Grappling with grief ~ small steps towards equilibrium

The strategies and activities we figure out to help us through difficult times are likely to vary enormously from one person to another.  In this article I outline what helped me and became an important part of sorting things out.  Perhaps my list may give you some ideas about how to find what works for you. 

I went through a phase of buying the daily newspaper, which is not something I'd normally do.  Newspapers can be a recipe for depression, but they do also contains some really good articles.  I'd skim through the pages and only stop and read things that caught my interest and imagination.  This was very helpful in getting in touch with what had meaning for me, of defining points of focus.  If the content of an article had a particular charge to it I cut it out and put it to one side.  Sometimes I found that the content of a story unexpectedly stayed with me for days, and I'd go back through the papers to find it and cut it out.

I found that the stories mostly fell into three groups: stories about people I warmed to, who often had achieved something of benefit to others and raised my hopes about people in general.  Another file featured stories about nature and environmental successes.  Both sets of stories helped me feel better about the world we live in. There certainly were some wonderfully inspiring stories there.

The biggest file was a collection I called 'Conflict and Abuse'.  It contained stories about people who'd hit the bottom and somehow survived, even made good from it; stories of successful conflict resolution at both ends of the scale; stories about people who were still staggering with the consequences of inter-personal strife; stories of both victims and perpetrators of crime; of people who'd left cults and had to completely rebuild their lives...  The list was endless.

At one point I attempted to create an overview of what that big file contained, and I looked carefully at the photographs of these people.  One the whole they were as ordinary as anyone you could imagine, and many of them, like me, were middle-aged and just trying to get on with their lives.  I could identify with the man whose one point of routine in his day was brushing his teeth.  I felt privileged that I'd come from a background of being much loved by my parents which it seemed he'd never experienced.  I could identify with the woman who'd left a cult and in discarding her headscarf had waited for God to strike her down with a thunderbolt.  I could identify with the gifted science student who had a breakdown after an inter-departmental row over authorial rights which had nothing to do with her, and after two years still couldn't read a book.  I could identify with the business owner who for years fought to clear his name after he was wrongly convicted of causing the death of one of his staff.  I could identify with the mother of the woman who had died who went away from the courtroom when he finally cleared his name and spent the rest of the day vomiting.  I could identify with the three white collar men who were each on trial for different offences who gave each other companionship in the holding cells during their trials who never discussed with each other whether they were guilty or not.  They didn't judge each other just provided each other with companionship.  That's a powerful thing.

That's what I got from each of those articles.  All of us had in our way experienced ruin, and each of us was human, with the basic human needs for self-expression and companionship.  Each of us had to battle to find new ways in life.  Compassion means to suffer with, and this I did and still do feel, strongly.  We are not alone.  I didn't feel I needed to rush out and do anything about it, just read what was there and filed it away.

The taboo of speaking about suffering - and breaking through it: It was all very well reading about other people's suffering, but what about my own?  There seems to be a very ingrained taboo in most of us about expressing deep personal suffering.  For one thing it upsets those who hear it; it seems to threaten them in some way, and for another, it may make us feel more vulnerable for having done so.  But it's more than that.  I had a very memorable dream at that most difficult time which was of being in a land  in which everyone was experiencing unimaginable cruelty and suffering.  There was someone there whom I knew slightly but we did not acknowledge each other.  The only way anyone was ever able to get out was to make a pact never to tell what had happened to them there.  So this forbidden zone in me was very real at a deep level, and very likely in many others.  Taken as a metaphor at a different level, it shows that no one can fully understand what we have been through, unless perhaps they have been through something similar themselves, but even then, what they feel about and with us, are going to be essentially their own feelings.  Ultimately we are alone, and these experiences are solitary.  But I believe it's important to try to convey at least some of it, to break through our own fear of doing so.

Therapists and counsellors:
This underlines the importance of  getting impartial help in the form of a counsellor or therapist.  I've found this a big help even though I managed without this for about ten years longer than I need have done.  There were reasons for that which I've outlined elsewhere, and I do want to emphasise the helpfulness of being able to unburden oneself to someone whose job it is to listen.  This protects our friends and family from taking the full brunt of our troubles which can be too much for them.  They've got their own lives to get on with.  Speaking the words does have a physical effect.  I used to tremble uncontrollably from fear and distress, even if I was talking to someone with whom I felt completely safe.  I don't understand this but there it was.  Gradually that has subsided, but it's taken a very long time for that improvement to be achieved. 

As I've said elsewhere, writing to 'download' difficult experiences can be an immense help.  I have read that the process of creating a coherent story about a traumatic series of events can be very helpful in beginning to let those events begin to take their proper place in our memories, which is in the past.  The whole problem with trauma is that it continues to intrude into the present, so this approach is definitely worth considering.  That is to some extent what I've done with this series of writings.  However, I've only been able to begin to do this effectively quite recently, and while I was in the thick of things I simply couldn't manage it.  I tried, but each time had to set it aside as it was too upsetting.  The aspect of it that was helpful was externalising all that I could remember about what went wrong, just as it crossed my mind.  There was a great deal of it.  I didn't bother trying to be coherent, just wrote and wrote and wrote whatever crossed my mind.  I was well aware that I'd been continually going over these details in my mind, I think in a defensive way.  I wanted to be sure I never made the same mistakes again.  Writing them down meant I didn't have to remember them - I could go and read them later - if I wanted to, which by and large I haven't.  What a relief not to have to remember, remember, remember... 

I go through phases of writing my dreams down.  Often they provide an interesting parallel reflection of what is going on in my waking life.  Sometimes they show up parts of it that are missing.  Sometimes I find elaborate symbolism which provides the answer to questions that have been perplexing me which I would never have thought of myself.  Sometimes they seem simply to be a composting process of what has been going on for me during the day.  Particularly menacing dreams may hold information that is useful, but more often seem to be the result of an over-wrought brain.

My comment is that while I've found dreams to be outstandingly insightful and helpful on occasion, when I was most unwell they provided more than I could cope with.  At such a time writing them down may prove helpful as a downloading mechanism, so that dreams can be acknowledged and then set aside.  It's important not to go on adding to our own load of things we have to deal with.  Take it easy.

I've talked a lot about writing.  Some people find keeping a diary helpful.  I prefer to use a loose leaf binder.  The advantage of that is that I can easily discard pages that are no longer wanted or needed.  The disadvantage is that I have to remember to date and file new pages.  You'll know what suits you best. 

I've talked elsewhere about the books which I found helpful, and these can be accessed via the label index to the right of the screen or in the article "Books: recommended titles".  On the whole they are either by or about people who have navigated similar difficulties.  These are the ones that helped me.  You'll have or perhaps develop your own list. 

Contact with nature:
I've talked about the significance of this for me a number of times.

Gardening is not only a practical help in providing some food but also a creative outlet.  It's also a source of enduring reassurance - nature has it's own ways, mechanisms and rhythms which are largely independent of me: I put seeds in the ground, but it's the spark of life in the seed that does the work of germination and defines what it will grow into and produce.  The ground and all that it contains does the work.  I have a very minor role of pottering about supervising things: weeding, trimming and watering.  I love that.  And it's always changing.  Lovely!  And unexpected - even better!  All this is independent of politics and interpersonal relationships, religion and all the rest of it, for which I am supremely grateful! 

Pets can have a similar role: They provide companionship and interest and our problems and hang-ups are largely irrelevant to them.  The dog still needs to be taken for a walk, the cat continues to jump on our lap, and so on.  I remember once, years ago, when our pet rooster bit me crossly on the leg on a day when I was feeling particularly disgruntled myself.  The rooster didn't care about my feelings and moods - he had his own.  I remember being surprised, and it did help me come out of myself a bit. 

Re-connecting with others:
At a time of intense suffering there is nothing left over to put into relating to anyone who is outside our immediate circle and direct day to day needs, but gradually as thing settle down a little, there is more room for other sorts of contact. 

I've mentioned a number of times how isolated I've been and how I felt somehow different to most other people I knew.  I decided I needed to explore more about who I really am in a practical context, and this meant finding out more about my extended family.  I found this incredibly worthwhile.  I had thought that not only I was 'different' but that my whole immediate family were similarly so.

In the process of getting in touch with the extended family and exploring back over three to four generations what I found was that we were all very much a product of those who had gone before us; various family traits were easily found which were in common, and yes, there are certain threads of difficulty that came to light, not necessarily the ones I expected, but there all the same.  I made a whole big project of it, assembling details and photographs, and collecting anecdotes.  It was fascinating and by no means complete.

A word of caution however: if you consider doing anything similar, it's no easy trail.  All families have their sensitivities and troubled pasts, and these need to be treated with great respect, both with regard to establishing a level of trust and the need we all have for a degree of privacy.  And enquiries may not be welcomed.  I was immensely fortunate to find the Welcome Mat and considerable courtesy extended to me, but this isn't necessarily the case.  Also, there may be surprises which can be upsetting.

On the whole, though, it was immensely worthwhile, in establishing my heritage and with it a sense of kinship and belonging which I hadn't had before.  The ice of my isolation was cracking in all directions!  This was a very good thing. 

Self expression:
Little by little the pressure eases.  Like a body of water it will seem to wash back with renewed force some of the time, but overall is likely to gradually ebb.  I've found that self-expression has been a vital component in recovering my ability to function more normally, and with it my well-being.

Inspiration for what we need in life can come from unexpected quarters: last year I watched Adam Lambert sing his way through the American Idol season and was vastly impressed by the confidence with which he expressed himself and the strength of feeling he was happy to let flood out with his voice.  I thought, most of us aren't like that.  Most of us don't let ourselves express a particle of that.  Conclusion: not good enough.  Further conclusion: might be a good idea to start to take a bit more of a risk myself.

I'd done lots of good work with exploring contacts and communication, but had so much more inside which I knew was valuable and which remained concealed.  That was the start of the Rushleigh Chronicles, so, thanks Adam, for the inspiration!  And here I am hopefully passing on a little of that myself.  Take small steps and I'm sure you'll find you can do it too!  

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Forging a way from trauma to wholeness

Forging a way from trauma to wholeness

Crisis and trauma throw us back on our own resources and we have to draw on whatever wells of strength and ingenuity we can muster to get through.  At such times it can feel as if our very lives hang by a thread.  And that may well be the case.

If we survive it can be a long road back to something approaching normal, and our lives are unlikely ever to be the same again.  We can't deny that things have changed or pretend nothing has happened.  Everything has happened.  We then have the challenge of gradually incorporating the legacy of those events into the fabric of our lives.  If we can do it.  It doesn't always seem to be possible, but I believe it's worth striving for. 

Traumatic experiences bring up responses in ourselves that most of us would rather not acknowledge: violence and hatred are likely to be among them, for a time, bringing with them danger to ourselves and others.  We have to find ways of working with these forces constructively and to find safe ways of expressing them.  

In looking at difficulties I often find it helpful to consider nature and see what goes on there.  Nature includes all the seasons and climatic variations.  All have their time and place: storms, eruptions, earthquakes, and dying back are part of that and are then followed by seasons of new growth and renewal.  

Since we are part of the natural world it makes sense that the equivalent forces in our own circumstance be respected.  Used constructively the energy of those difficult survival responses, which are instinctive, can provide the engine power needed to change what is happening and get us back on track.  This is no easy task and it's not surprising that most of us need help in doing so. 

This can be a huge challenge.  The alternative is that we maintain ourselves in a fragmented state, which means we have only a partial existence.  This presents another problem: it takes energy to stay divided within ourselves.  And the whole thing may erupt again and we may  find ourselves in a worse muddle than before. 

I'm sure that increased strength can arise from fully owning our griefs and imperfections.  With it comes greater self-knowledge and the likelihood of greater compassion for others.  And finally, it throws open the door to a whole new realm of possibilities which would not otherwise be there.

This has been true for me.  The problems I faced from the past have forced me to explore things in ways I wouldn't otherwise have done, and the direction of my outer life has changed very much as a result.  I'm a better person for it and more whole.  

This is not going to be everyone's choice.  We each have to find our own way.  I wish you strength with yours.   

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Trauma in the world around us and striving for peace

Trauma in the world around us & striving for peace

In squaring up to our own trauma as well our internal conflicts it's inevitable that we become more aware of them in those around us.  As I've remarked in an earlier article when I've read about other people in crisis I've been struck by how very ordinary they all look, how various their circumstances have been and how many of them there are.  This sort of thing is everywhere.    

How does society continue to function at all?  It seems to me that it's through the ordinariness of every day contact and routine.  I can see this when I look out the window, dig the garden or go down to the shops: we potter about contributing here, benefiting from other peoples contributions there, drinking cups of tea...  The seasons turn...  We have our families and all their little and large concerns along with our own.  It's all familiar and largely dependable.  There's enough that's normal and known to keep the whole thing going, just!  Maybe.

But what about those societies in which what's normal and known doesn't have this balance?  In fact, what about those societies in which what's normal and known consists largely of chaos and destruction?  In their lives the Wasteland isn't an internal state or limited to their own household, it extends to include whole communities and the known future.  For these people the end may not be in sight.

Palestine, which includes Gaza, is one such place.  There are many others.  I include for your interest two brief video clips which tell the Palestinian side of the story:
Slingshot - Hip Hop trailer

Dam - Palestinian hip hop group

In considering the Jewish side of the equation their history of persecution is so lengthy and traumatic that it's not surprising that once the conscience of world leaders was sufficiently pricked it may have seemed to make sense to provide them with a clearly defined area that they could truly call their own.  For centuries many Jews had been deprived not only of the natural right of land ownership but had been hounded from place to place, even country to country.  The history of the Jews is horrendous.

Then the holocaust brought the devastation of an entire strata of society across Europe.  This would surely leave those who survived with overwhelming trauma of another dimension altogether.  One can't but wonder how much harder it may have been to help them start again in their former homes and neighbourhoods, most of which no longer existed, but possibly better in the long run.  Israel was certainly their historical home, but it was also the historic and indeed the present home of the Arab people.

Furthermore, the implications of grouping together a whole nation of people with this degree of trauma sitting so close to the surface are frightening.  No one can turn the clock back.  So now the Palestinians are placed in the situation of being abused and traumatised.  What now?  I suggest that those who deny the existence of hell haven't experienced it.

Abuse is the result of a person or groups of people exerting damaging influence or control over others.  When this has happened it needs much more than compassion and compromise to begin to set things right.  What is needed is acknowledgement and some form of justice.  Then compromise can begin to find its place.

But in a situation like this the cycle of abuse, trauma and injustice has become like a house of cards.  It's tragic.  Very likely the trauma is there in all of them.  And if not in all individuals, then certainly in family heritage.  The strength of feeling that lies within our family histories is considerable and should not be under-estimated. Anyone who watches programmes about genealogies, such as "Who do you think you are?" will witness this in every single episode. 

In dealing with personal instances of crisis and trauma we have to navigate a great deal of unpleasantness both within ourselves and in relation to others.  We are challenged to find healthy ways of dealing with the more onerous aspects of our personalities and behaviours and those of others.

I'm sure that the same principles apply to conflicts on a larger scale.  Striving for love and peace alone is not enough.  Striving for peaceful solutions which include finding better ways of working through contentious issues that include violence and aggression, is necessary.  The energy contained within these difficulties has the potential to help power through to new better possibilities and solutions.  I see the danger of simply ignoring or suppressing unpleasantness as being far more risky in the long run.  The pain and sense of injustice that's at the back of it may dull with time, but it doesn't simply evaporate.  It is likely to just sit there quietly, until next time.  

However, if nothing else is available to us we have to come back to moral codes of how to behave.  Ultimately it's not about nations in which individual identities can be conveniently submerged, it's about people.  We're all people.  We all have responsibilities to each other which should never be forgotten or ignored.  We all know what these are - we have only to look in our own hearts to see how we ourselves would wish to be treated and then extend that hand to others.   

Those interested in exploring these sorts of issues further may wish to read Madeleine Albright's remarkable book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs".  Madeleine was Secretary of State for Bill Clinton and in that role had first hand experience of diplomacy and efforts towards conflict resolution in the Middle East.  She gives much valuable information about Islam, Jewish as well as Christian thinking and has continued to consult widely among all these groups while forming her own views which she expresses openly.  She underlines how important it is that we wish to understand, especially when we don't, and that in tackling conflict that we be willing to communicate constructively for as long as it takes.  She is committed to this for the long haul in the face of what seems like overwhelming odds.   I found reading her book helpful and inspiring. 

Another book which gives a valuable perspective on the struggles of the Middle East is Queen Noor's memorable book "Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an unexpected life".  While in her twenties she married King Hussein of Jordan and converted to Islam.  She created her own unique role in humanitarian work in this very troubled area of the world.   Again we have a side of the news which isn't broadcast on television. 

Purchasing links for interested NZ readers: 
"The Mighty and the Almighty: reflections on America, God and World Affairs" - other editions available including audio.  To find them click on the author link of this editions author details.
The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs

"Leap of faith: memoirs of an unexpected life" by Queen Noor  - other editions available)
A Leap of Faith: Memoir of an Unexpected Life

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"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are"

This quotation from Theodore Roosevelt is one I often call to mind when under pressure, especially from big issues.  It's very practical, and I find being practical helpful when I'm overwhelmed - either by too much or too little.

In relation to the 'too much' scenario it brings me back to myself when the world at large seems alien and out of control.  It helps me focus instead on what my situation is, what my most immediate needs are and on what I am doing to stay sane and calm and active in my own small way.

In relation to the 'too little' scenario, my concern is usually to do with too little control, too little money, or a paucity of stamina.

Note repetition of the control theme in each case.  Loss of personal power is known to be a major stress factor, which may impact more on thoughtful people like me who tend to see themselves as outsiders.

I do tend to panic about the big issues which affect us now and look set to increase incrementally in the near future: global warming, climate disaster, food shortages, economic and political turmoil... It seems that how we respond to these challenges now is going to define what happens on this planet for a very long time to come.

So, what can I do here, with what I have?
On the face of it it may seem like not much, but when placed together regular practical actions can and do add up.  This helps me feel that I am contributing to the general good in my own way: I can grow things, including some of the vegetables we eat, which is constructive and calming; I can bottle locally produced fruit and tomatoes and bake using New Zealand grown flour, which rewards local growers and saves carbon miles; I can buy things second hand, which saves waste, and I can walk rather than using the car as much as possible; I show respect to my fellow creatures, both human and otherwise...  These are some of the things I do and have control over. Talking about them and sharing some of my skills and insights in order to help others is another way I contribute.  

What happens on a grand scale I can't control, but that is made up of all our little contributions be they active or passive, so I encourage readers to step out of the modern tide of superficial non-sense, fear and clutter which is so depressing and wasteful, and to consciously exert what influence you can.

Other ways individuals can contribute are through joining peace or environmental groups, charitable and humanitarian organisations, doing volunteer work and so on. 
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
(This article was originally posted in my At Home Chronicle, and has been adapted for its place here.)

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Finding the way forward ~ while standing (on) our own ground

Finding the way forward ~ while standing (on) our own ground

No one can know what the future holds or what's right for each of us in life.  Some destinies seem more definite than others, but even then outside factors can unexpectedly intervene and turn our worlds upside down.  Our lives take us through hills and hollows, but some seem more right and necessary to us than others.  

How do we find what's right for us?  There are no easy answers and decision-making is tricky.  In the course of these articles I've shared how I've made appalling mistakes by taking other people's advice too literally and of accepting their declarations of truth and faith as having more than individual value.  I have also found more formal and traditional ways of planning and weighing things up fallible, if in a different way.  I've recognised the need to find other ways of working things out and arriving at what's right for me.  I've concluded that the compass I need is within myself.

My guess is that each of us is going to have our own way of doing this.  I'll share the outline of mine here in case aspects of it are useful to others.

I'm both highly analytical on the one hand and naturally intuitive on the other.  I like to take both into account when I'm working things out as neither is complete in itself: logic provides a good mechanism for doing research and checking information, and intuition is helpful for creative insight and impulses.  Where the two intersect, I come to that place of inner knowing if something is right for me or not.  So I pay attention to both, do my homework and then listen to what's going on inside me, especially what's going on in my body. 

If I'm on track I feel steady and calm, even if I'm a bit nervous too.  I also feel hopeful in a level-headed way.  There is a feeling of things being right.  My body feels sturdy.  If I feel any physical drawing back, niggling doubt, sinking sensations or trepidation I back off or consider other options.  I've learnt to hold to what this tells me even if in a logical sense it seems wrong.

If I feel that certainty, I hold to it.  But if it's a big decision I let it sit maybe for a week or so.  That certainty may be over-ruled by other information, other factors, and if so I slip my past certainty into the 'that was interesting' file and move on.  It might be useful for further reference another time.  But not now.  My sense of what is right may change overnight.  Then I stick with that.  Until the next thing comes along. 

While the input of others is important, at times their notions of what is right can be distracting and unbalance us.  I keep listening to how I feel inside and if I've been reticent I usually find out later that my instinct was right all the time.  I call this holding my own ground.  This is the central thing: many influences in the world swirl around us all the time.  We all need to hold our own ground and to make our decisions from that place of inner confidence.

Other distractions may come in the form of group excitement, such as occurs after disasters and during wars.  At such times large masses of people get upset and that energy seems to pool into group fear or over-drive of one sort and another.  When our fight or flight instincts are on full alert it can take considerable strength of character to holds one's own ground, and make decisions and draw conclusions in a careful and moderate manner.  These instincts can be valuable but can also lead us astray. 

If a decision has to be made in a hurry and I don't have time to work things out to my own satisfaction I usually let whatever opportunity is there pass unopened.  If I don't have time to do things properly, they aren't right for me at that point.  Maybe another time.  I don't have to explore all opportunities.

I am wary of high emotions which can make things seem much more urgent and right for us than they actually are.  I see an emotional response as just an emotional response, nothing more.  That has its place but not in the foreground of working out what's important.  So if that's what I experience, I wait until it has subsided before moving forward.  If, after that, I come to that place of calm confidence and inner assurance it's usually fine to go ahead. 

It's also about staying safe.  It's fine to be cautious.  If that's what makes us feel stronger then that's a good choice.  If we make choices which include significant risks we need to have done our homework and to make those choices with care and deliberation.

If we keep tuned to our inner sense of rightness that will swing the balance one way or the other, or in an unexpected, previously unexplored direction.  Taking time for consideration and doing good ground work leaves the way open for opportunities to arise which may not have been evident before.  Of course, this may happen anyway!

If we keep holding our own ground and standing on it fully, we'll stay on track.  If we allow ourselves to be distracted or swayed away into areas in which we feel shaky we are likely to gradually get further and further away from what is right for us.  Then the effort required to regain our rightful path will require much greater effort and possibly cause considerable upheaval.

Sometimes the what feels like the right choice turns out to be wrong, but does none the less lead to the one that is right, which might not otherwise have been able to be reached.  

Over the years that I've been using this approach I've got quicker and more confident at weighing things up and making decisions.  And I'm less anxious generally.  Don't imagine that I no longer get into muddles or make mistakes - there are still make plenty of those, but my batting average is much better than it was.  It's not everything but it helps.

You'll need to work out your own evaluation process.  I wish you good fortune in working out what that is.

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Holding the balance ~ and passing the torch

Holding the balance ~ and passing the torch

What's the point of having worked so hard at all of this if the rest of the world is going mad, or simply carries on regardless?  It's not easy, but I still think it's worth it.  Given the choice I much prefer to live as fully as I can.  I more able to do so if I've found the balance within myself that comes from having come to terms with difficulties I've had in the past, and am  also regularly doing what I can to contribute to the greater good in practical ways, however small.

The world seems to have become a increasingly dangerous and unstable place, yet there is much good: glorious sunrises, wondrous music, heartening friends, happy events...  

We often hear that in a global context we are all only six people removed from any other person in the world.  This means we are all much more closely connected than it would appear.  If this is so, we can surely make a difference by reaching out to those we do know or come across with at least an attitude of generosity, tolerance and good humour, where we feel confident to do so.  I don't think we have to do this with everyone: people we feel unsafe with will be someone else's friend who can reach out to them.  

I would hope that one way and another, there is enough energy in the whole thing for it all to work out.  If anything is going to hold the balance for our shared future, I think it will be this, not braininess, not science, not Messiahs, but simple ordinary companionship and generosity, which starts with those we love. 

The generosity of many people over the years has made it possible for me to reach the place where I am now in my life.  I want to pass that on, with this Chronicle, with hopes of a happier, healthier, more stable world for us all. 
~ God speed ~

This is the final article in Part 5.  To go to Part 6 click this link: