Repair, Redemption and Resilience
Judith S Schmidt, PhD
” the seed for the planting must not be ground down” Kate Kollwitz
I recently had a very poignant reunion with Alice who is 50 years old. We first met when she was 15 after she had been arrested for being a runaway. A is now the stepmother of two children, all grown and with children of their own, all healthy and in good repair with her.
Alice’s parents were unhappy with one another. Mother was preoccupied and unavailable during Alice’s early and teen years, unable to cope with her daughter’s clinging that expressed the desperate call of her terror of abandonment. Dad traveled overseas for most of her early life. At fourteen, A was sent to live with an alcoholic older sister and soon ran away, taking hit and miss shelter at the homes of friends.
The parent’s solution was to send Alice to a private school where the care was lax and her use of illegal drugs to self-medicate went undetected. Also undetected was the molestation of her by the clergy person assigned to guide her. Since there was no one for her to run toward, in Alice’s 14 year old mind her only solution was to run away. She ended up in jail, and after that for a time became a drunken wanderer, waking up in strange beds, not knowing where she was, emotionally and physically endangered.
It was during this time of upheaval that Alice and I met and formed a long and deep therapeutic relationship. We worked together for many years until, at age twenty- five, Alice married her first husband and moved away. The man she chose was a spiritual teacher , holding out the promise of a safe and caring love. Alice hoped he would be the haven she had been searching for. In time Alice learned of his affairs with his female students and once again found herself as lost and hopeless as she had been as a child and teen. We had several long distance sessions during this new time of upheaval. With support, Alice found the strength to leave her marriage, and move to another state where she eventually devoted herself to her establishing her dance career.
Somehow Alice’s spirit prevailed. Five years later, she met a man with his own children whom she has loved and helped raise. With her husband, A sometimes experiences ruptures of great magnitude. She calls them ‘tsunamis’ and is amazed that her husband does not leave her, that she does not flee, that they somehow, no matter how long it takes, come back together to pick up the mess and find the words to say “I’m sorry” when called for. This is a new emotional country for Alice.
As I listen, I see her tender smile, no longer the rigid mask of a set smile that used to hide and protect the shining forth of her true being. I say to myself and later to her, “The stuff we make our mask of comes from the precious core of our essence. Essence will wait forever for the mask to feel safe enough to shed its skin and reveal our true being”. Our essence waits, hidden, protected until it knows that it is safe enough to come forth into the light of day. My heart fills to see Alice’s childlike smile. The seed was not crushed.
Alice tells me that this process of things falling apart and coming together, this capacity of the heart to ask for and to give forgiveness, is one she thought would be there with her first husband. When that failed she locked the hope for trusted connection in a crypt sealed away with her earlier memories of therapy when goodness survived and was not destroyed. I reflect on how sometimes when a seed has been planted into toxic ground, it takes a long time for it to learn that it will not inevitably be destroyed again even when the wounded self is magnetized toward the familiar tincture of promise and rejection. That such a small seed can prevail until it learns to choose the right soil of relationship to grow in is indeed cause for awe. The seed of Alice’s being was so deeply hidden, even from herself. All that was left to her was to run first to drugs and then to a marriage that tantalized her with the hope of being held only to leave her lost once again. Now in this time of her life, after much inner work and the choice of a secure relationship, it is the sacred seed within that is finally retrieved to watch over her journey.
Alice and I continued to have occasional contact over the years by phone or mail until she recently called to say she was in New York for a while visiting her grand children and would love to meet for a session or two. We sat together for the first time in twenty- five years. A now a mature woman, lovely both inside and out, and I, a white haired elder sat together as if it were only yesterday that we had last seen one another.
Alice shared with me that although many wonderful things have happened since we were last together (her growing marriage and family, her busy career as a dance teacher), she carries still inside of her an under- current of anxiety, a fear that everyone she loves will disappear and leave her by the way side, that she will find herself once again alone in the dark not knowing where she is, once again in danger, her sense of dread ultimately vindicated as a worthy guardian keeping her on red alert against lurking menacing dangers.
Both the anxiety of her traumatized young self and the abiding seed of new beginnings live deep in Alice’s being. And so it is for each of us, the life-giver and the anti-life protector each occupy the inner landscape of our lives needing our witnessing and our coming into relationship with each and bringing them into relation with one another.
We sit beside her anxious self, that young child who lives still in Alice’s grown body and nervous system, who will wait forever to be found and heard: “I am so afraid, I cannot breathe, there is no safety, please promise me you will not leave me here. Let me hold on to you tight. Never let me go or I will die.” Alice tells me that this anxiety which has lived with her since early childhood in the form of constant reoccurring stomach pain and shortness of breath have never left. There are longer and shorter periods when she is anxiety free but it does not take much for some trigger to set off its protective warning system. Hearing her husband talk on the phone with a woman friend or a client who may cancel an appointment are enough to set off her tsunami of being left, alerting her to run and take cover once again.
Alice tells me that our work together helped her give birth to and sustain her sense of self, to know her basic goodness and right to be loved. She has carried forward that seed of earned secure-attachment which gives her the resilience to stay and persevere in repairing rather than being flooded by and fleeing another tsunami. What began so long ago as a first container formed between us has slowly over the years transformed to an inner container supported by her husband that can hold the storm when it comes. Now, A with her husband can return from the brink and find some solid ground on which to stand.
If we are blessed, this vessel that holds our bits and pieces when we are falling apart begins with our being reflected in the face and arms of our mother. By being securely held, we begin to hold ourselves. Without this loving container of a mother who feels our inner being, like A we must wait until someone appears to fashion this container of inter-being with us. It cannot be made with technique but only with the deeply felt realness of an I-thou relationship. The making of an inner container is a life- long practice of devotion to our falling apart, gathering the scattered pieces, placing them in our container and coming back together. Alice is blessed to live this practice with her partner. While doing so, she reorders her childhood nervous system and comes to know the gift of restored calm and safety that arises from self and mutual repair.
At the same time, the felt sense of fear albeit more contained has never completely left Alice. She wants more than anything at this point in her life to be free of the dread of her childhood. She wants this for her own healing and also for her husband to be free of the abandoned child’s need for him to fill the hole of anxiety within her. Her wisdom knows that ultimately only she can fill that void.
Alice and I met one more time, during which she tells me how, shortly after our last meeting, as she walked in the park, she found herself hearing a song coming to her through the trees, touching her like a breeze. She stopped to see who was singing but there was no one. She listened and began to sing along with the hidden voices. As the days passed, she heard herself spontaneously singing a lullaby to her young frightened lost self over and over again. She sings it to her grandchildren as well. And when she is making bread. She sings it on her way to sleep.
I ask, “What lullaby did you hear, are you singing? Would you sing it to me?” Alice’s hand comes to rest upon her heart, the place that holds both her anxiety and all around it and under it her strength. She closes her eyes. Slowly and quietly she sings as tears well in her eyes:
Oh the sisters of mercy
they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me
when I thought that I just can’t go on
And they brought me their comfort
and later they brought me this song
Oh I hope you run into them
you who’ve been travelling so long
I listen in awe not only to the prayerful sound of Alice’s singing but to how she has created for her young fragile self and for her grandchildren a space, a refuge of solace and mercy in which they can have what she as a child could not. Silently, I wonder: from where did this song come to Alice? Not from her conscious mind for she did not go looking for it. It came and touched her deep being like a soft living breeze. From where? This is what I always find myself wondering when something healing and whole and holy appears as if from out of some no- where. This sense of something new and life giving coming from out of no where is the place the kabbalists call the endless empty space of Ayin out of which new being flows.
There has to be something more than her anxiety that allows Alice to find in the ashes of her wounded childhood an ember, a seed of light, that endures and never dies even though it might feel like it has. I marvel at the strength of Alice’s spirit, her devotion to call forth the creation of healing and love and family, like a phoenix, out of the ashes of her childhood.
I marvel at the capacity to gather the strength of spirit that hears the song and sings the song and is devoted to reclaiming the lost wandering abandoned child. I share my sense of her beautiful resilience and ask her to feel where it sits in her body: “Deep inside my chest” “Ah,” I say, “just on and under and all around where your anxiety sits”. I ask, “Can the anxiety feel the movement and energy and touch of your strength, how you have prevailed, how you can raise your voice and sing and bring mercy?” “Yes” she says and there is a smile on her face, not a mask smile, now a soul smile, a smile of peace.
I tell Alice how I sense the lost child at last returning from her long wandering. “Perhaps you have gathered what you need to hold her, sing to her, see her. She is your child now. All of your journeying, all of the resources you have gathered along your way makes you her mother now. Take her home with you. Take good care of her. Ask her each day what she needs, what she desires. Sing to her about the Sisters of Mercy.”
Alice and I also talk about how, if her mother were watching over her now, she might well say, “My dearest daughter, this is all I ever wanted for you, this being held, this being sung to, this feeling safe. In the deepest part of my heart, I am so sorry that my wounded self could not give this to you. Please forgive me. Please go on as you are now in this moment.”
I am honored to sit with Alice once again for these few times, with this woman who could have gone over the edge into oblivion of self-destruction in order to flee the pain of not being found. We sit together, look at one another with soft eyes, vulnerable open selves, both of us witnessing with deep gratitude the redeeming of her child self, her soul spark.
What I am witnessing is the spiritual devotion to make a fully human self with all its brokenness and wholeness, all held and carried, understanding that brokenness will return and also knowing that it will be lifted up again into the vessel of the heart, to come to a deep down faith that this can be done even when it feels healing will not come.
Leonard Cohen sings: “It begins with your family and soon comes around to your soul.” The psycho-spiritual path of healing begins with the family, with our early wounding, with the process of uncovering and repairing and forgiving. Healing happens slowly for the wounded inner child as new beginnings form in the therapeutic crucible in which good enough reliable connection allows for trust to survive the ruptures that inevitably arise from our human frailties. Two people devoted to repairing their individual and mutual breaks share in the alchemy to create the gold of trust, often for the first time.
Healing toward wholeness is also supported by something within the human spirit that lifts what is broken from the rubble of a traumatized life into the great womb of Creation. Now comes the work of the soul, in which the seed sparks that sit in our depths are kindled from the endless fire of Creation flowing toward and through us.
In the Sufi tradition, there is the belief that when the heart longs strongly enough for its fullness it is in a state called himma, of ardent longing. This longing creates an angel in the mundus imaginalis, the world of imagination where all things are possible. There on a bridge, heart and angel meet. The angel gifts the seeker with what himma calls forth: a dream, an image, a song, a sudden tear or two falling from a dry well, a soft breeze touching a deadened arm bringing aliveness and the wanting to live, a smile that comes to thaw a frozen mask.
When I witness these seemingly small miracles, I stand with wonder at how life is always being birthed, how the soul seed has not been ground down. Out of the deepest darkness of the heart, the vibration of himma goes on, even when someone feels they just can’t go on. Even in the desert of the soul, himma can be faintly heard. This humming of the heart’s longing is what we wait for when it seems that nothing will ever happen again, that the sisters of mercy will never return. We hold that ever so small hum of hope for one another when it is so dim as to feel gone.
This is what I have come to understand to be true resilience: to be nourished by both authentic human connection and by what Jung called the Spirit of the Depths, to carry an earned faith that both the broken and the whole of our being can be held with a grace of compassion and dignity and that our devotion to our journey is ongoing without end until we breath our last breath. And perhaps even then it does not end.
In closing, I am moved to comment on the quote of Kate Kollwitz:
“The seed for the planting must not be ground down”
Kate Kollwitz was a well- recognized artist in Germany. Her son was killed after volunteering in the German army in World War 1. He died at age seventeen and Kate Kollwitz remained guilty for the rest of her life for not trying to prevent him from going to die. She became a staunch advocate for peace. Her last art, made in 1945, after yet another war, was called “the seed for planting must not be ground down”. It shows a mother gathering her children to her that they not be taken by death. May all mothers everywhere where war is happening find a way to protect their children so that the seeds that are planted into sacred life come to their fruition.
Note: The portrait of Alice is a composite of many of the people I have had the privilege to journey with in psychotherapy. To presence any one person in depth would violate the sacred space of our privacy. Those of you who recognize yourself in precious moments, I thank you.
For those of you who would like to find out more about the Center for Intentional Living, please do come and join us for an introduction to our upcoming new three year CIL Program to be held on Sunday, June 28 from 2 to 5 p.m. in South Salem, Westchester New York.
For more information, please contact:
Alexis Johnson PhD , AlexisajohnsonPhD@gmail.com, 914 763 3201
Judith Schmidt PhD, Jschmruach@aol.com, 914 232 7370