Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Am I Safe?" The First Question

Hurricane Sandy, NY Times photo, 10.28.12
Originally published in 2011, this is the first in a series of posts on life as story. As the East Coast endures under Sandy, this is a reminder that in the Big Picture all is well.

I've been thinking about how to live with some sense of safety in a world that offers very little, and how to give it to clients who come to my office in search of a place where they feel safe enough to give birth to a new story. "It takes courage to become who you really are," wrote the poet e.e. cummings. And never more so than in times when being safe can feel more important than being true -- even if that means staying in an unhappy relationship or job, or hunkering down away from your dreams.

What I keep coming back to is resilience: the capacity to transform devastating experience into something positive. The self-healing mechanism that causes someone to carry on, no matter what. The inner safety that enables you to step out into the unsafe unknown to keep giving birth to yourself. Resilient people have a self-confidence and self-esteem based not on circumstances but on their own capacity to deal with the worst life throws at them. However, living as we do in a culture that tells us pain is bad, and that the solution to our problems is out there or in the medicine cabinet, many of us have lost touch with our natural resilience.

The First Story
Each human being arrives in life as a unique being, with potentials, gifts, predilections, and contributions to make. Jung called this potential our "star," an essential spirit that exists beyond our families, our environment, and our culture. It is an essence that holds the code to our destiny if we can discern and follow its path.

The most basic needs that must be met for a person to thrive (that is, to manifest their star) are 1) safety, 2) belonging, and 3) dignity. And the very first question we ask is "Am I safe?" Our first developmental task is to answer it. This answer becomes our first and foundational story.

In their book, Ghosts in the Nursery: A Search for the Roots of Violence, Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), describe the first two years of life as the critical period for setting the neurochemistry of the brain and building a template of expectations for life -- the core story. They write, “From our first breath on our first day of life we are learning who we are. We are building a model of what to expect, who will be there, how we will be received, how safe it is out there, how we can make ourselves known and comforted. We won’t remember these early experiences, but our limbic brain remembers and our body remembers.”

If our first caregivers are consistent sources of food, comfort, and affection, we learn that others are dependable and reliable. Like flowers turning toward the sun, we turn toward people. We leave infancy with a basic sense of well-being, a core resilience no matter what life holds for us, and a foundational trust in relationships. Karr-Morse and Wiley observe that children raised in nurturing families demonstrate compassion and altruism as early as four years of age.

For all too many of us, though, the first story is a different one. For whatever reason, our parents fail to provide a secure environment and to meet our basic needs for safety, belonging, and respect. The core story is that the world is undependable, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous. No matter how earnestly we go after our goals, we may be steeling ourselves against a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and a mistrust of the world in general. We become spiritual if not actual orphans. The pace of life and the distance created by the very technology that is meant to connect us help us to hide the orphan from others and from ourselves.

Until one day, we can’t anymore: The life we’ve known falls apart. Or the inner yearning breaks through the walls we’ve erected around it. All too many adults come into my practice with an emptiness in their life that nothing can fill – not material success, pleasure, busy-ness, alcohol, drugs, traditional therapy, nothing. What I sense that they’re looking for is the missing piece of themselves that got left at the gate, back at the beginning of life -- that wasn’t loved into being.

Art and Resilience

My role as a creative healer is to create a sanctuary where adults can drop the mask for an hour or two and find their way through the hidden bi-ways of the right brain to who they really are. Freewriting, poetry, fairy tale, drawing, collaging, dancing, playing -– in these activities both my clients and I connect with a primal innocence that has nothing to do with naivete and everything to do with being fully awake to reality, within and without, and seeing the truth of existence from a light-hearted place. The Islamic poet Kabir wrote, “I wish I could show you the astonishing light of your own being.” Artmaking is the healing mirror.

In his book, Art as Medicine, the well-known expressive arts teacher Shaun McNiff wrote: “The immersion in the materials and process of art-making frees a person from their ordinary self, the familiar, rules, the system, the conscious, controlling side of their personalities. Hidden characteristics of the self shine forth. In this special space, the person experiences themselves -– beyond label, self-concept, problem. It is in this place that the person can shape new ways of being, create new life, find new direction.” Creativity reframes the question, “Am I safe?” into “What can I make?"

Researchers who have studied people who have overcome the odds, such as those coming from high-risk environments characterized by alcoholism, abuse, mental illness, violence, and poverty, have found that these people share many of the following qualities:
~ Empathy;
~ A sense of humor;
~ Resourcefulness;
~ Autonomy, internal sense of control;
~ Imagination;
~ Sense of purpose and spiritual connectedness.

For thousands of years, human beings have survived storms, earthquakes, droughts, wars, trauma, heartache, and long, dark nights of the soul by gathering together, telling stories, and making art and music. Within darkness, the stars are always shining. We just can't always see them.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, experience, and suggestions on healing story, creativity, or resilience.

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