Moments of raw vulnerability come for everyone – those moments when you feel totally helpless. Like your life is over. One of the great struggles for all of us is to answer the question, “How can I find a way through this darkness?”
Fear is a program for escape, but what if there is no escape?
Then it is a torment.
For me, this moment happened just a few days ago: finding out that, at a time when I am busy moving into some kind of richer, more “retired” lifestyle, I have an aggressive tumor in my eye (which I last mentioned in January) and have to have this eye removed.
It sounds manageable when I say it like this and see it in print. I feel like a reasonable adult. But this is not what it feels like when I wake at 5 in the morning, guts churning. Then, I am drowning in a sea of anguish.
My remaining eye works but isn’t that great. This stokes my fear that someday I will be basically blind. I also fear that, after all this, the tumor will spread elsewhere. Then, I am a small child of about 4 curled into a fetal position. My adult brain says, “Oh, this must be what is called the ‘dark night of the soul.’ This is ‘suffering.’” I scramble to get some perspective, to find a place to stand, but I can’t find any solid ground.
What do we humans do now?
We pray – even those of us who do not believe in God or at least a God who is listening.
I remember reading about attachment and religion. (I am always reading or writing about attachment, it seems. It is my passion and my life’s work to bring it to the therapy field and to my audience.) There are only so many ways of soothing our nervous system. Prayer is ritualistic, incantatory, extended repetition, as in hymns or reggae music. Ritual gives us a sense of order and a sense of control. It gives us something to do, a choice. Repetition is calming. It offers the brain predictability, just like nursery rhymes while someone rocks us, and we hear the same sounds again and again.
New meanings seem to pop up from the intense focus of prayer and incantation, too. Just sometimes, when I recite my personal incantation to a greater power, I hear a voice. Yesterday IT (the Holy Spirit, the Goddess, or whoever) said, “The light comes in your good eye, too!”
Strange, but comforting.
The Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2005 reported a study where focusing on the breath in mediation was less calming than focusing on the word “Love,” which was defined as a more spiritual mediation.
Movement can calm us – singing and moving in rhythm seems to lull our amygdala and offer the promise of emotional grounding. As a child, I would pump up and down on my swing in my garden and sing simple songs again and again. These days, my exercise bike sometimes takes me out of my dark track, and I find suddenly find myself singing ABBA songs at the top of my lungs.
Stories can calm us, especially those that reflect our dilemmas and show them to be universal and able to be faced with grace or humor or some kind of aplomb. A friend told me that Johnny Depp only has one good eye! Now why should that comfort me? But it did. If he can do it, then…
Ah, that is one key!
The sense that you CAN deal with this demon, this darkness. This feeling of competence helps. But most of the morning I felt anything but competent. I lost my glasses, called for the same appointment twice, and forgot the email of my best friend. A scrambled brain.
For me as an attachment theorist and researcher, all these threads tie into and reflect the most basic biological survival code of all: being WITH another who is present and loving.
To be rocked in the arms of a loved one, to feel a loving hand on your face, to hear a soft voice telling you that you are precious and are not alone…
THIS is what our nervous system longs for. THIS takes us beyond fear and loss.
Maybe this is what poets mean when they say, “Love is not everything. It’s the ONLY thing.”
But many of us are in lockdown and we cannot access this perfect, biologically-prepared resource. A cruel, crazy-making dilemma.
I will soon be in the hospital and my loved ones may not be able to walk in and hold me. So, like a prayer, a mediation, a dance with my own mind, I must grasp and refine the image, write the story of that holding experience in my neurons, and then pull it up when I need it.
I invite you to remember a time when someone comforted you, held you, and made you feel precious. Go into this scene and make it felt. Remember the hand on the face and exactly where it was placed and how it warmed your skin. Breathe as you see and feel it. Hear the words that are said to the small, fragile self of you and let them expand and echo in your heart. Stay there for as long as you can. This is home. Belonging makes us strong.
It’s a cliché, but there is really only one way to truly face the demons of life:
Together. Close together, holding each other tight.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Sue wrote this piece shortly before she had her surgery earlier this month.