Every soul has to learn the whole lesson for itself. It must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Many of us see the end of the old year and the beginning of a New Year as a time of reflection. My contemplation turned to thinking about what I had published ten years ago in A Fight to Be. What follows is a short piece from that work that I believe remains relevant for today’s fearful and troubling times.
When I think of the wide array of people who have struggled, who have won or lost or who have remained stuck in their struggles to become, I do not see illness. Instead, I look at the dynamic interplay of courage, fear and safety, where individual and social structure clash. Childhood nightmares inform us of the intensity of fear that the mind can create. Fear restricts the roads and landscapes available in one’s journey through life, but it can also generate the motivation necessary to make powerful changes. Although some are blessed to be born with the temperament, abilities and tools that initially enable an early integration of fear-courage-safety, for many, this key triad is in an unstable flux that demands vigilance. Balancing and resolving the shifting requirements of this life-long developmental task has no immutable rules, laws or guarantees. A bolt of lightning or invading virus can cancel all prior resolutions.
I believe that the price of predictability and safety is too steep.
Can we evaluate our evolutionary progress as a species by calculating the percentage of human beings who experience more joy than pain during their lifetimes? While the volume of information we are exposed to has increased exponentially, our capacity to absorb and use that information lags far behind. While the human population continues to increase, the diversity of other complex life forms appears to be decreasing. While people are being told that there are greater numbers of emotional problems and behaviors that deviate from the norm, the norm itself is shrinking. While the need for tolerance and compassion is increasing, competition for shrinking resources feeds our intolerance for the not-us outsiders. Identifying those that are different from us as the source of our misery enables us to avoid the pain of our existential angst, but at too great a cost – alienation from self and others. It is essential to create and multiply the number of acceptable and productive roles available to all people. With our increase in numbers and technology, our humanness needs more encouragement.
Is it any wonder that the people who do recover from extreme and painfully troubling emotional states are the very ones who have challenged and rejected the mental health enforcers’ pronouncements and carved their own way into a new life? The people that I know who have transformed their experience are easily recognized by their passion, vitality and appreciation of life. They are winners by virtue of having engaged in the process of peering deep inside and not being destroyed by what they encountered. Victors in the fight to find meaning and identity, they are reminiscent of people who have survived near death experiences – their understanding and identity changes.
When you allow yourself to descend into the depths of an altered state, the need for safety moves from foreground to background. When you pass death’s threshold as described in near death experiences, safety’s demands are radically modified. I believe that we actively make a decision to let go when we enter a different realm of consciousness. In time-tested mystical traditions, one’s decision is reinforced by a commitment to rigorous preparation. Most of us do not have the determination, clarity of vision or access to that special guide who is right for us. Instead, we accommodate to our fears and life demands. But for those who must deal with too much fear, who cannot navigate the limited number of paths presented to them, who lack the skills, self-esteem, societally approved competencies, who have been hurt repeatedly, who feel the constant pain of extreme sensitivity, who have not learned how to trust or love, or have never been loved in a way that matched their needs, who see no future and abhor themselves and hate their life story . . . when critical mass is reached, there is a choice – to forgo safety and risk all. Our culture reflected in our mental health system is not a facilitator of growth and change if it cannot permit a person to risk one’s life in an attempt to create a future which is not a continuation of a predictable and horrific past.