Like whole cultures, individual human beings have crises that can’t be resolved without a major transformation, a move to a new frame of reference. In the best of all possible worlds, this is an evolution rather than a personal revolution, and one moves to a new understanding that accommodates the new facts of life without too much grief. On a planet where the populations have been stirred with a stick and have viewed the planet from outer space where they can’t even be detected except for the damage they’ve caused, many of us have a LOT of mazeway resynthesizing to do.
A mazeway formed in a child’s mind, especially one trapped in an impossible situation, is probably the hardest to reframe later on. A neglected, abused child is ALWAYS going to see the world as hostile. It’s deep as the marrow in their bones. Even tougher to reassure are children who have had a loved and protected life for a while, but then were betrayed and abandoned by parents. Even if it was because the adults were killed in a car accident, how can the child ever believe it won’t happen again? (And it might.)
If a beloved parent or role model suddenly demands something painful and against all the previous rules, what can a child do? Run away? Then what? Where do they go? Some abused children aren’t even old enough to walk. The only escape is death. They are spared the suffering of the child raised with love to the point of awareness, then thrown into hell. A kid with enough inner resources can harden up beyond the possibility of anyone being able to reach him -- or her -- ever. If that protecting shell is broken, madness and suicide can follow.
More likely, and more luckily, they’ll look around for Someone who will let them attach. They’ll call that love. “Do this for me,” says the Someone and they do. “If you love me,” and they do love the Someone. They feel they really do. “Don’t trust anyone else,” and they don’t. Never tell. Never tell. NEVER. NEVER. If the evidence of another betrayal mounts up, if that attachment becomes a punishment, the result is a crackup or a zombie.
But usually the shift is not so dramatic. The not-so-traumatized person goes along, does the stuff, finds it’s empty, then one day stumbles across an idea or situation so electric and vital that -- well, their mental mazeway is resynthesized. Sometimes it’s a bushwhack, sometimes it’s a search. If they’ve got the guts for it, if they can stand the shaman’s ordeal. . . real life begins. More often the person finds some kind of way to pretend nothing has changed, that they cannot escape, that this IS the world. Other people aren’t likely to believe their change anyway.
Or maybe they set expectations for themselves at such a high level (be a charismatic leader who changes the world, a prophet, a towering black angel, the Great American Novel, the Nobel, the Pulitzer, the MacArthur) that no one could achieve those things and so they are excused by themselves, because of the impossibility of it all. (Even if they did make it up themselves.) Another strategy is to hang out with lesser folks: make sure you’re the only one with an education, the only one with the real skills, the adult among the children, the professor with the students, the preacher with a congregation. Or maybe resort to uproar, staging some kind of crisis by picking a fight or doing something forbidden, thereby confusing and emotionalizing everything. For neglected girls (and very occasionally boys) a strategy is to have a baby in order to give it what they feel they have missed. The trouble is that they have missed more than they know: like practical skills. Once the infant begins to be a separate person, they resort to the treatment they knew in their own childhood.
There’s no shape to a damaged child’s efforts. They sprawl and wander unless there’s a safe place. Then they can stop and think, whether it’s a therapist’s office, an AA meeting, a church group, or a proper sweat lodge. If things get really bad -- maybe a drug withdrawal on top of the rest or a systemic infection -- they will need one or more persons to be with them, not just for moral support or to fetch and clean, but to form a human container, an embrace, which is the most molten chalice of all so long as it belongs to the contained one.
The idea of the molten chalice is to provide a container which is also a safe defense that can be re-cast and re-shaped to fit the re-newal of the person inside. A person is a process. The only failure is to stop trying, but even that can be a good thing: to stop. Drop the defenses and let the world come in. Give up the control. Give up the pre-conceptions. Expose yourself -- oh, yes, EXPOSE yourself -- and let the shadows speak to the moon. Stop being the puppet master and let the puppet sleep. It’s a shaman’s way. Some need drugs. Others only need -- well, maybe nothing. That nacreous half-moon in an afternoon sky, suddenly cleared of rain.
I was thinking about all this last night, the need for deconstruction to make way for rebirth and the necessary courage. The last dream I had before waking was about walking into an aspen grove in fall -- yellow leaves, a little chilly -- on a path. (This is near the beginning of a novel I work on.)
Then I see in the brush a boy’s detached leg, the tennis shoe and denim pants leg torn off with the bloody white knob head of the femur sticking out. I walk towards it and see a pile of people -- not a lot, maybe a dozen, bloodied and torn. A family. A young woman is looking at me.
I hear the grizz. I turn slowly and walk back on the path, trying to be calm. I smell the grizz, hear her in the brush. She’s not coming towards me. Maybe. My hair is on end. The world is brilliant in its colors, intricate in its design, deeply meaningful without words. Adrenaline is the most jolting drug of all. It reveals why we are here, even as death grips us by the back of the neck. We are here to participate. That’s all. No guarantees. No expectations. No fabulous goals of heroism. Be here now. Time embraces you, embraces us all. Death is just part of the process. It is Time that holds the chalice to our lips.