Joan always wanted babies. From the time she can remember she had an array of dolls that she nursed and cared for like they were her own children. When she married she chose a man who also wanted children. She was very excited that the time had finally come when she could begin growing the family that she had always dreamed of. Eventually she became pregnant. How thrilling! Her time had finally come. Imagine how devastating it was for her when she miscarried. Her dreams were shattered and she was devastated. Mourning the loss she waited until her body was ready to try again.
Time passed, she prayed daily and was finally able to get pregnant a second time. Such joy! She had been given a second chance. She carried this child full term. Doing all the things that one does when expecting: they choose names, prepared a room, bought baby clothes and got ready for their new arrival. The child went a month beyond the due date. This was before you were forced to induce labor if the child was two weeks beyond the due date. How painful to wait and wait. Would this be the day when she would give birth? The day finally arrived and the child was stillborn.
How could this be? They had done all they could do to keep her healthy. How had she failed? The doctor told her that “some women are good baby makers and others were not. You are not.” She was beside herself with a deep sense of feeling shattered. The end of her world had come with the death of her baby. She was so sad, so deeply sad. Seeking consolation and understanding she visited her mother. Unexpectedly her mother got angry with her, “I am sad too and we will never speak of this again.” Joan could not take in what had been said. Again she was devastated.
Her whole world turned black. What meaning did life hold? She completely shut down. In deep despair and hopelessness she felt like she descended into Hell. Joan said, “ I am immensely grateful for my orthodox religion because in my bottomless grief I became Our Lady of Sorrows. She was the only one who would understand my pain.” Luckily as a child she was always encouraged to have a relationship with Mary. During this time Joan felt that Mary was the only one who would understand her despair. Mary was able to hold her anger and her outrage because she had been there herself. “I came to her as a black hole and felt her meet me with kindness, acceptance and intimacy. In that despair I learned of love. Her love became my love.”
Time went on. After many prayers Joan became pregnant again. She gave birth to a beautiful girl she called Genevieve, which means “of life,” and Simone, which means “the one who hears.” Joan’s prayers, her pleas, her begging and finally her surrender had been answered at last. The life of this baby brought Joan back to life. Every time she fed her, bathed her, changed her diaper she felt the preciousness that moment, of the gift she had been given and treated it like it might be the last time she would get to do that act. Each act was filled with immense gratitude and love for she was afraid her gift would be taken away from her. “This is the most loving act that has been ever done since the beginning of time,” she thought each time she fed her.
Finally she realized that she was terrified that Genevieve would die. The child who was bringing such love and purpose would be taken away like the other babies had been. Maybe this wasn’t such a good way to think about this beautiful gift. She began to shift her thinking. The child was here, was healthy and was thriving why should she continue to see her dying. It was time to celebrate life for the both of them. Several years later a son came to bring her the experience of joy. Willie was always so curious and full of laughter. Two beautiful children fulfilled her dreams. How magnificent.
And so these gifts given to her were the seeds of her awakening. From these experiences came her life work. They gave her acceptance, compassion, intimacy and the strength to be with someone else who is suffering and broken by pain. Because she was shattered and taken down into a living Hell she knows through her own experience and deep faith how to hold someone in divine love in order to help him or her discover the own road to recovery.
When I asked my friend Georgiana what was the most defining moment in her life she told me a story about October 1. She and Calvin were lying on a mattress together in a small apartment in Brooklyn talking while their spouses were off consummating their newfound relationship.
This was the 60’s and open marriages were the experiment of the day. While Georgiana had intellectually agreed that traditional marriages were too constricting her heart was telling her another story. She was in pain, in deep emotional pain. She and her husband had always done everything together. She had shaped her life to fit his. That is what had made their partnership work. But now he was off with another woman, her best friend, madly in love with her, not Georgiana.
As she was speaking with Calvin the light bulb went off in her mind, “Oh my, I have no sense of myself. I am so intricately interwoven with my husband whether we are in a traditional relationship or some other version. I don’t have a clue who I really am.”
October 1 became the beginning of a very long journey of consciously building a sense of self. In the end she has emerged a strong woman with a big heart who has a very successful healing practice and a successful long-term relationship with different man. “I am so glad that I am not married to my ex-husband even though I still have a place in my heart for him.” She has learned to love herself first and her love for her partner flows out from that center. What a gift that painful day became.
Another woman I know has been taking care of her father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He has been difficult from the beginning. There were always demands for perfection probably projection on his part. He was a brain surgeon. Eloise always felt like she could never measure up. Fleeting memories began to surface for her. Just how abusive was he when I was a child? What kind of abuse was it anyway? This became very confusing and disruptive. It was getting increasingly difficult to be face with him no matter how dysfunctional he had become. Taking care of him was extremely challenging. He was often mean and demeaning with little concept of his behavior a few minutes prior.
They were all invited to a christening for her brother’s daughter. Hoping to protect his child he had requested that everyone get a flu shot. Eloise refused. Why put that “poison” in her body? She took care to be healthy in other ways. Apparently her father was one of the only ones who had gotten the shot just before the ceremony. In the middle of it all he had a case of explosive diarrhea. How embarrassing! Eloise took him out of the room and helped him clean up. He was the only one who had come down with the flu.
When she and her husband were helping him into the car to take him home, Eloise gently put her hand on his. “Get your hand off!” he said loudly. Hurt by him again she jerked her hand away. There was a cold silence on the drive back to his home. Shortly after dropping him off he called her on the phone. “I am so sorry. I think that I hurt you. I love you. You were always my favorite.” She burst into torrential tears. How she had longed to hear those words from him. Who would have ever thought a case of diarrhea would end with those profound words?
As I write about each of these painful and courageous stories I am struck by a sense of the Hero/heroine’s journey. Often the call to engage in that journey comes unbidden. We get pulled up short because we are confronted by some unforgiving event, which makes us stop and pay attention. At this juncture we are at an important choice point. How are we going to meet the moment? Are we going to engage in an adventure that pulls us into the undertow, challenges us to the limits of our abilities and stretches us into new ways of responding and being? With sweat and tears, bruised to the bone we are given the opportunity to reap new treasures.
We are also given the choice to ignore it all by shoving the experience into some backroom closet. If we make this choice I believe that often that closet becomes jam packed over the years with numbers of skeletons that begin banging on the door trying to slide their boney fingers out from underneath the door. When they finally get our attention it is sometimes too late. Diseases are born of this inattention. Our bodies take the toll. Or we may choose to engage at this point with a full plate and years of bad habits of inattention. However it is never to late to change and become the hero or heroine of the journey.
Dr Rollin McCraty reminds us that if we take the time to practice moving into coherent emotional states (gratitude, appreciation, joy, happiness, caring, etc.) we establish familiar brain patterns that can be easily accessed when we are in more stressful or fearful places. This familiarity helps us reestablish much more quickly a sense of internal safety and stability. “Ultimately, when we achieve stability through our efforts, the results are feelings of satisfaction and gratification.
By contrast, when there is a failure to achieve stability or control, feelings such as anxiety, panic, annoyance, apprehension, hopelessness or depression result…. Where we focus our attention has a powerful effect on modulation inputs and thus on determining what gets processed at higher levels.” P. 98 There is no doubt that practicing ways of accessing coherent emotions on a regular basis have far ranging effects.
We all have our stories those that turn out well in spite of the challenges and those that don’t. The key here is to practice ways to be in emotional coherence and to take the time to see the gifts that are being given. Sometime we can only see them in hindsight and sometimes we are able to understand with gratitude the unfolding of something new. Whichever way it comes for you if you can take the time to step back, release the “why me,” look for what you are gaining and be grateful for the experience that brings new insights and new gifts. As you center the experience in your heart you will be amazed at how much easier life will flow.