Welcome to Day 10 of 31 Days of Kissing the Wounds, a month of posts about the beauty, longing, and soul inherent in our damaged selves; in the world’s brokenness; in the imperfection, incompleteness, and transience of all that we love; in our recognition of each other as the walking wounded; and in the jagged, messy, splintery, deformed, sullied, unhealed parts of me, you, the natural world, our communities, the culture. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others.
On this weekend’s Sunday Edition on NPR, host Rachel Martin spoke with Sulome Anderson about her memoir, The Hostage’s Daughter. Anderson, now a journalist herself, is the daughter of journalist Terry Anderson, who in March 1985 was the Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut when he was captured and held hostage by Shiite radicals in Lebanon for almost seven years, into December 1991; Sulome was born three months after he was captured and met her father for the first time when she was 6 years old.
She reminds us that the public really wanted his homecoming to be “a fairy-tale ending,” but in actuality, her father was “very damaged by what happened to him,” to the extent that he couldn’t form a bond with his daughter Sulome, who by age 15 or 16, feeling there was something wrong with her because her father couldn’t love her, had developed a “negative self-image … of self-hatred and shame” and “a very serious drug problem.” In a 2011 essay in New York Magazine, Sulome Anderson tells us that “[m]y father’s trauma, and its effect on my family, left me with a chronic mental illness I’m still recovering from. … As painful as this is for me to admit, I hated my father for quite some time. … I couldn’t comprehend why he was unable to express emotions or form a connection with me, the daughter who had worshipped his photograph for so long.”
Not only was Terry Anderson very damaged by his experience as a hostage (during which was often chained to a wall and blindfolded), but, his daughter says, he “wouldn’t admit it to himself or to anyone around him.” He was
“so convinced that he was fine and he was so good at ignoring … the damage that this has done on his psyche, I would say he didn’t even admit it to himself or start really processing his emotions until I started writing this book. Because once he saw … the fallout that his trauma had on my life, it was a wake-up call for him, I think. And my father, who I’ve hardly ever see cry or have any real overwhelming, powerful emotions, he cries all the time now. … [I]t’s like he’s suddenly accessed this emotional self that he was cut off from for so long. And I think it’s really helped both of us.”
Though Terry Anderson’s situation is extreme — most of us aren’t kidnapped and held captive by threatening militant extremists, isolated from everyone we know and love, for almost 7 years — the trajectory of his experience is common: Damage + Denial of damage = Repression of emotions (numbness) + Impaired relationships. Similarly, the process once we become aware of the damage and the denial: Waking up (becoming aware of the extent of the trauma and the consequences of it in one’s psyche and relationships) leads to feeling and expressing emotions, especially grief, fear, sadness, and eventually to repairing relationships.
I said above that most of us aren’t captured and held hostage, but in some ways, of course, many of us are. We’re not held hostage by outside forces who menace us and make us helpless, but we can be held hostage by inside forces — our own habitual thought patterns — which may seem to us just as powerful and controlling, just as hard to escape. Living in an ever-changing world, where we are essentially insecure, almost all of us feel (or would feel, if we didn’t distract ourselves) some slight unease, restlessness, edginess, desire for relief from uncertainty. To keep from feeling uncomfortable, we find activities, behaviours, ways of thinking that give us relief, but these strategies, when we’re not aware of their function for us and when we overuse them, also set us up for denial, lies, addiction, desperation, frustration, rigidity; and at some point, we may as well be blindfolded and chained to a wall, such is the degree of our lack of awareness and freedom.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön often speaks about habitual thoughts used to gain relief from uncertainty, as for instance in Comfortable with Uncertainty when she says
“Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don’t interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge. Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.”
Commonly, we deny or repress the fact of our habitual responses, not only because they are performing the job of making us feel like there’s something solid under our feet, but also because it’s uncomfortable to trace them back to their origins, usually experiences early in life, or accumulated time after time, when we felt deep pain and a need to protect ourselves from it. But Chödrön says (in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times) that “feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.”
It’s tempting to deny our status as self-hostages, to mentally collapse or back away when awareness of our own habitual responses, and of the fundamental uncertainty that triggers them, start to make us uncomfortable. We’d rather feel good, safe, in control, strong, unaddicted, certain of something, right. But if we never consider the ways we’re stuck or trapped by our kidnapper mind, and experience how our urges trigger the same thought and response patterns over and over — whether it’s our urge for a substance, for a person, for numbness or sleep, to lash out at others, for compulsive activity, for social media or other screen time, whatever it is that helps us avoid experiencing the real uncertainty of the world, of life — then we really are trapped, without hope of release, held hostage by a ruthless kidnapper wielding a two-edged sword: the sword protects us (temporarily) from pain and anxiety, but at the same time, it cuts a jagged edge deep into our core, damaging us and our relationships.
Some more resources for those interested:
- Life Without the Story Line by Pema Chödrön, at Omega, 30 Oct. 2012
- Feed the Right Wolf by Pema Chödrön, in Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time, 30 May 2016
- How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked by Pema Chödrön, in Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time, 17 Aug. 2016.
- My notes (with a Girardian critique) on Pema Chödrön’s series, July 2007, titled “Practicing Peace in Times of War,” in four parts: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.