I’ve been pondering the characteristics of troubled and healthy families. Among the characteristics of healthy families are high self-worth of the family members; direct, clear and honest communication; flexible, human, appropriate, and malleable rules; and an open, hopeful link to society and others based on choice.
In light of these characteristics, I think that Tolstoy’s idea that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way is true. Because each person’s life experience is unique to them, and the way they receive and interpret these experiences also unique, it seems possible to decipher a person’s patterns only in an intimate, even one-on-one relationship. It can take years, and even then it’s hardly likely that one person can come to understand another. It’s more likely that, after much work, we may be able to understand ourselves. Jung said so and I also tend to agree with him. Lord knows that it seems to be a full time job for me to continue to gain personal insight. I often think that the best gift I can give to anyone else, therefore, is the gift of the possibility of true self consciousness. The only gift we really have to give is ourselves. As Jesus said, “let your light shine.”
Kicking the Habit
Last time I wrote about what your Thorn or mine said. Today I wonder, what was the Name of that Thorn, or the Wound it made? One of my big thorns was named “Unwanted.” Some people I know and love have told me that the names of theirs were “Alone” and “No Identity” and “Useless.” It’s a spiritual and psychological principle that we have to know there’s a problem before we can heal or cure it. “First remove the log from your own eye,” Jesus said, “and then you’ll see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” If we haven’t removed what distorts our perception of reality and truth, we may still compulsively try to heal our brother’s supposed blindness. Our own disability doesn’t stop us. Scary thought, isn’t it? We are just that compulsively other-oriented.
The thing is that all the knowledge and wisdom in the universe are available to us, even at our fingertips. We are blessed among so many previous generations of people, because we have Google, and YouTube (for starters). Why, you can watch just about anyone’s teaching on YouTube, or read transcripts or even whole books by Googling them. There’s really no excuse for the westerner to continue to be unconscious, a walking wounded refusing to become healed.
And yet, here we are, living in a nation with six percent of the world’s population, producing most of the world’s wealth, and having one of the highest standards of living in the world, and yet with one of the highest crime rates, highest teen pregnancy rates, highest illiteracy rates among post-industrialized countries, and highest depression and anxiety rates. What is wrong with this picture?
What is wrong, I think, is that we like to watch our families and real, whole people on television and in the movies, but we don’t want to do the hard character work of truly being in a family or being a real, whole person. Even when someone else or a circumstance or ten seem to point out a problem we’re having with functioning or reality testing, we resist light and truth and will argue our ways out of it. We are such creatures of habit. We are so set in our ways.
Habits are strong when they have had 20 or more years to develop. It’s impossible to have grown up in a troubled, discombobulated family of origin and then suddenly become a healthy, functioning, loving adult at age 21. Or even by age 31. One must have substantial help navigating through all the developmental phases one missed during the first 20+ years. If you’re lucky, a conscious, healthy spouse can offer re-parenting, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Most loopy people pick mates who will perfectly re-create what their parents gave them. We all say we won’t do it, and that we didn’t do it, and we will argue against it, but the sad fact is that these things don’t just go away by themselves. As Saint Paul wrote, I know that what I want to do is right, but the doing of it isn’t in me, and even when I try to do it, I can’t do it: “Helpless wretch that I am! Who will deliver me?!” In other words, it’s a fantastic, desperate struggle.
So if you’re wounded in some significant way, having facts and information about how to be normal won’t help one bit. Only healing will make you able to benefit from facts and information. The wound cries out, and it will continue to ooze and blood cells and energy rush to it until it is healed, and the body can normalize. This is true for the physical body, and it’s true for the spirit. Put another way, as Jesus taught, “if the eye is dark, the whole body is dark; and oh, how great is that darkness.” Again, in Proverbs, it says “to the crooked, all things appear crooked; but to the straight, all things appear straight.” It’s all about the beholder, not the beheld.
Wake Up Call
How does healing arise? I think we have an Aha! moment. I think that something happens as we go through life numbly, and suddenly for a moment, we’re not numb or asleep or unconscious. Often, another person says something to us. A friend may suggest something. Or the pain finally becomes so great that we ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with me?”
Other times, the ache and pain of a broken soul or heart pulses away in our chests until tears seep out of our eyes, unbidden. We don’t know why, but we want and need to know why. And so we begin to search for answers, for relief for the pain. We want to fix what doesn’t appear right or good. We’re shocked that we are so unconscious, and have been living such a lie.
Many things can happen to wake us up, but when we do wake up, the message is clear and unequivocal: Something is wrong with this picture. We see in incongruency. We catch ourselves in a lie, or are caught lying. We deny reality or indisputable facts. We realize with a shock that others have lied to us, and are still lying to us. We see what we did to relieve our cognitive dissonance. We lied to ourselves, we lied to them, we joined in their lies. We’ve become no better than the very people we accused and even hated, the ones who done us wrong. We feel it in our bodies, that root of wrongness deep inside. And then we know, and our choices are between trying to get back to sleep, or being awake and in pain and being stuck in pain, or of getting relief for the pain.
I notice that most people, once alert to the fact that they have a problem, don’t go back to sleep exactly as they were before. The bigger the pain, the bigger the pain-killer, if a person chooses a pain-killer rather than healing. And so many do. These people throw themselves into all sorts of rationalizing activities and other compulsions to ward off the anxiety produced by insight. Or they blame others and fuss with them until they feel justified in leaving, or otherwise get the fix that leads them back to a state of truce with the Wound. This is why so many addicts fail to recover once they’re released from treatment centers. They take the first opportunity they get as sober people with tools in their hands, and they toss the tools aside and they redouble their efforts at killing the pain through addictions. That wound isn’t healed until it can be looked at squarely. And it’s oh-so-painful to look at, to recall to mind, to have one’s heart broken yet again.
The numbing and fleeing continue until the person gets tired of being a slave to that Wound. But just being tired of the wound guarantees nothing. Really, the idea of going all the way to nothingness, as Buddha suggested, or to dying (metaphorically) as Jesus suggested, is just about right. When one’s whole identity has been wrapped up in the Wound, it will indeed feel like annihilation or death to identify with anything other than Wound.
I have a person named Amanda in my life. She was raised in one of the most unhinged environments I’ve seen outside of my child welfare and advocacy work. She was unwanted, unloved, the child of an abusive alcoholic and a personality-disordered basket case who required her caretaking throughout her childhood. Her early childhood was spent in trailer parks and temporary housing, and she identified herself as a transient, trailer-type person. This became who she was.
Amanda later had numerous opportunities to come into real, loving relationships with others who do like all real, loving people do, which is love others truly, act and speak honestly, be aware of themselves and others, and have boundaries and standards and aims. She saw permanence, reliability, and true love, and she wanted them all.
Amanda desperately wanted realness and love, but after some years of receiving it, it became apparent that she didn’t really want them when they required something of her. She wanted the appearance of realness and love, and all the benefits others would give her, but she didn’t want to change in actuality. To change means to do something different.
After several years of being truly loved, she struck out on her own. She alienated others and bred mistrust, fear, and dislike in everyone who actually loved her. She aligned herself with fake people. She became the worst best facsimile of “Trailer Trash.” When she became a mother, she moved every single year in the name of prosperity, dragging young children with her, continually moving up, up, up. She separated her children from healthy people and continued to value time with people and places where image was the most imporant thing.
What was Amanda’s tipping point, the thing that tipped the scale from “possibility of healing and real love” back to “not love”? I’ll tell you what. It was her Wound. One of her big Wounds was named “Trailer Trash.” The only antidote for “Trailer Trash” is found in what? Externalizing an inner self-concept—a big mistake—and outwardly pursuing whatever was not “Trailer Trash.”
She developed a spending addiction and hid stuff she bought so her husband wouldn’t know about it. She lied, she hid things from everyone. One day, I happened to catch her in a lie and in a rush of remorse, she suddenly told me that she had felt so excited and happy, even giddy, about buying a new dresser at a local furniture store. She thought that she needed and even deserved this dresser. The only problem was that she and her husband didn’t have the money for the dresser. In order to get it, she’d either have to charge it or delay gratification and save for it.
“I know I shouldn’t have done this, but I did it anyway. I charged it. And I lied to my husband about it” she confessed.
“And you knew that was wrong, and would betray more trust?”
“Yes. I knew. I had to have it anyway.”
I pondered a moment, and then I told her that it appeared that she was at a tipping point, and that if she didn’t do something about her error and begin to mend her ways right now, she would be tipped in the direction that would eventually land her exactly where she did not want to be, which was “Trailer Trash.”
And that’s exactly what happened. She’s now so far away from real love and esteem and healthy living that I know of no healthy people with ongoing relationships with her. Her intimates are people who are like her—no surprises there.
The way this worked, to put it in a formulaic way, was that one driving wound was called “Trailer Trash.” The particular pain that came from that particular wound was the pain of not being good enough in her own inner substance. But in her confusion, she mistakenly thought the wound was all about money and stuff—externals. She became confused and stayed that way, even when people like me tried to help. Our help did not help. In fact, eventually she bit the hand that fed her. That’s the way it works.
Making a List, Checking it Twice
She might have had some insight had she made and kept handy a list of “Trailer Trash” words and deeds. What does “Trailer Trash” say? What does “Trailer Trash” do?
- Trailer Trash is transient; a home with wheels.
- Trailer Trash is not respectable.
- Trailer Trash is not safe when high winds, hail, or tornados come along.
- Trailer Trash feels false.
- Trailer Trash is judged by others.
- Trailer Trash is poor.
- Trailer Trash is never as good as a House.
- Trailer Trash is too small.
- Trailer Trash can be uncomfortable in the winter and summer.
- Trailer Trash can be broken into, and doesn’t feel substantial.
These are some of the things that “Trailer Trash” meant to Amanda. Had Amanda been able to make use of her “Trailer Trash” list, whenever she felt her emotion rise, or became bull-headedly attached to an idea, such as the idea of Dresser, she might have been able to connect the dots between Dresser and Not Trailer Trash. How does this look? I’ll show you:
- Dresser is substantial. It’s heavy. It has no wheels.
- Dresser is pretty and expensive, therefore respectable.
- Dresser is safe because it’s heavy and has mass.
- Dresser is true: it is made of solid wood.
- Dresser will be approved of others.
- Dresser happens because I am a success.
- Dresser is good enough, maybe even better!
- Dresser is large.
- Dresser feels good.
- Dresser has good workmanship and is substantial.
Now we see how Dresser has the magical power of making Amanda Not Trailer Trash.
This is how it works. Please, I invite you to make your own list. The next time you feel that feeling in your solar plexus, or wherever you feel it. The next time you are outraged. The next time tears could shoot out of your eyes. The next time you lie to defend yourself. The next time you use another human being. The next time you dishonor your gift or the gift of others, or the sacrifice that was made: make a list. Ask your Wound its name. Find out how it looks. How it acts. How it feels and smells. How you feel when you are in it. How you imagine you’ll feel when you aren’t. What you imagine as the antidote—and make an antidote list, for the antidote is always just the opposite of the Wound.
And then look around you at all the magic talismans you’re using, rather than healing the wound. And please consider really healing the wound. If you don’t heal the wound, it is a 100% spiritual and psychological certainty that you will pass the wound down to your own children, and perhaps to yet another generation, until someone along the line is brave enough and has a big enough heart and faith to do what you didn’t.
And why wouldn’t we really heal the wound?