Recently I’ve been spending time with the mother of a friend who is dying of cancer, sitting with her to give her husband and son a break from constant caregiving. I’ve also been training to work with the Center for Women and Families, an organization that supports and provides services for those who have lived with domestic violence, and those who’ve undergone sexual abuse or rape.
Certainly I’m subject to feelings of sadness in both experiences, of anger, fear, and even, at times, a sense of despair. But it’s not all these so-called negative emotions. Laughter often arises as I sit at the bedside of the dying woman, as we speak of her son and his dog. And through sharing with others at the training sessions I find validation of my own experiences and recovery. I’m reminded that it’s all grist for the mill of living, that lessons most often come in the form of ‘kisses’ from the universe that feel like getting smacked upside the head by a two-by-four.
When I was still working in colleges, the kids used to say, “it’s all good.”
The intensity of these experiences has resulted in some powerfully interesting dreams, as well as rebellions in my body. You can imagine. Although I knew, going in, that I’d need to take excellent care of myself during these experiences; I hadn’t fully understood the necessity for creating a container for the experiences themselves.
I’m not speaking here of a way to separate myself from the experience. I don’t mean walling off the emotions that arise at the dying woman’s bedside, or distracting myself from the anger I feel when, during the training, we watch a film about children who’ve lived with violence.
What I’m talking about, in creating a container, is creating a way to hold the experience within me, to be affected by it naturally yet without surrendering to emotionality. A safe space in which I can feel what I feel, in which the others within the experience can understand their feelings as valid and worthy of expression, and in which all concerned have the opportunity to receive the ‘kisses’ from the universe that are so necessary to being fully human without feeling overwhelmed by them or alone in them. That’s the sort of container I’m talking about.
Ultimately it’s about community.
Yet I’m not talking about what passes for community in our culture currently. There is no container for experience when most are weak and powerless and the few are in charge – deciding what the majority are to do, even telling them what to feel.
Within the container where each person has safety to let an emotion arise naturally because they understand it will not be dismissed or negated; each is equal. If I distance myself from the dying woman’s fear of letting go, try to assuage her fear or even distract her from it, I set myself up as powerful, because I am not, currently, in her shoes. If I do that I make her into a sort of child to be taken care of. Yet, if I can enter fully into the experience of being with her, of allowing her presence and her emotions to affect me, trusting my own emotional reflexes – not reactions, but responses – we become a community.
Container creation requires risk. In our culture we are encouraged toward strength, or the pretense of it, rather than vulnerability. Trusting our emotions is, for many of us, both unfamiliar and negatively charged.
For most of my life I believed that letting myself feel even the tiniest bit sad was going to result in falling apart completely, until someone would have to call the men with the straightjackets, to haul me off to a padded room in some mental hospital. It’s only been relatively recently I began, with much loving help. and by being open to the lessons life kept offering me, to risk opening and expressing. None of us does this alone, even if we do it in private.
Again I return to the need for witnessing.
I arrived home last night from a training session in which we had explored the question of “why don’t women just leave” when they’re being abused. I opened myself to remembering, cried into my solitary pillow about the years I stayed, the years I wasted. But this private grief does not heal without allowing it a place in my experience, just as the actions I’m grieving have their place. It must be shared, has been at times, will be again when I begin the work of serving others who have inhabited a life of violence. Not that I will, or should, tell them of my experience. Rather, I must try continually to risk trusting the multi-layered and multi-faceted person I am always becoming, risk believing in the safety and holding of the container that gets created whenever and with whomever we share our authentic selves.