Capacity for Creation and Destruction

by Judith Sarah Schmidt PhD.

When I was a young mother during the Vietnam War, I carried my daughter on my shoulders in the peace marches; we would sing: ‘all we are saying is give peace a chance’. Now, when I look back to those times, I see things from a different slant: how naïve I was, how naïve we peaceniks were. As this thought comes, I feel a sense of loss for that time of love-ins and sit-ins. I contemplate what is lost in becoming sobered by the maturing of consciousness.

When I look back to the 60’s and 70’s, to that ‘wasn’t that a time!’ time, I realize that my idealism was built on an ‘us and them’ : the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the peace makers and the war makers. What Melanie Klein calls the Paranoid Schizoid position, what we at CIL call the Either-Or container in which one part of the world holds all the good and the other side holds all the bad, one the napalm and the other the flowers.

The Either-Or container is a relatively simplistic moral template and world view, one that helps a child to make order in a world where to be ‘bad’ runs the risk of being rejected and losing one’s good self or one’s good parent; one that helps an adult to hold to a sense of a ‘good self’, a justified self; one that helps a nation endure humiliation by designating the Other as ‘evil’, giving the right and even the responsibility to destroy the Other. In the Either-Or container, all that is not-me is assigned to the Other, who is then shunned as less than
human, not possessing the sacred breath of life.

I recall: when I was seven years old, the radio reported that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese and that our country was at war. Sensing the tightness of fear in my parents’ voices, I cried and pleaded: “Please, just tell me: who is good and who is bad?” Please just tell me so that I can make sense of this frightening world. I will never forget my father’s response and its effect on me. He was a left leaning man and in an acrid tone he said: “They’re all bad, none of them is good”. To this day I can feel the storm of confusion: how shall I understand if I do not know who is good and who is bad, how shall anyone be able to do anything to make things better, who can a finger be pointed at, who punished? How can I have a moral compass without knowing the simple arithmetic of good and bad?

What if my father had said: people are both good and bad? My father would have reached a maturity of consciousness, what Melanie Klein calls the Depressive Position, what we at CIL call the Being-Human container, able to hold the ambiguities and ambivalences of human nature. My child’s mind, however, could not yet have absorbed a both/and perspective.

The Being Human container is rooted in repeated experiences of parents letting their child know that she remains their beloved child and is still the same person no matter good or bad behavior; love and the essence of personhood abide and are not contingent upon actions; no part of the child is held in disgust.

In this way a child grows into a sense of constancy of selfhood that is many sided while at the same time learning right and wrong action as modeled by the parents. A child learns that remorse can be felt and reparation made without exile. A man in treatment with me recalls how his mother would look at him when she was disappointed in him, she would look around and say “this isn’t my son. Where did my boy go?” Much of our work together involves allowing himself to see selves that have been exiled; allowing ‘not-me’ parts of himself that have become strangers to return home.

Recently, the husband of a couple in a therapy session berated his wife, called her ‘she’; ‘she’ no longer even worthy of a name. When I asked him why he was so undone by her, he said: I lose seeing her as the same person when she speaks one way and then another, she confuses me, she’s like two people. I introduced him to his wife: meet your wife, she is both angry and loving, just like you, just like me.
I empathized with his confusion: I too can collapse into an Either-Or world; once feeling wronged, the person I thought I knew is no more, and the one who is left is ‘bad’, unworthy of connection.

What is lost in the Either-Or world is a sustained connection with an abiding other, constant even when shifting in behavior or mood. This state of constancy, of remaining the same person, can only develop if the primary caretakers in childhood did not radically change in extreme mood shifts toward the child, frightening the child with ‘another face.’

The Either-Or container is a self limiting one, creating a radical separation in which the face of the Other becomes the face of the enemy-stranger. What is lost is the ability to repair a hurt, an insult, a misguided action, the opportunity to use guilt creatively, to forgive and be forgiven. I believe that it is imperative to know that we each fall into the Either-Or container; it is the place we land when our old brain self interprets a threat to its survival. The Either-Or container is a part of who we are but it is not all of who we are.

When I come to see myself as a less than perfect person and see the other also as an imperfect human, a period of mourning occurs for the perfect state of being. Like leaving a garden of Eden. That is why I feel sadness when I look back at the 60’s and 70’s time of my life. It is a loss to never return to the aura of self or group cohesion based on a belief in a perfectable world, a just society. It is in this process of awareness that the Being Human container forms.

In Being Human consciousness, I lose a sense of perfection and righteousness. I gain a sense of common humanity and humility. I look into the face of the other and see the mirror of myself, the same story lines of laughter and tears, the same longing to live a good life. The philosopher Emanuel Levinas, who survived the concentration camps, said that if we would truly look into the face of the other, we would see there the Infinite, the awesome mystery of creation. And there could be no war. How different from the alienating separation of Either-Or consciousness in which the face of the other holds my rejected qualities and is made war upon. The ultimate tragedy of the Either-Or world is to become ruled by the Old Brain, to become reptilian, to be without empathy, capable of cold blooded murder.

If we are fortunate, we can move between containers of consciousness; moving by splitting into Either-Or consciousness that can destroy. Our old survival brain, detecting attack, will take us into the either-or mode of being that is structured to attack back when threat is perceived.

When we can move from Either-Or consciousness into the Being Human container, we can sustain the capacity for compassion for the ways in which we in our human nature are both loving creators and retaliating destroyers. This is the beginning of the process of forgiveness: not to pardon the trespass but to recognize human frailty that hurts and even murders another in some spiritual or psychological or actual way.

The Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa are rooted in the intention to restore wholeness to a mutilated society through the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness, not for the unforgivable acts of torture and murder for which there is no pardon; but, rather forgiveness through witnessing the guilty assume awareness and responsibility for their acts against humanity; forgiveness through witnessing just how inhuman a human being can become when driven by Either-Or consciousness; forgiveness out of a commitment to re-humanize and restore wholeness to the broken world.

If we are fortunate, from within the place of splitting, we will be able to seek and find comfort in a place of refuge. Here we can breathe into the bruised self: perhaps in nature, in our bed, amidst music, in a hot bath, touching the rhythmic life music our heart or pulse; perhaps silence will provide comfort. This sensuous container forms in infancy when the face of the mother, her heartbeat, her smell, the music of her voice all provide an envelope of safety, gradually gathered into an inner holding space, containing us in the universal web of beauty.

If we are unfortunate, from the chaotic place of splitting, we will gather our fragmented bits and pieces together by reacting with aggression to the Other, going to battle, demonizing and destroying the Other in righteous indignation, finding an ‘axis of evil’, seeing the other’s life as not even worthy of being mourned once destroyed.

If we can find a place of refuge, what we at CIL call the Sensuous Container, one that restores a rhythm of solace and harmony to our bodies and souls, we can eventually start to think things through about the Other: I recall now that she who so hurt me, attacked me, humiliated me today, it was she who made me a beautiful birthday dinner, the same she; that neighbor, the Jew, the gypsy, the gay; the Tutu, the Hutu; the Israeli, the Palestinian, he helped me prepare the vegetable garden last spring, helped me lift the stones and turn the earth, the same one.

A man entered my office seething with anger at his boss who wanted him to undertake a new assignment. With labored breath, he ranted that his boss attacked and manipulated him. After a while, he lay down on the couch, closed his eyes, quieted. I could see his breathing slow down. After a long while: “Maybe he is trying to give me a new opportunity…I had not thought of that…he’s really a pretty good guy”. As he readied to leave the office, he said, ”Well, I’m leaving defanged”. I thought to myself: how incredible we humans can be, how fortunate, like a potter at the wheel, centering to create new forms out of the substance of our own consciousness .

Slowly, maybe it takes years, and sometimes a lifetime, we return to the Being Human container, or find it for the first time, where the New Brain can reflect; where a grief can arise for what we can do to one another when the Old Brain storms and rallies to attack for survival. And out of this cycle, this rhythmic movement between the Either-Or, the Sensuous and the Being Human containers, and out of the sense of remorse and love for a less than perfect humankind, there arises authentic forgiveness and a leaning into kindness.

“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing…
then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under the Words

There is a tale in the mystical Jewish tradition, a midrash, about the tablets of the ten commandments. There was a first set of tablets which were revealed in white and black fire upon the top of a mountain to Moses. When he brought those tablets down to his people, he was angered and he smashed the tablets and they lay on the ground in broken pieces. Moses then returned to the top of the mountain and received a second set of tablets and brought those down. The midrash goes that when the people proceeded on their long journey through the desert, they carried both sets of tablets in their ark, the broken and the whole. Who amongst us has not in anger destroyed a commandment, a guiding value, by which we live? Who amongst us has not climbed the mountain again and again to reclaim our vision and direction?

So it is with us, as individuals, as couples, as friends, as families, as organizations and as nations: we carry the broken and the whole, everything lost, everything found, everything created, everything destroyed. No matter how tall a building replaces the World Trade Center, there will always remain a crater deep in the earth where our collective psyche was savagely torn apart by the fangs of hatred gone crazy.

If only we can hold both, the creation of the new, the new building, as a testimony to our unstoppable creative urge to rise out of the ashes and the deep wounding we have suffered. If only we can hold both within ourselves, perhaps we will be able to live with bearing to engage in dialogue with the enraged and no longer human in the other who perpetrated such violence, recognizing that in our Old Brains each is threatened with annihilation and with annihilating, with becoming cold blooded, less than human.

If we can become witness to the impulses and reactions of our Old Brains, of our Either-Or worlds, we can create a ground on which to hold rather than enact our destructiveness upon one another. In our time, when we have created both the means by which to destroy the world as we know it and to create life out of a single cell, I view bearing witness to the impulses of our Old Brain selves as an imperative meditative and spiritual practice.

In this way, with strong intention we carry our consciousness from the destructiveness of the Either-Or container toward the putting-the-pieces-back-together place of the Sensuous container and then move to the Being Human container in which destructiveness can be repaired by acts of reflection and restitution. In this process, we transform currents of destruction into acts of creation toward ourselves and others. In our work as healing professionals, as we help to transform personal consciousness, we slowly heal and transform collective consciousness. Each step of healing for our selves becomes a healing for our world.

In our maturing consciousness, a path of paradox replaces the path of perfection: we live acknowledging our capacities for both destruction and creation, carrying the broken in one hand and the whole in the other, all within the same ark of the heart.

In our all too human world, the path of paradox becomes a way of compassion, a path of longing to create wholeness, a way of greeting the stranger within ourselves and in the other. This is a path of tenderness, the Container of the Spiritual which holds all, both vulnerably human and transcendent being and bypasses nothing.

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