resist growing up. We don’t want to know our own murderousness, selfishness, greed, envy, because all of these very human feeling states have been made a source of so much guilt and shame that they lead at once to total condemnation and self-rejection. We can’t know them, and we can’t know how we came to them. As a result, we miss out on the experience of self-empathy and self-care, which might be the basis for doing something new, for beginning to emerge from these things we don’t like in ourselves but which hold us prisoner.
Some of what we do is bad and should be changed – the way we bully, deny, manipulate, shirk, indict. But if we make every misdeed or character orientation into a capital crime, into evidence that our very being is worthless, we will not be able to let ourselves know the full complexity of who we are. If there can be no mercy, no leniency, no forgiveness, no simple tolerance for the magnificent complexity of being human – if we face every flaw or disliked quality as evidence that our blackened souls require rejection and banishment – we will not be captured by our own awareness and motivated to change. The blaming system puts a brake on a fundamental area of growth.” -Robert Karen “The Forgiving Self”
And here is where maybe Jessica Benjamin’s idea of the Third way might offer us glimpses of future islands where we may begin to understand and feel each other’s feelings and hurts. In contrast to models of action/reaction which characterize our experience of complimentary twoness, the one-way direction (my way or the highway); a shared third is experienced as a cooperative endeavor. “The thirdness of attuned play resembles musical improvisation, in which both partners follow a structure or pattern that both of them simultaneously create and surrender to, a structure enhanced by our capacity to receive and transmit at the same time in nonverbal interaction. The co-created Third has the transitional quality of being both invented and discovered. To the question of “Who created this pattern, you or I,” the paradoxical answer is “Both and neither.”
Benjamin notes that in learning to accommodate to accommodation itself, we fall in love with love. And while such a third space is hardly one that could be collaboratively made together every single time we are hurt by someone (after all, there are some hurts that it is simply not safe or okay to collaborate with someone with on states of repair) and also because such a space takes time and is perhaps always built imperfectly if it is built at all, it is at the very least a better starting place than the all too familiar one of shame, blame and finger pointing.
“An ability to maintain internal awareness, to sustain the tension of difference between my needs and yours while still being attuned to you, forms the basis of the differentiating Third – the interactive principle that incarnates recognition and respect for the other’s common humanity without submission or control.”
To be able to open spaces of thirdness that enable us to negotiate differences and to connect, to feel both our feelings and the feelings of another, to make music together when the singular song we had previously chosen seems sometimes not to give way so easily to improvisation, is something I think that has no absolute “total” destination or arrival point.
If the task of blame is to nail you for the wrong doing, to make you fess up to the pain you caused me, then the task of the Third hearkens back to Robert Karen’s notion that who did what to whom isn’t always the easiest thing to pin point. Certainly we do hurtful things and apologizing is important, yet there are ways in which the road to getting there can cause more cars to slide off on the ride there then having taken other, less traveled roads. A Third road.
“When there is no possibility of intersubjective repair – when someone refuses acknowledgment or fears loss of having the upper hand, the self turns to intrapsychic repair of the internal object instead. When mutual dependency cannot be negotiated, the other must be reduced to to intraspsychic object of fantasy, onto whom the subject splits off unwanted weakness. The need is to distinguish such objects of projection from the real other. This is central to the survival of destruction and overcoming of doer-done to relations. The denial of humanity to the other is tantamount to the erasure of intersubjectivity, understood here as the ineluctable fact of mutual dependency on equally human others. The inability to embrace recognition within an interactive system of thirdness leaves the subject alone in a monadic world without intersubjective orientation…
We move from from the position of “failed witness” or bystander to acknowledging witness and we become able to experience our own vulnerable humanity in a different way when we recognize the other’s, through this we we come closer to realizing the sense our interconnectedness and responsibility for one another.” -ibid
Benjamin also notes; “the person who fails is paradoxically the one whom you desperately need to witness how they failed, to receive the communication. If that other person can bear their own realization that they have played the role of harming, they can step back into the role of the one who acknowledges and thus offer something new. This paradox tells us we are at least trying to facilitate the dramatic emergence of new experience. We allow ourselves to become part of a complimentary opposition that serves to expose the “truth” of a hidden self – perhaps in us. This collaborative effort to to unpack the dramatic meaning is part of the process of restoring the paradoxical space of Thirdness that holds the old and the new. In this intense collaboration a new space opens for self-states and their accompanying “truths” that have felt irreconcilable to share the stage.”
In other words the space of the third isn’t something that belongs to either you or me, my version or yours, my truth, your truth, but instead belongs to neither of us alone and yet to both of us at once. This is a tall order for a future island of possible repair. Yet without ideals life is hardly worth the effort we put into it.
The place of the Third is perhaps the only place where one could bring out the complexity and genuine possibility of resolution to what Robert Karen describes in matters of forgiveness;
“Forgiveness too often gets framed as an issue of a victim and a wrongdoer. There are certainly many cases of that. But in most people’s lives I think forgiveness is an issue whenever two people are in conflict. Who needs to forgive and who needs to apologize is often a tossup. In most situations, everyone shares the blame, to some extent.”
Everyone shares the blame, to some extent. This is certainly not an area many of us are comfortable navigating, myself included. There is a certain amount of annihilation dread to be found in the idea that I played a part in the play on stage. That we all played a part.
Anger too, has a creative and reparative role to play in conflict resolution.
“It’s hard for people to get anger right. People have very poor models of how to be angry in a warm, creative, connected way. We’ve been brought up, so many of us, to think it’s a bad thing. So anger gets suppressed and only comes out when it’s explosive. And we have this tendency to just let ourselves go: screaming, denouncing, humiliating, impugning character, sarcasm, quips, mob shaming. But anger doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to plunge into our worst inner places.”
Could anger come from a place where we learn to love love, connect to connection?
Anne Hallward’s descriptions of “voluntary vulnerability” might also be potentiating spaces analogous to the Third:
We can’t change what we can’t talk about, and the subjects that most need addressing are very hard to discuss, because they make us feel vulnerable or upset. Disagreements become polarized, and we shout at each other and don’t listen or see the good intentions on the other side. Having a forum for respectful conversation about difficult topics can, I hope, help us address many causes of suffering.
The most effective way to prevent polarization is to make yourself vulnerable. I like to imagine it as a verbal form of nonviolence: when you choose to reveal yourself to someone, and you don’t fight back, it disarms the listener. I call this “voluntary vulnerability.”
If we don’t fight back, might something else emerge? What might that “something else” look like? Perhaps not a place where I am right and you are wrong or I am wrong and you are right. Maybe it’s a place of both and none. A place that is neither yours nor mine. A shared place of vulnerability that gives our common humanity ground to shine on.
“What is body? For Saint Paul, in moments of grace, categories dissolve. Words like body and mind do not hold. The “where” of where one is, is ineffable.” -Michael Eigen
My mother recently said to me on the phone, after I had been encouraging her to find a therapist to help her through a difficult time; “I want to find out if my dystonia was caused by my trauma. Is that where all this began, when I was just a little girl?” And if it was, it should be noted it is killing her. Dystonia. Trauma. As she prepares to undergo a high risk brain surgery that could extend or take her life, I pause to wonder, dystonia, trauma. “What is body” and why do we lack such adequate language for its ephemeral, ever changing borders?
Recent grief, loss and stress brought shingles to bear on my body, a nerve ending signature of physic overload that was too much for one body to carry, day to day. Then an internal staff infection constellated so close to my blood, nearly ending me. “What is body?” I wonder. A well know book on the topic bears the apt title; The Body keeps The Score. The body remembers everything we don’t. How can we tend to something we may not want to remember, when remembering could be more dangerous than forgetting? It seems our bodies tell us otherwise, to forget is to pass it on to the body.
Michael Eigen describes the bodily experiences of one of his patient’s physical ailments in such attentive, loving language;
“Kirk rubbed his shoulder and spoke of a pain he felt just under the joint ball, where it meets torso. After a time the pain spreads into chest and he speaks of heart pain, now rubbing his chest. I am aware he is under treatment for elusive physical difficulties and wait it out. He said something hard to hear about “ghosts”, pains as ghosts, as they slid from shoulder to chest. Pain as ghosts of emotional trauma, mute impacts seeking-resisting acknowledgement. Ways the stress of feeling from infancy on pinch nerves, bones, muscles, organs. Bion says the core of a dream is an emotional experience. Our body is an emotional body and language an emotional experience. We lack capacity to work with feeling well and tend to suffer from partial emotional indigestion. We do not know what kind of pain is being dealt with how.”
Had my mother’s body twisted and deformed, moved bone, nerve and tissue around to suit an internal occupancy of shadows? Can we ever know for sure? “We do not know what kind of pain is being dealt with how.” Does the body rearrange its borders to make room for the unspeakable? In the throes of my grief and the grip of stress of an upended world, my body just broke down. It refused to fight anymore. Had some part of me given up? What room had I left unattended? We do not know what is doing what to us sometimes until something in us gives.
For the moment, my mother is curious (and for how long, perhaps longer than I have known, she has wondered if maybe it was not perhaps her trauma that brought on her Dystonia) she wants to find out what she has forgotten how to say.
“We breathe around the pain, contract, find ways of surviving. For the moment everything is in a breath… There might be ways we stop breathing, never breathe again. Feeling has breath as well as taste buds. Our literal body might go on breathing in restricted ways, enough to get by, but emotional breath and taste may be damaged. Can you imagine a person who has stopped breathing emotionally? I know places in myself where this is so… Attention can be placed on body surfaces and insides in ways that open infinities of feeling. The more one focuses on body areas, inside or out, the more nuances of being one discovers.” Ibid
Do we forget to breathe even while we breathe? But of course, there are things we must forget to familiarize our routines in life. And there are things that if left unattended too long become ghosts in our blood, beckoning, rattling chains. What happened will not unhappen but it asks us to acknowledge its happening, to mourn its loss. A lot can go wrong when we bury our curiosity. What is doing what to us and how?
“The body visible is mostly invisible. Feeling touches us from unknown places or no place at all. It is not easy to pin ourselves down and undulating waves of body feeling are part of life’s elusiveness, a sense including the rise and fall of spirit that is part of the rhythm of faith.” Ibid
A faith that includes infinity, not knowing, the navel/untieable knot of the dream. How does the body bear it? It sends us post cards from nowhere land, the dark tunnel that sits between the spaces we’ve dug to draw fire away from where we live. But the fire reaches us. Perhaps curiosity is water. Not enough to put it out but maybe enough to work with it. A little bit of anything, after all, goes a long, long way.
"How much aliveness can one take?" -Michael Eigen
For much of my life I have felt an intractable sense of inner deadness, a stuck point, where the uncomfortability of the wound does not necessarily make leaving the grounds of the wound any easier. Therapy, over the years, has helped the dead thing to come alive and to light, but inevitably it persists in the background of my life, this feeling of nowhere and everywhere, a hum, a buzzing, that no matter how much I may want more of life, more life just will not do the trick.
Are there such unfortunates? Are we all, in one way or another, one foot in and one foot out of life? I remember being distinctly moved (and a bit horrified, because there I was) reading R.D. Lang's account of the person who can only take little nibbles of life, but never the whole thing. A few bites and then a retreat. For those of us whose lives were not pleasant or safe I think it's probably a form of reality testing that never goes away. And yet, we can and do live okay lives, not great lives, not the one's we would have wanted, but lives nonetheless.
It wasn't until I found the work of Michael Eigen that I began to feel my life make sense. It can be horrifying to think that one will never turn out the way one would have hoped. Yet it is not hopeless. Not entirely. "A little bit of anything goes a long way", a phrase Eigen uses repeatedly, feels very true for me. Growth happens, even if I feel dead inside, I don't just feel dead inside, no one living does. Yet to deny the reality of deadness won't make it go away. There are people for whom what happened early in their lives was simply too much to bear. A kind of on-pause but a yearning forward, risking and opening happens, it happens for me now in ways it never did before I was 30.
Eigen's tenderness with people for whom what happened simply will not go away or be ignored has helped me to feel less alone. I read his words and almost feel him in the room with me, and who's to say he's not. I've often thought of trying to set up an appointment to see him, but his words have felt like more than enough for me. Contact with the depths, from afar. Holding the pages in my hand, feeling my heart press forward.
I've been helped immensely by my therapist of the past decade. Unfortunately, there have also been many painful abandonments and ruptures in our work together. It's a not often talked about phenomenon in therapy; the ghosting of a patient by their therapist. We survived two of those, which lasted for almost a year and a half, and now we are there again. I imagine it can be overwhelming, at times, to think that the progress we are making with somebody inevitably gets swallowed up again and again by an unforeseeable, inner black tide. I know how hard the work is and I imagine my therapist has often felt overwhelmed by where we are and aren't able to go in our work together. Or by how undone our steps sometimes become by the lashing of the tide. I don't blame her, she has gotten me this far, I am still here because of her and I am certain I would not have been otherwise. I am only sharing this because I think it might help, in some small way others, who've experienced these kinds of ruptures with their therapists also.
It's confusing. Very confusing. It takes us right back to our early and very real repeated abandonments. But unlike those early abandonments, we know we were really seen and held this time around, many of us, for the first time in our lives. More good than bad has happened.
A good-enough therapist says, without words, "take me there" and stays the course even when the story is so dark and frightening it seems it could annihilate the very room in which it is being told. Sometimes we come up against our own limitations and we are stopped from going any further than we can in that or in any moment, we have to, it's the psyches road sign. A moment can be forever. Eigen says that "patients and therapists who must deal with persistent deadness are partners in a psychic evolution that is very much alive." We go through many deaths in a lifetime, internal funerals.
Something happens when we stay with something, Eigen says. Even the deadness one feels inside. If one can feel their dead insides, one is feeling something more than death itself. Life gets mixed in with death and much as we'd like to separate the two, their roots will not come apart. Can I live with my dead spots? Do dead spots sometimes also glow?
Recently I spent some time with a person who's own story, very much like my own, (poverty, abuse, trauma, transfiguration) ignited a spark of something (I want to call it recognition) for when we feel really seen it's because we are also really seeing another. I think that is the root part of therapy work, of healing work in general; the ways in which we see the there there, where before, we knew only numb. Dead spots do in fact glow. Two people who've both known what it's like to be buried alive also have known what it's like to dig one's way out. We sometimes find each other, and that finding, however briefly, brings a glow to what has died in us, is always dying in us in immeasurable measure. We aren't saved in those moments, we're just sharing a glow, dead spot to dead spot, yet alive. It must be said. We are alive in our dead spots.
There are things I've managed to do with my life that was unimaginable ten years ago. I joined a revolutionary movement and was able to do good things in it, to help people, who, like me, were at the very bottom. I went to college, however briefly. I published a book of poems. I started a literary journal which has kept me and many others alive for nearly five years. I was able to provide end of life care for my Grandmother, helping to ease her suffering and guide her gently into death, the most difficult and daunting experience of my life. I made peace with my parents who had both abused me horribly and I've been in touch with more of myself than ever before. Risking more skin than I thought I had on bones that have been, and still are, broken. I know the roads by which I travel. No small feat, to learn how to drive through the dark country of ourselves.
Parts of me will always be dead, I know that now. I'm making peace with that now. I'll never stop wanting or reaching for more of life, but I'll also never stop drawing back when the black tide in me rises. I make due with the life I have and I am grateful that it is not just death.
I feel that I've been able to make some small bit of difference in people's lives, despite my psychic disabilities. Making a space for those who have nowhere to go - to go, when they need it, a place to process and share their traumas and their emotional corpses; it feels very much like a healer's work. I may never be a therapist, (or live the life I would have imagined) but in some small way, I'd like to think that I've helped others, stranded along the road, find some safe ground. And that draws me into life alongside the tide of death. The water doesn't discriminate, it's all one thing. But there are moments, and they are precious, when we sometimes rise above, just long enough, to catch a glimmer (the way a dead spot glows) and we are grateful for that small bit of joy.