Trauma and Power
These days I’ve been aware of how important it is to distinguish what’s going on around us—whatever the state the world is in—from what’s going on within us—the state we’re in.
In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of the moon and the lake to point at this. And for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t read my post on Intimacy, imagine you’re sitting on the shore of a mountain lake. It’s summer, it’s warm, the sun is going down, not a cloud in the sky. Just now, the moon begins to rise and as it’s rising you see a reflection of it on the surface of the lake in front of you. The lake is so still, the moon’s reflection so precise, that it’s visually impossible to tell which is which. And then some kid down the shore kerplunks an enormous rock into the lake and we say goodbye to that illusion.
But if we pay attention, we see the presence of illusion all around us. After all, there is a world out there, but the only way we know anything about it is because of its reflection on the surface of the lake that’s inside us. Whenever our lake is quiet, we get a pretty accurate representation—or let me say re-presentation—of what’s out there. But when we’re anxious or afraid or perhaps a bit panicked, not so much. We end up seeing the disturbed waters more than the world reflected in them.
The bad, as well as the good, news here is this: there’s a kid in here with us who regularly throws rocks in our water.
I’ll tell you a little story by way of illustration. One night recently, as my wife and I were lying in bed, talking about the days we’d had, which of us was on dog duty in the morning and who was going for groceries, Dianne said “You know, I just haven’t felt well all day. I’ve got this headache, and my chest is tight and—I don’t know—I just have this sense that something’s not right.” Given the world we’re in these days, it wasn’t exactly good sleep hygiene to hear this, and I’m sure my brow furrowed, but a little while later I found myself drifting off to sleep.
The next morning, I got up early and sat with my cup of tea and my dog watching the dawn and the birds at the feeder. But my heart and mind weren’t open to the scene before me. I continued my worry from the night before: does Dianne have this virus? In the online news feed I turn to for distraction I see the stock market falling, there’s enormous confusion whether we can afford to go back into lock-down or whether we can afford not to, a chaotic election is nearly here, the bridge I use between the ferry terminal and Seattle is closed, maybe forever, and the rent on an office I cannot use is coming due. Seemingly out of nowhere it occurs to me that I haven’t actually touched anyone not married to me for months.
Then, because this is part of how I work with my clients, I ask myself: ‘Richard, what are you feeling right now?’ The reply is immediate: ‘Good God, my mind is just racing. My whole body is tight like a fist and I’m only breathing into my throat. I don’t know whether to run, screaming, into the woods or fall, weeping, to my knees. I feel helpless and overwhelmed and alone.’
And because this is also what I do with my clients, I ask: ‘What’s that like?’
And you know what it’s like? It’s just like it was, growing up in my family, with an alcoholic father. I’m confused and I don’t know who to trust and what’s happening seems too big for me to let it all in.
It’s at that point that I take a deep breath. I feel how much like my younger self I feel and how different a thing that is from the man I also am, in the year 2020. And even though I know I cannot know what’s going to happen, I understand that it’s OK, as the man I am, to be uncertain or even confused. The tightness in my chest and the knot in my back start to relax.
But I hadn’t actually been aware of this younger version of me emerging. I just sort of became it. Every one of us has experienced things that have been too big for the person we were to take in, whether it was a divorce or having to move, repeatedly, to a new home or having a parent that couldn’t be their best when we needed them to be. We all learned ways of titrating that experience in order to simply endure it, either by running from it, or closing ourselves down or exploding in rage. And whenever we come upon events that are big like that now, we stop seeing them as they are. Instead we re-experience who we were, then. Or said another way, that kid kerplunks our lake.
In the beautiful and terrible way of these things, the capacities we’ve developed in all the years since those first overwhelming experiences are lost to us. If we think of power not as the amount of force we can bring to bear upon the world, but rather as the capacity to withstand whatever forces bear down upon us without becoming distorted, it’s the loss of power that results.
There’s something in these troubled times that troubles us in ways which reduce our capacity to tolerate or respond to them. We become younger than we are. We become captivated by the choppy waters of the lake inside us, seeing less and less of the world as it is. The consequence is that we can’t see the actual present, let alone any possible future. We only see our past.