Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Tip Toeing Through the Abyss
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

I had a very unusual experience the other night. I watched Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Cosmos.
He so graphically, eloquently, brilliantly and artistically presented the panoply of our universe: the unfathomable immensity, the infinity of billions and billions of stars, galaxies, and other yet unknown mysteries totally overwhelmed me. At end he commented; “We are mere stardust, particles existing in the last second of the history of the cosmos’s 13 billion years of existence.”

I sat there stunned, feeling infinitely small, insignificant, mortal, and lost in the immensity.
I felt depressed, terrified, and dizzy as if I had looked directly into that vast vortex: an unfathomable, unknowable abyss. I also felt helpless, filled with the knowledge that I am a passenger, a visitor, a speck who will have come and gone in space time in a flicker of an eye blink. The words of Ernest Becker came to mind as he raised the question: “How can anyone face this without going mad?”

It is only if you let the full weight of this paradox sink down on your mind and feelings that you can realize what an impossible situation it is for man to be in, I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right. . .who wants to face up fully to the creatures we are, clawing and grasping for breath in a universe beyond our ken? Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. The existential dualism makes an impossible situation, an excruciating dilemma. Mad because we shall see, everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. (Denial of Death, Pg.26,)

Becker goes on to paint the picture of our dilemma and how we scramble, struggle and innovate to come to an accommodation, our existential bargain with the conditions of our lives. He paints the picture with his brilliant pallet of words:

Man literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that are forms of madness, agreed madness, shared madness all the same… Tight lipped masks, the smiling mask the earnest masks, the satisfied masks that people use to bluff the world and themselves about their secret psychoses. These are the curses of pretending not to be mad. (Denial of Death, Pg. 27)

With the recent suicide of Robin Williams resonating in my psyche, and other recent notables as well, I identified with them and their struggles to come to terms with life. This is my own very personal, individual encounter with my aging and mortality. However as I grew to know, these individual incidents occur against the backdrop of the universality of trauma and suffering which is displayed on the big screen of life as the human condition, this is the back story, our context as fellow humans, the conditions which we face when life and personal tragedy strips us of our defenses. And the tragedies of others shocks and reminds us of the ever present reality of our fragility and mortality.

Ernest Becker describes this condition in stark unadorned language:

Man is hopelessly out of nature and in it: a condition of individuality within finitude. Man is a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about time and infinity, yet at the same time as Eastern Sages also knew, man is worm food. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is a duality, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart pumping, breath grabbing body that once belonged to a fish and still bears gill marks to prove it….Man is literally in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. (Denial of Death (Pg. 26-27)

Becker’s whole premise in Denial of Death, of course is that man is only able to live with the burden of existence by Denial. That for him, man’s heroic is to acknowledge this existential reality and embrace it with courage and full awareness. In this blog, I am looking at for the most part, how the unawakened person finds ways to live conventionally and adapts by adopting the cultural illusions and comforts available to him. This works until something terrible happens, trauma opens the door and the calamity of his precarious existence is revealed: then he becomes aware of his predicament and asks, why me, how could this happen to me?

Again Becker frames the problem this way:
It is only if you let the full weight of this paradox sink down on your mind
and feelings that you can realize what an impossible situation it is for man to be in. I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right. . . who wants to face up fully to the creatures we are, clawing and grasping for breath in a universe beyond our ken? (Denial of Death, Pg. 27)

Samuel Beckett expressed a similar view at the time in his play Waiting For Godot, the opening line: “There is nothing to be done.” The rest of the play reveals how we struggle against this reality by inventing things to do to occupy ourselves and distract our consciousness from such a stark reality of existential helplessness and futility.

A good friend with whom I have shared many excursions, Don and I one evening went to see another Beckett masterpiece, we would go whenever we could find a theatre company adventurous enough to embark on the task, surprisingly, Beckettt is not “big box office material.” This presentation, also another stark play entitled, “Company.” It was offered in a small storefront playhouse on Sunset Blvd., we went in and found two metal folding chairs, sat down, and after a brief wait the lights went out. We sat in the dark for several minutes, people became restless, and then an overhead light came on, focusing on a solitary actor in a tattered bathrobe, sitting on a bar stool. He began his monologue by repeating over and over again, “We are all alone in the dark on our backs.” His perspective: that everything we do to avoid this existential reality is just company: social diversions.

What can we do living in such a bleak existence? How can we find a way to find meaning, significance and purpose? I asked these questions of Don, he chuckled and said, “We don’t.” Feeling this aloneness in a random universe no longer bolstered by my childhood illusions, I struggle for perspective, some way to make sense of it all.

I have now come to realize that this is the life is. We go along in our conventional realities until something happens. And then trauma exposes, shatters, shocks, and confronts us with these stark realities. These are the inevitable realities thrust upon us when trauma strikes. I believe Camus was right, the only important question is about whether or not to kill ourselves, and if we decide to live, then how do we live in a manner that allows us to believe the suffering is worth it? How do we keep from going mad? Our condition requires a response, some sort of perspective that creaates a coherent narrative in spite of the reality of our condition. How do we go about creating a sense of purpose, meaning, and significance on a very small rock travelling through this immense universe? Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus suggests we face our task of boulder rolling though heroic acceptance. Facing our lives when stripped of “its” mission, and meaning giving purpose we are left with ourselves facing the task of bringing meaning to our days. Awakened from our denial to the new reality our traditional roles, the structure of a career, the ways we fill time become something to do so we don’t go crazy.

One of my more interesting clients when in a session would stop her narrative, look at me quizzically and say, “Now what?” I found this particularly interesting; because she was so disconnected from her inner life that the narrative flow would literally stop, as if she was losing her place in telling me her story. This is literally what happens when we lose our place, our life narrative loses its coherence and flow, and we ask ourselves, now what? As long as we can keep the narrative flow on track, we remain somewhat comfortably insulated from tragedy and the angst of daily living.

Here is another illustration. I once attended a play entitled “The Actor’s Nightmare.” An actor is standing on stage, looking lost, and then he engages in a series of attempts to find the thread, the plot- his role-lines. He tries a number of various lines from roles he has played in the past, but none seems quite right. He literally is lost, doesn’t know the plot, his role, or his lines. He becomes more agitated as he struggles. I find this a wonderful metaphor for those of us who feel thrown onto a new stage without a clue of what to do next. We struggle to find the plot, search for our lines, our role: that is our existential nightmare.

We are born, schooled in the ways of our family through attachment and social reinforcement which soon develop into a world view. Through this developmental process we learn the rules of society and become a member of a family, a neighborhood, and a community. We adopt the conventional folkways, mores, and beliefs of the family and community. These are accepted, givens, the foundation and structure of our conventional lives. The ways we have found to solidify our identity: to belong. This in effect, is how we develop a sense of personal identity. Erik Erikson defined identity as “A sense of being at one with oneself as one grows and develops; and it means at the same time a sense of affinity with a community’s sense of being at one with its future as well as its history or mythology.” This is normal and provides somewhat of a bulwark against most existential slings and arrows. This is the process which Becker refers to as “illusioning:” the process of adopting the dominant, socially functional illusions of the place where I happened to be born. The beliefs, values, expectations, and plans for achieving life goals are a part of the unconscious givens we take for granted.

We wrap ourselves in layers of these experiences like a cocoon, safe, secure, predictable, reassuring: the basis of our ego-centric worlds. These consensually validated practices sustain most of us until something untoward happens or sometimes as the natural process of maturation we hit the next stage of life which occurs in late adolescence and early adulthood. This is a time of questioning, exploration and “finding ourselves in an adult world. As a normal part of this process of being exposed to alternate world views and experiences we encounter some “disillusioning:” we begin to question what we learned in school and our families. This is a normal process, a sequence that leads to the adoption of a more internalized and personally adopted set of values. We find a life direction, we call this phase of adulthood; reillusioning. Some individuals I have known do not go through this process and never seem to even question or become aware of the significance of their own lives, they just follow the plan, go to school, get married, have a family, get a job, work, retire, and then die. This is the conventional unexamined life.

In sum, we accommodate, and remain largely, unconsciously unaware of our condition until something comes along to disrupt the flow and throws us off track or shatters the carefully constructed haven that provides the foundations and structures of our lives. For some, it may be a mild case of the “midlife crisis” which is typified by the experience of the vaguely felt existential hunger or restlessness, ennui, and a sense that something is missing. In essence if I may oversimplify, they have a sense in which their lives are not working and they are either depressed, anxious or in crisis: they feel as if they are going mad. I now view these various experiences as opportunities to enter into a journey of self-discovery; to begin a search for a more authentic self and heal the wounds caused by a self traumatized and fragmented by loss and tragedy.

While I was engaged in this dark meditation—tip toeing through the abyss, I was engaged in sending an email to my daughter Michele. I had just spent the previous weekend with family. We did the usual things, eat, talk, laugh, and hangout together. I had a great time feeling totally involved with family. When I returned home for the next few days I felt—anxious and somewhat disoriented, the word that seems to best describe it is “untethered.” I was having withdrawal symptoms. I had been enveloped in the cocoon of family only to return to my isolation, I live alone.

This I am discovering is how I keep from going mad. I discovered the Sanctuary of Intimacy. These attachments are what form us originally, and I believe are essential to our being fully human. They are the life lines which sustain us. When we belong, when others are a part of our life narrative they give us a sense of worth, purpose, significance, and meaning in our common dilemma of being mere specks of stardust. It is somehow more comforting to share this existential burden with family, connected, grounded, and sustained as we gaze into the cosmos, filled with either despair, or wonder. They are indeed good company. When I am sick, they comfort me, when I was in the hospital they visited me, when I struggle they support me. Flawed and full of short comings, they forgive me.

As our ancestors did, we sit around the fire, tell stories, and paint pictures of our fears and our gods on the cave walls. We feel connected, bolstered, grounded, members united by our humanity. We gaze at the stars, sometimes tremble and make up stories to explain how we got here. Out of the dark a whisper, I love you dad, a touch. I sit up late into the night with my son and laugh and tell stories of our misadventures, we celebrate our connectedness and derive hope and love for the star trip. We may be all alone in the dark, but this is pretty good company, it is enough for me.

In conclusion, since these conditions of our existence: helplessness, meaninglessness, hopelessness, despair and anxiety are psychologically intolerable, it is what we do to defend against the threat of disintegration posed by these elements that determine the outcome of our search for restoration, integration and authenticity. It is our imperative, we must find a worldview, create a framework of meaning—a new mythology. All the while this is done with the acute awareness of our own fragility and mortality. This is what life demands, the heroic to which we are called.

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