Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

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

Transcendence/Doing the time
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

We are all prisoners of time. We are also prisoners in many other ways. These thoughts were brought forcefully home to me as I watched a film the other night. I have been a movie fan since childhood. I love to sit in the dark and for a few hours become involved in someone else’s story. The modern revolution of cable TV has made movies even more accessible. I was channel surfing one evening and happened to pause, look, and then stopped to watch a story which captivated my attention and then my emotions.. The movie was “Hurricane.” It was the story of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, a professional fighter who spent 22 years imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. He was a victim on many levels: a white detective became obsessed with his case when Ruben was 8 years old, was sent to juvenile “reform school” until he was 11, then he escaped and joined the military, served with distinction was discharged and then arrested again by the same detective. Racism, a white policeman’s obsessive hatred, and a corrupt judicial system were key elements which conspired to take away his freedom.

I have seen many movies on the same theme, Nelson Mandella’s well documented struggle to overcome racism and corrupt political systems, and “Shawshank Redemption” another inspiring story of one man’s struggle to survive the injustice visited upon him. The theme of all these movies was how individuals managed to do the time and come out of their incredible experiences with their humanity intact. Someone asked Ruben how he managed to do it without going crazy. His one word answer was “Transcendence.”

What I love about these stories is the way those who have been unjustly imprisoned found a way to maintain not only their sanity but also their humanity. How is it possible to survive the dehumanizing, brutalizing, crushing humiliation of being stripped of their identity and stigmatized with the label criminal? And once imprisoned are forced to endure monotony, brutality, indifference, and the loss of dignity and freedom. Somehow these individuals held onto their identity and came back to enlighten and enrich the world. Their stories teach powerful lessons.

First, there are many different kinds of prisons: being a child and a victim of parental abuse; imprisoned by our own personal histories; a prisoner in a body crippled by disease, age or paralyzing injury; a child in a refugee camp in a war torn country; working at a job with no hope of advancement or economic improvement; trapped in an abusive relationship; addicted to a substance; there is universality to suffering and a vast array of ways we are rendered helpless. This is the essence of trauma. Losing control of one’s life and then systematically subjected to humiliation, prisoners, helpless to do anything to regain our freedom. Horror, helplessness, hopelessness injustice and loss of freedom are the existential forces which make us all prisoners. We all in effect must learn to do the time. Thomas Szaz once said “In the animal world it is eat or be eaten. In the human world—define or be defined.”

Several years ago I experienced in a very compressed way the humiliation, indignity, and trauma of being arrested. Two police officers came to my home, placed me in hand cuffs, read me my rights and told me I was being arrested for “felony fraud.” I had recently purchased a computer and gave the merchant a check written on a line of credit check. He said the check was phony.
Made a complaint to the local police and they issued a warrant for my arrest. He did not even submit the check for payment. (The check was good). The police made the arrest without even looking into the complaint. The police lied to me hand cuffed me, put me in the back of the squad car, took me to the station and booked me. I was finger printed, photographed, searched, my personal effects taken, and locked in a cell with another person who looked like he had been there before. I was treated like a felon. They endangered my health: I am a diabetic requiring regular medication. They said it would be provided. They did not. In short, for a period of 8 hours I had an experience in a small way was a taste of how it felt to lose control of one’s life. One moment a respected citizen who often consulted with the police and first responders, and in the next being treated like a felon, which means the shocking, humiliating experience of the loss of identity, freedom, and dignity. I made bail, got my lawyer to show proof that the check was good and the case was dismissed without apology or explanation. I can only imagine how I would have felt if this had gone the route of the system and I was sent away for years for a crime I did not commit. The eight hours of trauma I endured remind me of how fragile life is and how easily it can be disrupted by a mistake and imprisoned for no reason.

Whether it is actually being locked up or just doing time on a daily basis we must find ways to retain our humanity, transcend the circumstances and discover ways to exist with meaning and purpose, these are the lesson of these movies. Ruben spent 90 days in solitary confinement. Many veterans who have survived being POWs know what this is like. Ruben found a way to live inside his head and live off the richness of his mind. In short he shut everything down. He lived in the moment and got back to the general population. Friends came to see him and he experienced a crisis of hope when he found himself beginning to “need and rely on them.” This moment was significant because he had learned to do the time by deadening himself, not needing anything or anyone. He had learned to live totally within himself. This is how he could do the time. There is a critical difference between living by deadening our feelings or awakening and discovering how to be fully alive. But gradually he realized he needed the contact and friendship in order to survive and retain his humanity.

Transcend is a powerful word. It means to rise above and go beyond the limits, to overcome.
How is it possible? What does a person have to do to rise above and go beyond his/her existential situation? First, in most cases the person begins by accepting the reality: to stop fighting and focusing on the bars or the injustice, Hurricane was driven for years by his rage, that’s what won him the title of world champion in boxing. His rage in prison was not a weapon; in fact it almost destroyed him. I know the rage of helplessness and humiliation. It eats and corrodes, and becomes a soul cancer. Acceptance is step one, reframing the situation is the second: reframing means to see the situation in a new way. This step is empowering. Hurricane Carter began to read and write and as much as was possible lived on his terms. This transformed his helplessness into a power and dignity and allowed him to maintain his sense of self, his identity. The hardest thing to do in conditions of helplessness is to surrender. To detach, let go of the need for power and control, this is the lesson of the Zen Masters. Attachment leads to suffering. Enlightenment comes with release. We transcend when we rise above through discovery of the real bonds which imprison us, our limited grasp of the universality of our unique prisons.

We are all prisoners. How we respond to whatever is “imprisoning us” determines whether or not we can be free to live, to overcome and live beyond by seeing, accepting, surrendering, and letting go. This is Satori, the moment of enlightenment. We are all doing time in our own individual way.

One of my first foreign films I saw as a graduate student still teaches me. It was “The woman in the Dunes,” a Japanese film. It began with a man wandering around in some sand dunes; he stumbles and falls into a very deep hole. Then discovers that he is not alone, there is woman that apparently lives there. Then a large bucket is lowered down, she fills it and the bucket is raised and then lowered to be filled again. He cannot accept this drudgery and entrapped feeling, struggles, and becomes deeply depressed, obsessing on how he can escape. Finally he finds a way, crawls out of the trap, celebrates his freedom, looks around and then returns to be with the woman. We ask, why did he return? Such a powerful metaphor of liberation and choice, our prisons are illusions, we may choose and in the choice are liberated. Fighting our condition only imprisons us further. This is the hero drama; it is the inner journey toward the endless horizon of the self. In that journey we discover the resources to do the time: strength and courage searching deep within to find ways to transcend, and then sharing the wisdom of our discovery.

Mandella did this, forgave his oppresors and liberated a nation. He became a beacon, a powerful model and gave us a gift that transcends time.

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