A Little Death

 

“Can one be fully human without experiencing tragedy? The end of the world for a caterpillar is a butterfly for the master. Death is resurrection.” -Anthony De Mello

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I died in front of my mother in high school. I’d been caste as a voiceless bug in a school play. The director assigned a boy to have all the speaking parts , while I played the rotting body, which resulted in our production winning an award. In real life I’d whittled myself down to 90 lbs. and was likely some kind of momentary burden. The parallels were ridiculous. This was around the time I’d be waked up by the featherless bird inside my rib cage banging itself against calcified bars. A friend’s father gave me an EKG one night. He pretended not to recognize me as a previous visitor in his house. The whole time the electric green lines pulsed across the monitor I wondered if this was it but the faces above me were expressionless. When you die on stage under a spot light, people cry and clap. Gregor and I were both attempting to use our changed states to speak for us, illicit a response and likely deliver an agenda. True transformation requires letting go of a need to hurt, prove, justify or otherwise wrangle a specific audience with the sharp points of your desired outcome. Blinded by shame, the rage of rejection and powerlessness, I couldn’t see myself or face any kind of truth. All you know is you’ve been used up and become empty. You can’t answer the how or why. Could Gregor have simply moved to an apartment in another town, rather than living to infest his family home? What is it that keeps us sticking around, haunting each other with unmet needs and wailing wounds? There’s a scene in a movie where a little girls father has decided to leave the family in favor of an affair. She’s kicking his car, trying to force him to take her by screaming “You want me! You want me!” Love is not this desperate instruction. Neither is death.

Recently I asked my father for a photo that was taken the day of his father’s funeral, several weeks before I’d be threatened with tube feeding and some hospital we couldn’t afford in Falmouth. The copy I had got lost in an apartment fire. He sent a different picture justified with a defensive explanation about having given me bunches of old photos a long time ago. Naturally, those all serve to prove that poverty is ugly and I still looked worthless. There’s some need for other proof lingering. What is it? I’ve already done the excessive and brutal corrections. It was bad. Let me be. Who’s the jury? We only seek to protect ourselves when there’s a perception of danger. Learning to live somewhere in the balance of healthy expectations and none at all is a fantastic trick. The thing which made recovery possible was dropping the rope; learning to release particular expectations and the trail of resentments which followed, replacing them with awareness, efficacy, skills and eventually love. We hang on to fear, anger and old trophies because there’s nothing else yet to grasp for protection. The awareness takes so long to grow which is why we stuff our face with sugar and lies while waiting for the ah-ha’s to finally crop up.  A little inside tip, 9000 cleavage selfies is not a path to fulfilling enlightenment. In to me I see.

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Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.-Thomas Merton

So God is love and we dissolve all pain and ego into the bliss of sacred divinity. Except there’s this mortal life to go about, most of which takes place in separation from truth if we’re not careful. Collective voices like an orchestra of Tui crying out for the same food. We can’t initially sit with human suffering and not feel compelled to fix, bury, hate, question, attack, analyze or blame. Embracing reality requires trust, compassion and maybe a teaspoon of delusion. When something bad happens we use this as proof that God doesn’t exist but it may be the opposite. We’ve only come to expect perfection and a steady stream of bliss because we’ve infected ourselves with ads. Poisonous beliefs that equate self-worth with various, visible markers of success. In nature peak moments are cyclical, miraculous, precious and impossible to sustain or mass produce. Unless you want a plastic plant. Nature’s honesty is satisfying though fleeting making our need for attachment momentarily problematic. If we stop long enough in our restless yearning to be with and witness a flowers existence we might discover fullness. What is it that extinguishes our need for external validation? Proving it doesn’t exist. This is the battle between God and the World; go within or go without. But I want likes and followers, says the world. And Jesus said, follow me. 

The same year I died I went on a retreat called E.C.H.O, Encountering Christ in Others. Retreats go like this, on Friday night you die to your self and all your sins, on Saturday you simultaneously mourn and learn and on Sunday you’re reborn. That first night in a crowded, dimply lit room of an old colonial overlooking the ocean a priest whose name I don’t remember invited me to confess my sin. What have I done wrong, God? …smoke, swear, have sex, you already know that all…what I have really done wrong?  I leaned over and whispered,  I forgot how to love. Then burst into tears and actual feelings. Throughout the weekend images of birth flooded my head. It’s violent, but such is life. I made a friend named Elizabeth. We shared cigarettes from the pack Father Tom bought us and told each other everything. We sat together in all the workgroups, meals and prayers. I told her about my food thing and she told me about her broken heart. Parts of me had still been trying to disqualify religion; it’s all fake BS, church people are lame hypocrites, look at all the corruption, no one talks like the Bible, I don’t get it. On that weekend there was nothing I wanted to leave, disprove, challenge or distance myself from. I’d been killing myself from a place of heartlessness but was then surrounded by acceptance, forgiveness and trust, none of which I deserved nor had done anything to earn, except show up. This was the beginning of the return to love.

 

11 thoughts on “A Little Death

  1. “Learning to live somewhere in the balance of healthy expectations and none at all is a fantastic trick. “. astute insight, and then: “Unless you want a plastic plant.” … blunt sarcasm – you have an impressive way of weaving ideas and images.

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  2. Yep, I just read it again. Really worth the time! Also the previous entry, which actually, this time around, made me learn something about my own parents. That’s the thing about good writing or good songs, you can get something else out of it with every repeat! Very multidimensional. ❤ It's great you've written somewhere public, where other people can actually encounter what you have written. This could have been sitting in a journal hidden in a cupboard! 🙂

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    • Hi Sophie. Thanks for re-visiting and for your comment. Funny you mention songs on repeat; that’s exactly how I feel about Cat Stevens. He inspired a couple of new pieces this summer 😉 I’m under the impression there’s something good to be found in every experience. I’ll have to go back to see which previous entry you’re referring to but I’m glad you found it helpful. Be well-e

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  3. The one immediately before this one. When you were describing your relationship with your ex-husband, I thought: That’s the kind of relationship my parents have been having all their lives. It’s kind of a Clayton’s relationship, a role-play without the positive interpersonal and emotional connections. It’s as if kids are playing “mummy and daddy”, you know? And since they don’t have positive interpersonal and emotional connections with each other, they also don’t teach that to their children by example or any other way. Because they don’t know how to do it. It’s easier to play roles and create a surface impression of family and do purely functional things like going shopping, going to work and bringing home money, cleaning the house, making meals, eating together, going on excursions together, having a sort of nonrelational sex, producing babies, feeding babies etc, and all the while it’s sitting over this yawning vacuum of something fundamental missing even though it “looks” right on surface examination with a movie camera when the family is “on show”.

    And of course, my first relationship, when I was at university, was like that as well – it was a role-play really, without real intimacy. But yet, you and I progressed beyond that to actually relating with other people. My parents did not, they’re still in a play. I wonder why some people escape the misery and some stay stuck in it.

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    • Indeed. When are parents are ‘Swiss cheese’ people it leaves holes in our hearts too. Going through the motions by drawing from normative culture rather than creating true, secure attachments is at the root of most emotional or ‘mental’ disturbances. We’re wired for connection so when it’s missing we seek to fill it with something else (spectrum of addiction from hobbies to full blown addict). The only escape I know of from these learned behaviors is to forgive what was, accept what is and then try to learn new ways of relating, caring and communicating beginning with ourselves. I believe people stay stuck for many reasons, it’s scary to assign ‘fault’ to our families and people we love, it’s scary to admit fault within ourselves and there are few mainstream resources that teach us how to love and care for ourselves and each other. Those are some big hurdles 😉 As you’ve pointed out learning to have real relationships has some real value. I wish it for all of us.

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  4. I think it’s interesting you put quotation marks around “mental”. Mental health is mostly a misnomer, isn’t it, emotional health would be more accurate. The problems mostly aren’t based on incorrect thinking (so there, CBT gurus – although CBT can be useful to start people off in some situations), it’s actually bad feelings, sometimes by themselves and just lurking, sometimes catastrophically in your face, sometimes *leading* to incorrect thinking, etc. So we’re looking in the wrong part of the brain – it’s actually the primitive, fundamental, non-thinking parts of the brain that have these knots in them, not the cerebrum primarily.

    And if I’d understood that at the start… but there I was in my 20s, noticing the huge gap I had between thinking and feeling, that I could think one thing and feel another, and wondering why I had that split, and no amount of “correct thinking” was going to fix me, since I was already thinking correctly (in general). For example, I could *know* 100% I wasn’t guilty of something I’d been accused of, but *feel* as if I’d done it, which really really really annoyed me… And now of course that makes total sense. 🙂

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    • Haha. Hey I love CBT, feelings are too scary sometimes. But yes, I agree the word mental health is insufficient. This past week I finished The Body Keeps Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and he says it all; our bodies and brains are one harmonious ecosystem and the brain is the moderator or master of the eco system. We think therefore we are. You’re right that trauma impacts our primitive brain and if we don’t get to develop the other parts of our brain (limbic brain=feelings and prefrontal cortex=boss/God/rational thoughts/self control/inner parent) then we go on perceiving and living from perceptions of fear based on our trauma experiences. The knowing vs feeling you describe in your early 20’s makes perfect sense. Our prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until our late 20’s and without repeated activation and validation unlearning those negative perceptions is really hard to do on our own. Very good stuff!

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