A Story for Everyone

“Recall how often in human history the saint and the rebel have been the same person.”
                                                      ~ Rollo May, 1975, The Courage to Create, p. 35

     Sitting in the circle, each of us took turns looking at the other wondering who would begin. The six of us knew each other, some more deeply than others, but there was still an unease. The prompt for the group was this: Tell your story. No one knew where to start. There were several revelations as we began talking about how we should talk about our stories.
     We realized that crises are relative. That just because the trauma doesn’t bother you now doesn’t mean it isn’t still important. There had always been people along the way, but we often failed to see them in the moment. And suddenly, I was thinking of Woody Allen.
      Allen brought a “quirky” and “neurotic” perspective to his films which people had not seen before. He told uncomfortable stories in a way that was just fantastic enough to allow people a safe mental distance. As I sat, thinking about how I would tell my own story, a seemingly insurmountable problem occurred: A story requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. Identifying those aspects required an outside perspective. The characters in the story never know how close they are to their own end. The cessation of one struggle could merely be the prelude to the next act. I do not know if I can ever tell “My Story” until it is over. And by then, I would not be able to speak.
     The distance Allen brought to his movies, the perspective, does not exist for us amidst our own existence as it occurs in the here-and-now. While others, through reflection and feedback, can offer glimpses into these perspectives, they are never complete. Which means the designation of “saint” or “rebel” must be put off until our story is over. In the meantime, we can reflect on our past, the history of others, the stories already told, and the parts of our story we have already seen unfold. But let us not be so bold as to imagine we can tell our complete story. Let us also not be so timid as to believe we cannot tell the parts of our story as they happen.
     I would leave you with this thought: Perspective is a requirement for wisdom and time is a requirement for perspective. As we allow our story to fulfill itself, do not miss the foreshadowing, the past struggles, and the joys which have already occurred. We do not know how close we are to the end of our own story, let us make haste in writing and sharing what we can.

Allen
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014

Traps and Trauma

     The difference between children who have experienced trauma vs children who have not is the difference between a well-fed dog and a dog caught in a trap. Being bitten by a dog stuck in a trap will be interpreted differently than the same action by the well-fed dog. The pain and fear of the person bit may remain the same in each case, but the reason behind the bite is very different. The knowledge of this difference could lead us to quickly forgive the trapped animal while punishing the well-fed animal. Same behavior, same outcomes, different levels of acceptance.

     The reason it is more acceptable for the trapped dog to bite is because we expect it. We know they are acting out of fear and self-preservation. The rescuer may even fault themselves for not taking extra precautions when approaching a wounded animal. We do not fault the animal because we see the trauma. Some animals may need extra care and services before they are rehabilitated enough to join a family and be adopted. Some dogs that have been trapped are euthanized and deemed impossible to rehabilitate. Most often it could be possible, but the expense, time, and resources estimated to bring that change about are seen as too great in a cost-benefit analysis.

     Unfortunately, even dogs that are well-fed and well cared for can still bite and are often “put down” for reasons citing temperament. As if “temperament” were an unchangeable aspect of the animal existing in isolation from the environment. This is not including elderly dogs who may be suffering from dementia. While there may be some truth to this, most healthy dogs can relearn how to behave appropriately in a family/pack unit.

     So it is with children who have experienced trauma. The scars are not always as visible as they are with dogs. Children can arrive at school or daycare, interact with children every day, and be caught in an invisible trap they have brought with them from their home. It is not clear we should approach them with caution or additional supports. Good intentions are greeted with snarls and threats. Well-meaning people are driven away, confident their loving actions will not be “wasted” on an ungrateful child.

     All the while, the traumatized child and the trapped dog know two things: 1) Someone more powerful than myself has done this to me, and 2) only someone more powerful than myself can help save me. Therein lies the fear that drives the bite. These victims have learned they cannot trust those who are more powerful than they are, yet they know they are dependent on them for safety. It is a dichotomy of terror with no hope. Realizing this, the dog chews off his paw and risks bleeding to death. Coming to a similar realization, the child cuts off their emotions (reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc), their connection with reality (schizotypal personality disorder, schizophrenia, etc), both their emotions and reality (Bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, etc), or their own self (borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, etc). Ultimately, they may even choose to end their own life as a means of escaping what they perceive to be a world full of traps and void of help.

     There have been instances where people like this have been “put down”. It happens under the guise of justice and death penalties. It happens through social isolation and institutionalization. It happens socially and economically and religiously. Through these processes, humanity is enacting the age-old rite of self-preservation on a social level. “We” are protecting “Us” from “Them” because “They” are threatening. It makes complete sense and, evolutionarily, protects us from threats. However, too often we are in a rush to protect, to diagnose, to define, and to dispense. The onslaught of managed care has taught us to ignore the traumatic traps and treat the paw, the specific injury, and discharge the patient in under seven sessions.

     In the process of being so quick to protect ourselves from the threat, we have become the very thing we thought we were protecting ourselves from: Isolated. Isolation is a social tool of punishment designed to either alter behavior so “they” becomes more like “us” (a part of our pack), or else relegate “they” to alienation and almost certain death. This ensures homogeneity and easy identification of who “we” are. The United States claim not to be savage, to be moral, to be respectable. Yet, if we are judged by how we treat our sick, our young, and our old, we are incredibly cruel, immoral, and lack any modicum of respect. If the sick could heal themselves, we would not need doctors. If the traumatized could free themselves, we would not need therapists. If the elderly were cared for by family, they would not need retirement homes.

     This is not strictly about government policies, universal healthcare, or insurance companies. This is about a society becoming so consumed with living a safe life they have failed to live a life. Convenience, ease of use, and customer satisfaction has replaced effort, attentiveness, and prudence. Somewhere along the line, acquisition of material goods and resources became synonymous with safety and wellness.

     So we abandon the dog that threatens us. We forget the child that scares us. We ignore the parent that cannot remember us. We waste our lives on things, and are surprised when things dominate our lives. To quote Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death:

     “What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world… The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

     And this is just what has happened. We have become worldly at the expense of our own selves, at the expense of those smaller, weaker, poorer, or sicker than ourselves. This has happened without a sound, with no notice, and it silently continues on, perpetuated by greed, fear, and the unending pursuit of safety. Let me assure you of one thing: a safe life is no life at all. There will be traps and traumas for all of us. Each of us will require the aid of another who is greater than ourselves to free us from these traps through relationship with patience founded on deep love. Just as each of us will encounter a trap, each of us will encounter another in their own trap. Will we risk being bitten?

(C) Nathan D. Croy
Trap

Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fix

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.”
                                                                      ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

     Most people are aware of the fight or flight response that people may have to a stressful event. An animal perceives a threat to its safety and must decide: Can I fight this threat or can I outrun it? I use the term “decide” here to describe the automatic process of the amygdala and hippocampus (click here for more). There’s no conscious decision making going on. Even a bunny will attack if there are no means of escape.

     Then, a few years after I graduated high school, the freeze response was added to the mix. This is when the amygdala and hippocampus go, “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” and nothing happens. Technically this is a survival response. It can work for prey animals with effective camouflage; like deer. However, it can also be an abysmal survival mechanism when a deer sees two headlights bearing down on it and it thinks, “uhhhhhhh, I’m gonna go ahead and not move then the car won’t see me standing in the middle of the road and it won’t try to eat me”. We’ve all heard/seen the outcome of that particular strategy played out. All animals (and humans) have all three of these responses programmed at a genetic level.

     Humbly, I would like to add a fourth option. Fight, flight, and freeze are all processed in similar areas of the brain. None of them rely heavily on the frontal lobe and/or the prefrontal cortex where our higher level reasoning and processing occurs. In fact, humans have a very difficult time calming their anger when these areas are not engaged (click here for more info). Which got me to thinking: what if we get really stressed and are able to override our natural reactive responses (fight, flight, freeze) and engage our higher level thinking processes (fix)? This would in no way be reflexive; it would require training and intentionality and a level of self-control that, if I’m being honest, I don’t really have. Still, the possibility is there for a fourth response to a stressful event: Fix.

     In truth, when faced with a stressful situation our primary/reactive responses will remain the same: Fight/flight/freeze. However, we can exercise a secondary/active response: Fix. Fixing a situation necessarily requires the activation of the higher thinking/limbic areas of the brain. This cannot easily happen when people are highly stressed or threatened. The irony, then, lies in the fact that until a stressful situation is corrected or until the threat is has been alleviated, it is very difficult if not impossible, for us to really think about the situation we actually need to fix.

     All is not lost. We can learn how to accept the fear which triggers our primary responses, acknowledge it, and then begin to process it. Some times this takes years of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes before we are able to begin really processing our fear. It is all worth it. Until we process the fear, our options will be limited to the reactions of flight/fight/freeze. We will run from healthy relationships, we will fight those who provide aid and support, and we will freeze in the face of new threats. But, when our fear is identified, when it is named and recognized for the projection it has always been, it becomes smaller and less threatening, and this allows us to grow. Once we process our fear, we add a fourth option to our repertoire: Fix. Having the option to fix empowers us, broadens our horizons, and allows us to live an authentic life. Fixing is active, fighting/flying/or freezing is reactive. If you feel out of control of your emotions, your life, or your relationships, ask yourself how you respond to threats. Are you reactive or active? Empowered or threatened? Prey or predator? If you do not feel in control, find someone to help you figure out the source of fear which holds you back and begin to be a fixer.

Flight, Freeze, Fight, & Fix
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014

Optional Vision.

     Short post, and I’ll let Brian Regan present most of the content (thanks Brian!), but this is something to reflect on. My wife has horrible vision. It’s true. I asked her the other day if the two colors I had on matched. She said she didn’t have her glasses on so she couldn’t tell. This means her vision is so bad she can’t see colors without contacts or glasses. Colors, people! Sometimes she will complain about her current prescription not keeping up with the degradation of her eyesight. She will still wait 9 months to a year before she ever calls someone to make an eye appointment, but who cares? It’s just vision!
     The truth is, we all do this. We put on hold the truly important and critical things in our life because of the busy-ness of day to day tasks. I am just as culpable of this as everyone else. The trash needs to get taken out on Thursday night. The bills have to be paid. My children’s diapers need to get change. These things need to get done. Because we all have responsibilities to the world that will not wait, we must make times for the things that cannot be denied. Time to relax, to be with family and friends, to get out of our comfort zone, to regain our existential sight. To remind ourselves who we are, why we do what we do, and what is important in life. When we make time to do this, the little things of life will be recharged with meaning instead of being burdensome chores. We will take out the trash so someone else doesn’t have to. We will be grateful we have money to pay the bills (or we will reevaluate what is important to spend money on if we are unable to pay our bills). We will change diapers and be reminded of how our children are truly dependent on us for their safety in this world. We will remember falling in love with our spouse, our first real success in school or work, or that there is someone else in the world that loves us, possibly more than we love ourselves. And that is how we can make optional vision become optimal vision.

Myopic
(C) 2014 Nathan D. Croy

Infinite Love: Part C

     Infinite math makes nearly no sense to me. Someone explained it to me like this: if a hotel had an infinite amount of rooms, all of which were booked, and a new person came in, they would still be able to find that person a room. That’s pretty much where my brain breaks. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I have a full grasp of what it means to be infinitely in debt. In spite of this, there are still some lessons I have learned that are applicable. I’ll address this a bit more in the next post, but for now, I want to focus on the infinite debt aspect of Love.
     The debt of Love to another, willingly taken on, is infinite. Luckily, Kierkegaard illustrates infinity by what it is not. There is a lot of confusing language leading up to it, but here’s what I’ve gleaned from it: It’s either Love or envy.
     Envy is the selfish focus on what others have in relation to what “I” lack. It deals with “right now” and instant gratification. It is never truly satisfied or satiated. We can have enough, but someone else will always have more. Envy is a selfishness expressed through comparison to another. Envy requires us to keep score.
     Love requires us not to keep score. The infinity of debt means that we can never do “enough”. Yet, whatever we do in Love, is more than enough. Once again, we have quickly come to the point of brain-breakage.
     Here is the hopeful takeaway: If I become resentful in my relationship, I must discover the origin of the resentment within myself. For instance, I hate washing bottles. I do it anyway. I do not resent my wife for it, and I’m pretty sure I can say I have washed more bottles than her because I stayed home with both the children for the first six months of their lives. There were a LOT of bottles. There was a time when, as I stood, hunched over out kitchen counter, I found myself mentally cursing the existence of bottles. And then, it was if a flip was switched, I realized that as much as I hated washing these bottles (which was a lot), I Loved my wife more. Love allowed me to not keep score, and washing bottles became an act of Love she was unaware of. And that was fine. Eventually, I enjoyed washing the bottles because I hated them. There will never be a time when I look at my wife and say, “I have washed enough bottles. Today is the day that I am done. The rest are yours”. There have certainly been times I have asked her to help with the bottles, or where she has done them without asking me. Even in those moments I asked her not to do the bottles because I wanted to, because I knew how much she hates washing them!
     Does that make sense at all? That our debt must be infinite because it cannot be repaid, it is not a bill to be balanced or a score to be evened. Love requires that, out of Love, we can smile and joyfully shoulder a burden without resent or bitterness. And in those acts of Love, we are reminded of who we Love, and how deeply we Love them.

(C) Nathan D. Croy
Infinite Love