Healing Ourselves and Our Nation

Light streams into a cave as we can see into the depths of our being when we shine light inside us and thus bring healing

Our Hurting Nation

Our need for healing is evident. Like much of the rest of the world, we in the United States are in the midst of a pandemic that is overwhelming our capacity to provide care for the sick. Even if we will soon be able to control the virus physiologically, we will continue to reel from the emotional wounds the illness has wrought. Some of our elected officials have minimized the suffering this disease has caused, and minimizing intensifies pain. Because of the virus, tens of millions of people have lost jobs, and barely half of them have found new ones. [1] Social isolation has increased the incidence of depression, addiction, anxiety, domestic violence, and suicidal ideation. [2]

But the coronavirus is not all we are facing. Because of global warming, the natural disasters that struck the world this year were especially brutal. [3] The Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum as videos of one police shooting after another made visible the truth of brown and black targeting. [4] The dismantling of our social safety net that started in the 1980s has left increasing numbers of people unable to pay their bills, adequately feed their children, remain housed, or afford health care. In the United States, we are haggard and hurting. How do we heal?

A Searching Exploration

One way we heal is by talking with one another, but when factions within the same political party cannot find common ground, when the radicals and the centrists refuse to listen to each other, what hope is there of that?

Above, I framed events in our country in ways that will be controversial to some. A few will find my language too tame; others will find it offensive. Yet this is not just because we have different goals or embrace different strategies to reach shared goals. These days, we can’t even agree on the facts. This is because, as Nicholas Kristof argues in a New York Times article, “we now all have our own news ecosystems to feed our selection bias, reinforce our prejudices and dial up our outrage.” [5] It is as if we live on different worlds.

In reality, of course, we do share a world, and unless we start communicating across political, racial, and cultural divides, that world we live in will fracture even more. Though Joe Biden won the presidential race, our country’s democracy remains in jeopardy. [6] Until we can dialogue, we can’t come up with solutions to the multiple crises our country faces. We certainly can’t enter into that humble and reverent experience of truth-telling that is essential to the healing process. Unless, as individuals and as communities, we honestly explore our inner self and our motives, we may patch holes and repair walls, but we will never become whole.

What Is Healing?

Not everyone wants us to become whole, of course. Some would splinter our nation. Others welcome fascism. Still others build walls to protect their own and keep out everyone else. Healing and wholeness matter little to them.

Yet those who disagree with us are not going to go away. Whatever side of the political divide you are on, a significant portion of the country disagrees with you. Unless we want to split into two or three nations, we need to heal the wounds of our past. Only then will we be able to collaborate to create a free, fair, and fruitful land.

So what does it mean to heal?

Gerald May, in his book Care of Mind, Care of Spirit, distinguishes between “curing” and “healing.” Curing implies that our previous functioning has been restored. The disease is gone from our body, we can walk again or talk again. We have regained what we lost. Healing, though, “refers, in the largest sense, to increasing love.” [7]

Putting it another way, Edward Tick, a psychotherapist who works with combat veterans, writes, “Healing is the leap out of suffering and into myth.” [8]

If healing increases love, if it lies in the liminal space where our deepest stories dwell, then it is, ultimately, about the spirit.

Therapies that Ease Our Pain

Many therapies address the anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and disconnection common to trauma survivors. Medications dampen the emotional storms and responses. Grounding exercises and breathing techniques offer relief when one becomes flooded. They address the symptoms, which is helpful, but they don’t do much to address the underlying pain.

Other therapies are more successful at the latter. Somatic reprocessing, for instance, holographic reprocessing, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) all help us integrate traumatic memories into the normal story of a human life. In this way, they provide enormous relief from symptoms, allowing people to rebuild their lives and thrive.

Because healing from trauma is long, slow work, the more mechanical strategies of different forms of behavioral therapies have their value as they provide relief relatively quickly. Then we can engage in the more intensive therapies that allow us to process painful histories without falling apart. In this way, we learn to care about ourselves, trust in others, form loving relationships, and find work that is meaningful. This kind of healing is important and worthy.

Light streams into a cave as we can see into the depths of our being when we shine light inside us and thus bring healing
Shedding Light into the Darkest Recesses of Our Soul – photo by Ivana Cajina

Healing Is Spiritual

May and Tick, however, refer to a deeper healing, a spiritual healing. This kind of healing connects us to the ancestors, to the sacred stories of myth and religion, and to our holy capacity to love. Healing awakens the connections that are already there, opens us to the universal and unconditional love that lies at the heart of the universe.

In his book, May describes how a spiritual director companions another on this kind of spiritual journey. The companion sees, listens, knows. He accepts completely, yet challenges gently. She illuminates truths and invites questions, all the while loving the client until the client can love herself.

Without story, this is not possible. Sometimes the story is a piece of a person’s life. Sharing our history helps us heal and is thus important all by itself. Yet when we connect that story to the deeper, mythological truths of the ancestors, the tribe, the earth, and of god itself, our healing is more complete. Not only does storytelling help relieve our symptoms, but it also nurtures our hearts and souls.

That doesn’t mean we won’t ever feel triggered by memories of the past, nor will we always be happy or even content. Our past will not disappear. We will still be petty and angry and unkind at times. But at our core will reside a peace that holds us. Within our hearts, an abiding love will sustain us.

In spite of these benefits, there’s a reason our society focuses most of its energy on easing the symptoms rather than healing the soul wound. Healing is hard work. It can take years, and it requires courage.

Going Underground

To heal, we must be honest with ourselves, look deep into our injuries, and draw on the strength of those who have come before. We need to be brave, but we also need humility and faith. Unfortunately, few of us like being humble, and too many religious communities preach a faith lacking in love. Such a faith wounds rather than soothes.

Even if we are humble and believe in a god who welcomes everyone to the table, we might be too scared to embark on a healing journey. Sometimes healing hurts.

Healing doesn’t have to be painful, though. We needn’t re-traumatize ourselves, and we can go at our own pace. Besides, some healing occurs simply from living as we connect with the stories of others and discover a place of silence within ourselves. At other times, though, we need to infiltrate the underworld, that hidden place where our inner power and our weakness lie. There we will uncover the truth of who we are and what we’ve done.

Fortunately, we can learn a lot from entering the Underworld through someone else’s tale. That is what Tick is talking about when he refers to the importance of myth in the process of healing.

The Unitarian religious educator, Sophia Lyon Fahs, retells the story of Maui, a Maori hero. The youngest son, he lives with his mother and brothers. He can’t remember his father who left the family when Maui was small. His brothers are cruel to him, calling him a nuisance, and his mother leaves every day, coming back only at night to sleep in their hut.

So Maui plays with the birds in the forest, for at least they love him. Whenever he could, he would ask about his father, but no one would answer his questions. Nor would they tell him where his mother went.

Entering the Underworld and Illuminating Our Inner Self – photo by Alex Rose

Maui Enters the Underworld

One day, Maui wakes as his mother is leaving for the day. Jumping out of bed, he runs to the door just in time to see her pull up a clod of dirt near the forest and jump into the ground. As she drops out of sight, she places the clod back over herself.

Maui decides to follow her. Going back to the hut, he dons his mother’s apron and feathered cloak. Discovering a magic he hadn’t realized he had, he shrinks himself until he is as small as a bird, his arms changing into wings, his skin hidden beneath feathers. He flies to the place where his mother vanished, lifts the grass clod with his beak, and sails down into the Underworld.

There he finds his mother sitting with a man he decides must be his father. To distract them, he flutters into a tree and drops berries on them. The man looks up and sees him. Immediately, Maui drops to the ground where he turns back into a boy. His mother introduces him to his father.

“Greetings, my son,” Maui’s father says. “How brave you are. Did you know you are the son of a chief? One day you, too, will be a great chief, and I will be proud of you.”

Maui’s mother says to his father, “Maui is the child that came by wind and wave. He will bring joy and sorrow into the world.” [9]

Stories that Heal

Maui suffered. Picked on and lonely, he longed for his father’s love. He dreamed of being great, but feared his life had no meaning. At last, he decided to find that man who had abandoned him. In his determination to succeed, he discovered a power he hadn’t realized he had, the ability to transform himself a bird, to become something new. He found that he is more than a nuisance.

Once he had slipped into that underground world, that place of dreams and myth, he managed to attract his father’s attention. Then he learned that, far from being insignificant, he was the son of a chief. One day, he would be a chief himself. He had come into the world through wind and wave, so he was special. He had value and purpose, and his father approved of him. His lonely and aching heart was soothed.

His pain wasn’t fixed, though. That wound would never entirely go away. But he came to believe he could make a difference in the world and that he would be honored. In that moment of acceptance, he felt loved.

In his descent into the Underworld, Maui found healing. We, the listener, who identify with his fears and his quest, find healing, as well. When we see a lowly, youngest brother being brave and discovering love, we realize we, too, are brave, and we, too, are lovable. Like Maui, we will find our way and become a great chief in our own right.

We Are More than Our Social Class

Entering into the Underworld is risky, though. We might not find our father, or we might learn he doesn’t love us. Besides, we might not like what we see in the hidden recesses of our psyche. Myths are all well and good, but real life doesn’t always turn out so happily.

Yet if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, to look inside at who we are and what we long for, healing will find us in the end.

In The Nation, Susan Pedersen wrote an article about the Up series, a collection of documentaries produced by Michael Apted that follow fourteen British citizens, interviewing them every seven years starting in 1963 when they were seven years old. Though almost all male and white, the subjects came from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Apted had meant to highlight the class differences, and although he initially treated “his subjects as stereotypes,” [10] he ended up communicating something deeper and richer than he imagined.

Over the next fifty years, as the participants allowed him into their lives, their stories revealed to the audience something about how, regardless of a person’s background, she will seek out meaning for her life, and how, even in the face of rapid change and in spite of the struggles, accidents, and random events that make up a life, one can find happiness. As Pedersen writes, Apted’s “subjects resisted the simple social determinism that the series tried to foist on them at first, insisting that they were, in spite of it all, the authors of their lives.” [11]

Looking Within

The very act of being the author of our lives helps us heal. Yes, class matters, and money makes life easier. Success and popularity make self-esteem easier to come by. What matter more, though, is how effectively we create meaning in our lives. The subjects of Apted’s films did what all humans do: they searched for happiness through easy lives and difficult ones. They sought meaning from a career or from raising children or by creating some kind of legacy before they died.

This is what brings us happiness. This is what helps our spirits to heal. The people whose lives were captured on film every seven years coped with hardship, and they came out of it wounded, sometimes bitter, often grieving, but eventually they found a way back to a meaningful life. They found a way to heal.

How did they do this? They looked inside; they came to know themselves. Pedersen notes that the subjects of Apted’s film are, by the very nature of being interviewed and observed every seven years, different from most of us. These individuals, she writes, “have been forced to live examined lives, and this has changed them in profound ways.” [12]

We heal by going down into the Underworld, by being courageous enough to examine our true nature. This is how we rise above our past to become humane, funny, generous, whole.

Healing Our Nation

If this is how we heal our own hearts and souls, it is also how we heal the heart and soul of our country. By telling stories, revisiting myths, being honest and open with who we are and what we love, we come to know ourselves better. We also come to know one another.

It takes courage to listen, whether to the truth of our own heart or that of another’s. Maybe if we can bill this exercise as something only the strong can tolerate, more people will give it a try. Sit down with an enemy and truly witness his story. Don’t argue about economic policy or political strategy. Delve into the underworld of the other person. Be interested in what she cares about, who he loves, and what they hold sacred.

Our nation is troubled. If we do nothing, we may devolve into fascism, or split apart, or destroy one another in our fear and hatred. We might not agree on the cause, nor on the solution, but if we are brave enough to look into our hearts, and if we can share what we discover with one another, we might yet heal. Then we can find a way to a future that allows all of us to create meaning and find happiness.

The process starts with each of us as individuals. Once we have become comfortable examining our own lives and uncovering the stories and myths that help us heal, our capacity to love will increase, and we can start listening to others. We can heal the wounded heart and save the soul of our nation.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Bartash, Jeffrey, “The U. S. Has Only Regained 42% of the 22 Million Jobs Lost in the Pandemic. Here’s Where They Are,” Market Watch, August 7, 2020, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/restaurants-and-retailers-have-regained-the-most-jobs-since-the-coronavirus-crisis-but-theres-a-catch-2020-08-07, accessed 11/11/20.
  2. Czeisler, Mark É, et al., “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, June 24-30, 2020,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 14, 2020/ 69(32); 1049-1057, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm, accessed 11/11/20.
  3. Kaplan, Sarah, “The Undeniable Link Between Weather Disasters and Climate Change,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/10/22/climate-curious-disasters-climate-change/, accessed 11/11/20.
  4. “Genocide of Indigenous Peoples,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide_of_indigenous_peoples, accessed 11/1//20.
  5. Kristof, Nicholas, “When Trump Vandalizes Our Country,” The New York Times, Opinion, November 12, 2020, A26.
  6. Editorial Board, “How to Keep the Lights On in Democracies: An Open Letter of Concern by Scholars of Authoritarianism,” The New Fascism Syllabus, October 31, 2020, http://newfascismsyllabus.com/news-and-announcements/an-open-letter-of-concern-by-scholars-of-authoritarianism/, accessed 11/13/2020.
  7. May, Gerald, New York: HarperCollins, 1992, 209-210.
  8. Tick, Edward, The Practice of Dream Healing, Wheaton IL: Quest Books, 2001, 12, quoted by him in his book War and the Soul: Healing our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2005, 192.
  9. Fahs, Sophia Lyon and Alice Cobb, Old Tales for a New Day, Buffalo, NY: 1980, 42.
  10. Pedersen, Susan, “A Thing of Two About Life: The Education of Michael Apted, The Nation, Nov. 16/23, 2020, 32-37, 33.
  11. Ibid 36.
  12. Ibid 37.

Photos by Ivana Cajina and Alex Rose

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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