The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
~ William Stafford ~
In order to ensure that Theseus would find his way back out of the labyrinth (which he entered in order to slay the minotaur and free his people), Ariadne gave him a ball of thread that he could unravel on the way in and follow on the way out.
Much of my life feels like a version of Theseus’ journey and Stafford’s poem. I’ve been following a thread that’s hard for others to see, but that keeps me from getting lost even when tragedies happen and people get hurt. Stumbling through a dark labyrinth, I often can’t see more than five feet in front of me, but I can feel the light touch of the thread in my hand that invites me forward.
A conversation with a client yesterday reminded me of this thread and how it has sustained me over the years. She was lamenting the fact that, unlike others who seem so focused on their goals, she could never see a clear vision for her life or her work. She had lots of interests and passion, but couldn’t seem to shape those into a business plan or “elevator speech” that would help her make sense of her work to other people. On top of that, grief had rearranged her recently, so she barely recognized herself some days.
The conversation reminded of the time, five years ago, when I was in a similar place. Back in 2012, when I was still struggling to make this business viable, my mom was dying and my marriage was crumbling. I was afraid, angry, and lost. Any vision I thought I’d had for my unfolding future seemed like nothing more than a mirage that had vanished from the horizon. I’d started looking for part time work, afraid I was failing at self-employment because I hadn’t mastered those things the business experts tell you to do, like envisioning my target audience, having clear goals, or writing solid business plans.
Up until that time, I’d often made vision boards, like many good life coaches do, collecting and collaging visual images that represent my unfolding vision. But that process, like so many others, had failed me. No matter how many vision boards I made, my work still felt unfocused and my future was still a mirage. The pending death of my mom and my marriage only compounded the situation.
Frustrated and angry, and feeling betrayed by the practices I’d adopted and coached other people to use, I turned to destruction. I started tearing up maps. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Tearing up old maps can feel surprisingly cathartic when there’s no roadmap for the journey you’re traveling along. I tore and I placed and I glued. I shredded roads and lined them up with wasteland. I tore up countries and provinces. I cut lakes in half. I destroyed international borders. I had no idea what was emerging, but it felt good to destroy.
What emerged from that was the most helpful collage I’ve ever made – my lack-of-vision board. (The above image.) It was messy and beautiful, with glimpses of the thread I keep hanging onto even when I couldn’t see my way out of the labyrinth.
I’ve never made another vision board since. The lack-of-vision board works better for me – helping me sit in the messiness and practice mindfulness even when I feel lost. The vision board always felt a little forced – like I was trying to bash down the walls of the labyrinth so that I could see where the path was going to take me. Instead, my practice is to hold the thread lightly in my hand and trust that one foot in front of another is the only way to follow the path.
Now, when I look back at the development of my work, I can see that moments like this, when I tore up the map and made meaning out of the mess, were the pivotal moments when my real work was emerging. I was learning to surrender to the liminal space. I was letting go of the vision I thought I should have and letting go of the way I thought I should do my work (in other words, the ways that seemed conventionally acceptable). Instead, I was learning to trust the path as it emerged from the shadows in front of me.
When I coach people now, it looks different from what it did in those early days. I’ve let go of many of the conventions of what coaching is supposed to be and I’ve learned that those liminal spaces are where the really important work happens.
Many in the personal development field want to rush you through those places and into more productivity, light and positive thoughts, but my work is different from that. It’s about holding space for people while they learn to sit with the questions and work through their discomfort with the liminal space.
I couldn’t always tell you what the thread was, back in those moments when I felt lost and confused, but now, when I look back at the places I’ve been, I can see that the thread was there and it helped me get to where I am now. The thread finally became clear when, after my mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space that went viral and changed my work forever.
All of that time when I was walking through loss and grief and liminal space, I was doing the hard learning that brought me to where I am now.Surrendering to the experience is what allowed me to develop the body of work that is now emerging in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Though none of it felt focused at the time, and, as Stafford says, “people wondered about what I was pursuing,” in retrospect I can see that it all threaded together and made a remarkable amount of sense.
Preparing this program has felt like stepping out of the labyrinth into a clear sunny day.
I had to go through all of that to see that what I was meant to develop was not the same kind of coaching or facilitation work that has become common in the personal development world. It is something different, something deeper – something that doesn’t run from complexity, grief, or discomfort but learns to make meaning of it instead.
This work is counter-cultural and doesn’t always make sense in a culture that values linear progress and simple answers, but it’s clear that it responds to a hunger people hardly know they have. When people finally give themselves permission to feel lost, and they no longer feel so alone in the lostness, there’s a new light in their eyes that wasn’t there before.
I am looking forward to working with the participants of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, because I know that they will bring much wisdom and curiosity to the work. Those who join me will be people who, like me, have walked through pain and grief and despair and have found the source of their own resilience. They will be people who’ve learned to sit with the questions without rushing to find answers. They will be meaning-makers and mystics who embrace the mystery and complexity of life. They will be those who understand what it’s like to stumble through the labyrinth, trusting that the fragile thread in their hand will guide them through the darkness.
This is not a linear path we’re on and there are no easy answers, but when you follow the thread, you can find your way through. Join me?
* * * * *
The Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program is a new online training program, built in a modular way that offers something for everyone who holds space. Register now for the first session which begins May 29th.
If you are looking for coaching for your own liminal space, sign up now as I will only be receiving new clients for the next 2 weeks. After that, the doors will be closed for several months while I work on the new training program.
When my mom was dying of cancer, I occasionally got messages from well-meaning people who wanted to offer what they thought was valuable information about how mom could cure her cancer. Eat raw food, take more vitamin C, stop drinking milk – all of those suggestions and more showed up in my inbox.
After Mom died, I got messages from other well-meaning people who thought they knew how I should deal with my grief. One person even reprimanded me for sharing my grief as openly as I did on my blog. She thought that I, as a public person, had an obligation to my readers to write with more positivity. She was also afraid that I would “attract” more bad things in my life if I prolonged the grief and didn’t think more positive thoughts.
I had the same reaction every time unsolicited advice showed up – I bristled. When I’m feeling emotionally grounded, I can brush off those things that don’t feel helpful, but when I’m vulnerable, as I was then, I tend to bristle.
The advice didn’t have the intended impact. It made me feel small and judged. It made me feel like others knew how to “do grief” or “fix cancer” or even support my mother better than I did.
I worked through those reactions, and then I wrote a blog post called “My heart is broken, but please don’t try to fix it.” Grief, after all, is not something that can be “fixed” with platitudes and second-hand advice. It’s a journey we all must take in our own way. And I wasn’t about to quit talking about it, even when the Law of Attraction was waved in front of me like a red flag at a race track. My grief was an honouring of the relationship I had with Mom, not an invitation to the Universe to send more bad things my way. (I got a similar reprimand when I shared about my marriage ending.)
Recently, I shared an article called “Don’t tell cancer patients what they could be doing to cure themselves” on social media, and several people shared their own stories of how people responded to their cancer, MS, or other chronic illnesses. One person even heard that their cancer was an invitation for them to repent of their sins. It seems there’s always someone with an answer to every ailment. (I heard something similar when my third pregnancy suddenly went wrong – that it might be a judgement of some kind – or at least God trying to get my attention.)
Does unsolicited advice ever help fix a problem? I can’t think of a single time that it has. For the most part, I think that all of us do the same thing when we’re feeling vulnerable and someone tells us how to fix our problem – we bristle. And then we reject the advice.
Because even if the advice is really good, it feels like violence. It feels like judgement. It feels like shame. It feels like someone is telling us that they’d be so much better at handling our problems than we are.
“Talking at someone with cancer about what they should do, rather than being with them in a morass with no easy answers, is not you helping them. It is you unfairly shaming them for having failed at self-help, which isn’t even a thing.” – Steven W. Thrasher
Perhaps you’re one of those people who can’t resist offering unsolicited advice. I feel your pain – I’m often that person too. I have to bite my tongue sometimes in the face of someone else’s struggle. It can be SO HARD to sit with the messiness and not offer something that we’re SO SURE could be the answer to the problem.
But unsolicited advice isn’t really about the person we’re offering it to – it’s about US. It’s about our own need to be the hero, to be the fixer, to be useful. We prop up our own self esteem by being the person with the solutions.
Fixing other people’s problems even when they don’t ask us to is also about our discomfort with being in the messiness and leaving things unresolved. If we can offer a solution that fixes another person’s problem, then we can live in an illusion that the world makes sense – that A+B=C, that every question has an answer, every illness has a cure, and everything broken can be fixed.
Recently I interviewed Grace Quantock, who lives with disability and chronic illness, for The Helpers’ Circle. Grace shared a story of a raw food party she went to, where, one by one, people who discovered she had a chronic illness sat with her and pried into her eating habits, trying to find out how faithfully she followed a raw food diet. Each of these people was trying to find the one thing she was doing “wrong” so that they could protect themselves from what she was dealing with. They were so certain that a raw food diet was the answer that her illness was incongruent. If she was doing something wrong, then they could return to their illusion.
Parker Palmer shared a story of how people were eager to try to find a solution for him when he was going through his first experience of clinical depression. Well-meaning people told him to spend more time outdoors, while others tried to boost his self-esteem. The advice backfired – leaving him more depressed than he was before.
“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.” – Parker Palmer
It feels so much easier to offer a fix and then walk away with our illusion of a world that makes sense than it does to sit in the messiness and be a witness. But what your friend really needs is not your answer – they need your presence. They need you to show up and hold space.
They need you to hold your tongue and offer your heart instead.
The next time you’re tempted to offer advice that wasn’t asked for, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. While you do, ask yourself what your friend REALLY needs and give them that instead. Even silence is better than the wrong words.
1. Safety – my privilege
The atmosphere was rather festive as my daughters and I made banners for the women’s march. They’re not new to political activism, having been raised in a home where political dialogue is as common as mashed potatoes, but this was the first time all four of us were going to a march together and the first time we were all making our own banners. One chose a Star Wars reference and another chose Hamilton – their pop culture of choice. They dressed up and I teased them with “this is the resistance – not a fashion parade.” They retorted with “Feminism has evolved, Mom. Our generation believes we can look cute AND resist at the same time.”
On the way downtown, we picked up Saleha, a Muslim friend who’s lived in Canada for 10 years. She was excited and passionate about the march – her first political action of this kind.
The meeting place quickly filled with thousands of marchers – predominantly white women, some wearing pink pussy hats, some holding signs. As people gathered, one of the organizers announced that an Indigenous elder would be smudging whoever was interested. Saleha was eager for the opportunity, so we got in line. I stood by and watched a beautiful moment unfold – Saleha opening her hijab like a tent to let the smoke touch her face and her ears, while the elder offered gentle guidance. When Saleha turned away, the emotion on her face told me how moving it had been.
Leaning on a rail on the second floor of the meeting space, we watched the speakers and drumming group on stage. A mix of intersectional voices – Indigenous, immigrants, transgender, and women of colour – inspired us to consider ALL human rights, not just those that have been too often centred in marches like these (able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white women).
Slowly, the crowd made its way onto the street. As soon as we stepped onto the street, I sensed something had changed in Saleha’s demeanour. I turned toward her. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Suddenly I don’t feel safe anymore.”
“Would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked.
“Yes, I think I need you to,” she responded.
Holding hands, we followed the crowd. Looking around, I tried to find at least one other woman on the street in a hijab, but I could see none. Nor were there many women of colour or Indigenous women. It was mostly women who looked like me – a crowd of white feminists, probably mostly unaware of who was missing. Did all of those other, more marginalized women, avoid the march because they sensed the same feeling of insecurity that was coming up for Saleha?
More than once I turned to her and said “If it feels unsafe to be here, we can step out and leave the crowd.”
“No,” she said. “I want to do this. I’ll stay in it as long as I can.” We kept walking and the stories began to spill. “It’s illegal to protest like this where I come from,” she said. “I once witnessed a friend yanked off the street by the authorities. We didn’t see him again after that.”
“The day after the Paris attacks, I was waiting for a train in Amsterdam when a man shoved his face just inches from mine and started verbally attacking me. Nobody stepped in to stop him.”
On and on it went – the many times she had felt unsafe, just because she was a woman on the street wearing a hijab. The airport security checks when customs officers discovered her last name was the same as one of the 9-11 terrorists, the times she’s dropped her children off at school and teachers or other moms ignored her until they realized she spoke English like them, the drunk man on the street who told her to go back home in front of her children.
“I don’t know why these are all coming up right now,” she said. “Each time something happened, I stuffed it away and told myself I was okay. It was the only way I could carry on – to convince myself I was safe. But I’m not safe. Since coming to Canada, I’ve done everything I can to blend in and to convince people that I’m not a threat. I worked so hard to learn English. And now I will probably cancel my post-grad studies in the U.S. because I’ll be even less safe there.”
More than once, as we walked, she apologized for saying things that might make me, a white woman, feel badly for what people like me had done or said to her. “I don’t want to be somebody who blames white people.”
“Stop,” I said. “You don’t need to apologize. If I am your friend, I need to be able to hear the ways that you feel unsafe around people like me. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I need to listen. You are not responsible for looking after me in this situation.”
“But I’m not used to this kind of conversation,” she said. “I am much more used to doing whatever it takes to make white women like you feel safe.”
As we walked, I glanced ahead to where my daughters walked, and was suddenly hit with these two realizations:
- I and my daughters never once considered that we might be unsafe on the street. My safety to march is just one of the many privileges I take for granted. So is my safety to go grocery shopping, to drop my kids off at school, and to ride the bus without being verbally attacked. Although there are some places I wouldn’t feel safe, especially at night, I have access to enough privilege (ie. my own vehicle, a house in a relatively safe part of town, etc.) that I rarely have to place myself in situations where I am at risk.
- Although I consider myself to be as non-threatening as a person could be, my white skin and my place within the dominant culture make me unsafe for some people. In order to stay safe themselves, others often need to contort themselves in order to make me feel safe. White women like me might present a particular risk because we’re the ones that the police would probably respond to most quickly if we were feeling threatened.
2. Safety – my cage
My friend Desiree is fierce and bold. She says things on her Facebook stream that I don’t have the courage to say and she doesn’t apologize if people take offence to them. Rather than coddling people, she expects them to take responsibility for their own emotional response.
We are quite different in our communication styles and I’ve often wondered about the many factors that contribute to that difference. I chalk up my more conciliatory, sometimes timid communication style to my pacifist, Mennonite, Canadian roots, but lately I’ve considered that it may be more than that. We may have been intentionally conditioned differently by the patriarchy.
For nearly seven years now, Desiree and I have been having periodic conversations about the ways in which we’ve learned to respond to the world differently. As a Black woman living in the southern U.S., her lived experience is quite different from mine. We’re passionate about many of the same things, but we came to these issues from different directions.
After the women’s march, Desiree and I talked about what the march represented, what happened during the march, whose voices were heard, etc. One of our most profound conversations was about the images on social media that portrayed police officers wearing pink pussy hats at the marches.
“When white women show up to protest,” Desiree said, “police wear pink pussy hats. But when people of colour show up to protest, they wear riot gear.”
We went back and forth about what that meant. Did the police just assume that, because the Women’s March was predominantly white women, there would be no danger involved? Was it a purely race-related difference?
And then, something new emerged in our conversation – the possibility that the police were serving as agents of the patriarchy, keeping white women in line by appeasing them and convincing them they were there to protect THEM from outside forces rather than protecting OTHERS from them. When they show up with riot gear, they’re protecting the community from the protestors. When they put on pussy hats, they’re signalling that they’re protecting the protestors.
And that, we theorized, is one of the reasons that there is fragility among white women (and why someone like me might adopt a more timid, conciliatory communication style) – because we have been conditioned by the hierarchy to believe that our fragility keeps us safe. As long as we are fragile, the patriarchy protects us. When we are no longer fragile, the patriarchy withdraws its protection and we are at risk.
The patriarchy benefits from the fragility of white women.
Women of colour, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being fragile. They are taught to survive at whatever cost, usually by their own means and without the help of those in authority. They don’t grow up assuming that the police will protect them if they are fragile. They grow up with images of the police protecting the community from them, not the other way around.
This is how the patriarchy keeps us both in line – by keeping us separate and at odds. It’s the same way that apartheid worked in South Africa. The white establishment created fractions between the local tribes, giving some more access to education, jobs, etc. When they were fighting amongst themselves, they did not present a threat to those in power. If you look around at the places where women are gathering to develop political actions such as the Women’s March, you’ll see the same kind of dissension. Groups with differing access to privilege, power, and protection have a hard time hearing each other’s concerns.
(I would add that those police officers in pussy hats and riot gear are also being controlled and wounded by the patriarchy, though they probably don’t recognize it. It’s a flawed system that is doing damage to us all.)
Two more realizations:
- Fragility in white women is real AND it’s tool of the patriarchy in order to keep us silent and weak. If I don’t challenge it in myself, I stay trapped and nothing changes.
- If I place too high a value on my own safety, I won’t risk stepping into conversations that make me uncomfortable and I won’t be able to build better relationships with women of colour and other groups that have been oppressed by the patriarchy.
3. Safety – my right
A few days ago, I was part of a text conversation of another kind. My friend Jo shared that she had been verbally abused in a conversation on social media. She’d been invited into a conversation about whether or not patriarchy is real, and though she intuitively felt unsafe as the only women surrounded by opinionated men, trying to explain something that they had all benefited from, she took the risk because she cared about the person who invited her. She stated her discomfort, but that discomfort was used as a weapon against her to make her feel shame for wanting a “safe space”.
Jo’s story reminded me of the times when I too have felt unsafe, trying to explain sexism or discrimination to those who had more power than me. Several years ago, I wrote a letter addressing some sexist behaviour on the board of an organization I was part of and I sent it to the three men I thought needed to be aware of it. My letter was ignored by one, dismissed by another, and responded to only with a back-handed comment by the third. I was left feeling small and ashamed for “over-reacting” and unsafe to raise any such concerns again in the future.
I know, from listening to my friends who are Indigenous and people of colour, that they feel similarly when white people ask them to explain racism, or when they need to challenge racism in their workplace. It is unfair to expect the people who’ve been oppressed to explain to those who’ve benefited from the oppression. It puts them in a dangerous position where they are often targeted with more abuse for “over-reacting”, “being too sensitive”, etc. Some people even lose their jobs for daring to challenge the system.
Though I have to recognize safety as my privilege and my trap, I also believe that it is a human right. Those who dismiss my safety as irrelevant or who tell me I’m over-reacting and need to calm down are attempting to gaslight me – making me think that I’m crazy or weak for needing safety. That’s how oppressors win.
As I mentioned in my last post, trauma further complicates this issue. Unhealed trauma convinces us that we are unsafe even when we aren’t. And much of that trauma is hard to pinpoint because we may have inherited it or it may have been caused before we were old enough to know what was going on. The fear that comes up when a trauma memory is triggered is as real as the fear we felt when the trauma happened.
Two more realizations:
- Next to air, water, and food, safety is our most basic need. We will do almost anything to find safety, including contorting ourselves in the presence of those who make us feel unsafe. Those who’ve been oppressed are usually masterful at contortion, and if they’re not, they are at greater risk.
- When we have experienced trauma, our need for safety is easily triggered and our bodies respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Often we don’t recognize that we are being triggered and then it’s easy to feel shame for over-reacting. Those with more power usually don’t recognize (or choose to ignore) that they are triggering our fear and our shame because their lived experience is very different.
Note: All three of the friends mentioned in this post gave permission for their stories to be shared.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
I first noticed it while watching the first presidential debate. When Trump spent the whole time interrupting Hillary Clinton, belittling her, and standing behind her in an intimidating way while she spoke, I was so shaken up that I could barely stand it. This wasn’t just the usual political jostling for space – it was something more. My daughters were surprised when I kept yelling at the TV and by the end of it, I had to go for a long walk to release my outrage rather than take it out on the people I loved.
It was worse when the infamous bus video came out and we heard him unapologetically talking about grabbing women by the pussy. That one took me more than just a long walk to release.
I noticed it again last week during his press conference, when he was gas-lighting reporters by refusing to take their questions, calling their news outlets “fake news”, and treating them like they were stupid for listening to any of the leaked information about Russian interference. This time, though, I knew it was coming so I could witness my reaction more objectively, almost like a scientist watching a subject respond to stimuli.
It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I am, after all, a Canadian who won’t have to live under this administration. Why did I have such strong emotional AND physical reactions to him? Why couldn’t I simply ignore him or dismiss him as full of hot air but not my problem?
I realized that I was being triggered. Like so many other women who have shared similar responses, Trump’s misogyny, gas-lighting, bragging about sexual conduct, intimidation, etc. was triggering my past trauma.
Like every woman, I have been interrupted time and time again by men who think their voice is somehow endued with more wisdom. I have been raped by a man who climbed through my bedroom window and let his lack of control over his own sexual desire shatter my youthful innocence. I have been the victim of gas-lighting by more than one person who couldn’t bear to listen to my concerns and dismissed them as irrelevant, convincing me that I must simply be overreacting. I have been repeatedly grabbed by the pussy by a man who thought he had the right to do so and who ignored my effort to explain why it didn’t feel good.
I have worked hard to find healing for all of these things, but trauma doesn’t go away easily. It hovers under the surface, pretending it’s healed, pretending it’s a thing of the past. But then when it’s triggered by a stimulus that brings back the body memory of the trauma, it erupts in fear and rage and physical pain and all manner of complex emotional and physical reactions. It’s not rational – it just is.
Trauma responses are primal responses – meant to protect us from whatever threatens our safety. They are also deeply rooted in our bodies and cannot be regulated with only a brain response. I couldn’t think my way through my reaction to Trump – I had to seek to understand it on a much deeper level. That’s why some of the “just think positive thoughts” self-help mantras can be so damaging – because they attempt to gloss over the way that trauma, grief, fear, etc., gets rooted in our bodies and has to be healed by a much more holistic approach than simply positive thoughts.
In recent months, especially since Trump won the election, I have been hearing similar responses from many, many people not only in the U.S., but all over the world. It feels like his election has unleashed an epidemic of trauma. We’re vibrating in fear and rage that is deeply rooted in us and we don’t know how to respond. Many dismiss us as over-reacting (because surely our trauma isn’t as bad as people who’ve lived in war zones, for example, so it’s not legitimate), but that feels like a whole other layer of gas-lighting that diminishes our experience and heightens our response.
I’m also hearing another voice – the voice of People of Colour and other marginalized groups saying to white women like me “What took you so long to wake up? We’ve been saying for years that the system is rigged against us. Why did it take Trump getting elected for you to see what’s going on? And why are you being so fragile when we’ve seen much worse?”
The answer to that is complex and multi-layered, and some of it has to do with our privilege and access to power. Some of it also has to do with the fact that it took us longer to be triggered. While People of Colour have been seeing things in the media for a long, long time (probably all of their lives) that has triggered their trauma, we’ve been able to ignore it longer because it didn’t apply to us.
It’s like an abusive family where some are suffering the abuse more than others. The child who’s not getting hit can say “It’s not happening to me, so that means it’s not happening.” She says it out of self-preservation – because the only way she knows how to survive is to live in denial. But then one day she gets whacked across the head by the abuser and suddenly she has to rewrite the narrative of her family. Suddenly she too is unsafe.
The problem is that it’s difficult to forgive someone who ignores your pain until she feels the pain herself. And it’s difficult to feel empathy for the tears and rage of someone who spent much of her life in denial and dismissal of yours. And it’s also difficult to trust and be in relationship with people with trauma when you too have been traumatized. So we end up with situations like the Women’s March on Washington, where they’ve had to work through various levels of conflict trying to find a common voice that gives space for all of the marginalized groups that want to be heard. And this is only scratching the surface – these groups will need to do some deep healing work to learn to speak of their trauma and betrayal and fragility and find ways to heal it and learn to trust each other to hold space for it all in order to move forward with a united voice.
There are other complicating factors as well. Some of our trauma didn’t start with us. Some of it was passed down through the generations, and when we are being triggered by a stimulus we don’t understand, it might actually be related to a trauma experienced by a grandmother or great-grandfather. There is scientific research that has found evidence that we can pass trauma down through our DNA. They’ve found descendants of holocaust survivors who have the genetics of trauma, even though they haven’t personally experienced the trauma themselves. There is also research that says it can be passed through our lineage in ways that aren’t related to DNA.
So, in trying to work together toward a common voice, we also witness the effects of generational trauma. People of Colour who are the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people whose ancestors were the victims of genocide, for example, are carrying centuries of trauma with them. Their ancestors are crying out to be heard through their descendants.
I am the descendants of settlers and colonizers who have not (as far as I know) been subjected to slavery, but I am also aware that my Mennonite ancestors were tortured for their faith and run out of more than one country because of their stance on non-resistance. I suspect some of that trauma was passed down through my DNA and then got all mixed up with my settler guilt to create a stew of complex personal narratives and healing work.
And then there are the witch burnings. Women are carrying this in our DNA as well. At one time, any woman who would have dared to speak about the Feminine Divine or even who was courageous enough to own her own business was called a witch and burned at the stake. We carry with us that body memory as well, and when we consider marching or raising our voices or making a scene in any way, we might be triggered by the ancient voices in us, passed down through the generations, that say “it’s not safe. We were burned for this.”
The other complicating factor is that “hurt people hurt people”. Those who’ve suffered trauma and have not addressed or healed it in themselves are more likely to inflict it on others. Gabor Maté, a world-renowned expert on trauma, surmises, in fact, that Donald Trump’s behaviour is evidence that he was a victim of trauma. “What we perceive as the adult personality often reflects compensations a helpless child unwittingly adopted in order to survive. Such adaptations can become wired into the brain, persisting into adulthood. Underneath all psychiatric categories Trump manifests childhood trauma.”
Maté also says “The flaws of our leaders perfectly mirror the emotional underdevelopment of the society that elevates them to power.” That suggests that we have a whole lot of people walking around with unhealed trauma and those people are capable of causing a great deal of harm as a result. That’s a frightening thought.
Today, Trump is being inaugurated, and I fear that we have only begun to see the wide-ranging effects of the trauma being triggered by his actions and by those he’s placing in positions of leadership. I fear that trauma specialists will be overwhelmed with the people coming to them for support. I also suspect that physical health will suffer – that emergency rooms will see more and more mysterious illnesses that people haven’t connected to their trauma. And we may see an increase in violence, with traumatized people not knowing how to manage their unexpected response to stimuli. I hope that I’m wrong on all counts.
What do we do about it? A trauma therapist would tell us to remove the stimulus from our lives first so that we can heal, but we can’t hide from it when the person triggering us is possibly the most influential leader in the world. So we must do our best to heal ourselves, to equip ourselves with coping skills, and to become trauma-informed so that we can support each other through this.
If you want to become more trauma-informed, here are some resources that I have found useful:
- Trauma: The Injury Where the Blood Doesn’t Flow. In this podcast (that is part of an entire series of podcasts on trauma) is an interview with Eduardo Duran who works with Native and Indigenous cultures in the healing of trauma. He shares how Indigenous spirituality is woven into the generational healing work that he does. I found it to be really eye-opening about how spirituality needs to be a part of the conversation.
- TRE – Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises. Based in the belief that trauma becomes rooted in our bodies, Dr. David Berceli developed a series of exercises that assist the body in releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension and trauma. My friends Petra and Leckey are specialists in TRE if you’re looking for someone to help you.
- When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, by Dr. Gabor Mate. Dr. Mate has done extensive research in the mind-body connection where stress and trauma are concerned. He links many forms of physical illness (ie. arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis) to the ways in which our bodies have been trying to protect us from emotional harm.
- It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn. This is a fascinating and eye-opening book about the ways that we inherit trauma. One of the stories that stuck with me most was about a young man who had been a successful student and athlete and suddenly he couldn’t sleep at night and was suffering from terrifying cold in the middle of the night. After some work with Wolynn, he discovered that an uncle he hadn’t even known had frozen to death in a hunting camp at the exact age this young man was at the time when the cold and sleeplessness started.
- In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter A. Levine. Like Gabor Mate, Levine is a leading voice in the field of trauma. He draws on his research and observation of the naturalistic animal world to explain the nature and transformation of trauma in the body, brain, and psyche.
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk. This is the third book on a similar subject (ie. the body and trauma) in this list, so it might seem redundant, but I find that each of these offers something slightly different that adds to body of wisdom. Van Der Kolk uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust.
- Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone, by Leticia Nieto with Margo F. Boyer. This isn’t specifically about trauma, but it’s a useful resource about working with marginalized populations.
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. While I don’t recall Frankl actually using the language of trauma, this profound book about his experience in surviving concentration camp talks about how our quest for meaning creates resilience. I believe it will be an important book to return to in the next four years.
- The Shadow King: The Invisible Force That Holds Women Back, by Sidra Stone. Again, not specifically about trauma, but a really useful read about how the Inner Patriarch (which, I believe, is rooted in trauma) has held women back and how we can reclaim our power.
- The Burning Times: A documentary about the witch hunts in Europe. The film questions whether the widespread violence against women and the neglect of our environment today can be traced back to those times.
Note: I realize that my resource list is rather limited and includes mostly the voices of men (especially for those resources directly related to trauma). I would like to expand this list with more voices of women and marginalized people working in the field of trauma. If you know of any, please offer them in the comments.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
It’s often said that “cleanliness is next to godliness”, but in my Mennonite upbringing, it was pacifism that held that honoured place.
From early childhood, we understood that that was one of the key things that set us apart. We were the people who didn’t go to war.
Our ancestors believed in pacifism so deeply, that they were willing to risk their lives for it. Rather than be conscripted into armies, they faced torture and, more than once, gave up their countries to move to where they could continue to practice non-resistance. First they fled Europe for Ukraine/Russia, and then, when Russia turned on them, they fled to North and South America.
On my bookshelf is my dad’s copy of Martyrs Mirror. It recounts the many people in our Anabaptist history who were martyred not only for their faith, but for their stance on non-violence. According to Wikipedia (and I believe it to be true), “Next to the Bible, the Martyrs Mirror has historically been held as the most significant and prominent place in Amish and Mennonite homes.” That’s how high we hold our values around pacifism.
Though it’s most obvious during times of war, pacifism is much more all-encompassing than that. It’s a way of being that affects your whole life. If you believe that violence is not the answer on the political stage, you must also believe that it’s not an answer on the personal stage. Peace must be at the core of all of your relationships. Look into non-violent communications courses, peace workers in conflict zones, and conflict resolution organizations and you’ll be surprised at how many of them have Mennonites roots.
Peace-loving runs deep in my bones. At all costs, we were taught, remain non-violent. Turn the other cheek. Be a servant of peace.
Although my faith has shifted and I no longer attend a Mennonite church, I am still, at heart, a pacifist. It’s a belief system that deeply informs my work. In hosting the circle, for example, I work to create spaces where conversations can happen without violence and where conflict can be addressed peacefully. Look closely at my writing and you’ll see that I rarely use the language of battle. (ie. I prefer to talk about “dismantling the patriarchy” rather than “killing it” or “smashing it”, and I prefer “serving justice” rather than “fighting for justice”.)
Sometimes though, I let my pacifism get mixed up with passiveness. But that’s a mistake. They are far from the same thing.
As my ancestors modelled, pacifism actively serves peace. Though it avoids violence, it’s not afraid to disrupt the status quo.
Passiveness, on the other hand, doesn’t disrupt the status quo. By not standing in the way of violence, it allows it to continue.
When I am passive, I let people get away with abuse and oppression. When I am a pacifist, I put my life on the line to stand with those who are abused and oppressed.
When I am passive, I hide my outrage and pretend I am at peace. When I am a pacifist, I harness my outrage for the cause of peace.
When I am passive, I fall victim to oppressive systems and flawed leadership. When I am a pacifist, I offer peaceful alternatives and non-violent leadership models.
When I am passive, I turn a blind eye to people’s pain. When I am a pacifist, I am galvanized by people’s pain.
Pacifism has strength and courage that passiveness lacks. It’s feisty and bold and isn’t afraid to disrupt. It’s not always pleasant and it’s not always gentle. Sometimes it turns over tables and gets in people’s way.
The more I learn about holding space, the more I realize that it is a pacifist act, but it is NOT a passive act.
Because I talk about non-judgement, humility, keeping our egos out of the way, and allowing people to determine their own outcome, people sometimes assume that holding space is passive. When I hold space for someone, they think, I am passive in allowing their circumstances to unfold.
But that is far from the whole truth.
Instead, holding space is about “active pacifism”. It’s non-violent, at its core, AND it’s strong, firm, and not afraid to disrupt.
It’s not about sitting passively and allowing people to walk over us.
In my workshops, I use the visual metaphor of a beautiful, intricate crystal that some friends gave me to represent the person or group of people I’m holding space for. There is much beauty and capacity to reflect light in this crystal. There is also fragility, sharp edges, and shadow. It has to be held tenderly and firmly.
In order to take my crystal with me to workshops, I’ve created the perfect container to hold it – a small wooden box that I have lined with foam that is cut to just the right shape to hold the crystal.
The container holds space for the crystal.
On the inside this container could be considered passive. It’s soft and malleable and doesn’t resist the shape of the crystal. It allows the crystal to show up exactly as it is and it holds that space for it.
But on the outside, this container is far from passive. It has structure and sturdiness. It holds the crystal firmly in place and it resists those forces that might threaten to destroy it.
Like the container, we cannot effectively hold space for people if we are only passive.
If the container were only soft and malleable, the crystal would be easily destroyed if a rough baggage-handler tossed my suitcase onto the conveyor belt. It needs the strong outer shell to protect it.
That strong outer shell provides a form of “active pacifism” for the crystal. It stands firm in the face of violence and oppression. It is courageous and willing to be bruised in order to keep the outside forces from destroying that which it holds space for.
In order to hold space well, we have to be like that container – soft and malleable to hold the fragility, and strong and firm to ward off outside attack. If we are only one without the other, the crystal shatters.
This morning I listened to John Lewis being interviewed on CBC radio about his many years as a civil rights leader. He talked about some of the violence he suffered, including being beaten by a police officer with a club on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Despite all of the violence and injustice he has seen, John Lewis continues to be committed to non-violence. “There are too many guns,” he said. “We need more peace. We need more love.”
He may be serving peace, but John Lewis is far from passive. “As a child, I was taught not to get in trouble,” he said. “But then Rosa Parks taught me how to get in good trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”
In can be said that John Lewis is holding space for all of those who’ve been oppressed by racism in the U.S. He is an “active pacifist” for the cause, willing to get into the “good kind of trouble” in order to serve justice and peace.
We’re going to need a whole lot more people like John Lewis.
It is my sense, in a world in which Trump is the leader of the most powerful country in the world, that a lot more of us are going to need to learn how to be active pacifists. If we truly believe in peace, justice, and human rights for all, we’ll need to be willing to get into the “good kind of trouble”.
Passiveness is not an option. Passiveness allows oppression to continue.
Either we hold space with both softness and fierceness, or the crystal is destroyed.
I had an experience earlier this week that won’t leave me alone. This is my first attempt at giving meaning to something that I may still be processing weeks from now…
I had left my vehicle parked on the street and was walking toward the restaurant where I was meeting a friend when I came across a blind man, stumbling over snowbanks with his white cane. It was clear that he was disoriented and was having a great deal of trouble navigating his way down sidewalks that have not yet been cleared of the foot of snow left behind by a blizzard on Boxing Day. His cane was tapping the edges of the narrow paths other people’s footsteps had left in the snow, trying to make sense of a landscape that was very different from what it was just two days before.
I was running late, but I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, walk past without offering support. “Would you like some assistance?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I stepped off the bus and got turned around and now I don’t know which way to go.”
“Where are you trying to get to?” I asked.
“Home,” he said, with some anxiousness in his voice. “I need to find my way home.”
“Where do you live?”
He gave me the address, but I wasn’t quite sure which street he was talking about. There are two streets in that neighbourhood that always mix me up.
“Do you know any landmarks? Buildings close to your home that might help me figure out the direction we need to go in?”
“It’s not far from the firehall,” he said.
“Oh – I know where the firehall is, but you’re going the wrong direction. Follow me.” He put his hand on my shoulder. We’d only gone a short way when I could tell that there was something wrong.
“This doesn’t feel like the right direction,” he said. “Can you see a short apartment building close to us?”
“No, I can’t see that from where we’re standing. But if it’s close to the firehall, it must be in this direction.”
“I need a phone,” he said, the frustration and distrust of my abilities growing in his voice. “I need to call my worker. She’ll come out and get me.”
I pulled out my phone, dialled the number he gave me, and spoke to his worker. She said she couldn’t come out to get him and wasn’t able to give me much more helpful information than he could give. “It’s close to the A&W,” she said before she hung up.
“She won’t come out,” I told the man, whose name I now knew.
“She HAS to come out. It’s her job! She’s just being stubborn. And she’s not from here so she doesn’t know her way around.”
“I can see the A&W from where we’re standing,” I said.. “We’ll figure this out. Let’s head back in the direction we came from.” We started walking, once again with his hand on my shoulder, slowly navigating the narrow path that wove between snowbanks and over the frozen hills snow plows left behind.
He hesitated when I started to turn the corner toward A&W. “It still feels like we’re going in the wrong direction. I think my building’s across the street. On the same side of the street as A&W, but across the street from where we are now.”
What he said made no sense to me and I could tell he was getting increasingly flustered.
“We’re just going to keep walking until we find your place,” I said. “I’m not going to leave you until you’re at your front door. We’re on the right street now, and once I can see some street numbers on buildings, we’ll find it.” (In case you’re wondering why I didn’t look on Google maps, it simply didn’t occur to me until it was over.)
We started walking, I finally found a road sign and a street number that narrowed down the search, and after a few more hills and narrow pathways, we were at his door.
“Thank you,” he said as he opened his door.
“Happy New Year,” I said and went to meet my friend.
I can’t get that brief encounter with the blind man out of my mind.
First, it was the reminder of my privilege as a person with sight that struck me. I walk around this city in the winter time, navigating the snowbanks and the frozen bits with some degree of challenge, but never giving much thought to how much more difficult the journey would be if I didn’t have sight. What if all of the things you normally rely on as a person without sight – your memory of the feel of the sidewalk under your feet, the edges of buildings and curbs, and the sound of your tapping cane reverberating against walls – are suddenly wiped out by the blanket of snow?
How would I learn to navigate if the landscape suddenly changed and none of my abilities had yet adapted to the change?
But there is more to this story that is still formulating in my consciousness.
What does it mean to help someone find home? To be the blind leading the blind? To be one lost soul on the street helping another lost soul get back to where they belong?
Today, when I shared this story on a call with The Helpers’ Circle, someone reminded me of the Ram Dass quote… “We’re all just walking each other home.”
Yes, that’s what we were doing. In my stumbling, bumbling way, I was walking him home. He didn’t have much reason to trust me (especially after my first failed attempt) and yet I was his best option. In turn, by teaching me a different way of seeing and navigating the world and helping me to pause and be more present for my surroundings, he was walking me home too.
Each of us had bits of the necessary information – one with sight and one with memory, intuition and prior knowledge – and together we stumbled our way toward home. When I started out with arrogance and too much confidence, sure I could find the way because I had sight, we ended up more lost than where we started. Together we had to stop on the street, sink into our shared lostness, and slowly build a map from our shared abilities.
This is the way of community and interdependence. Especially when the landscape changes and our navigational skills have not yet adapted to a new way of traveling, we need to reach out and find people who can help us in the fumbling. Those people may be just as lost as we are, but when we pool our resources, together we’ll find home.
This idea of finding home seems to have infiltrated my subconscious, because last night’s convoluted dreams were all about finding home. For the first part of the dream, I was suddenly homeless and had to find a place to live. I visited several apartments, hoping to find one that suited my needs. Later, in what seemed like a separate dream, I was living temporarily with someone else in a huge home with many rooms, none of which seemed to be mine. When I came down to dinner, there were two tables set – one was for me and my host and another was for any homeless people who happened to wander in off the street. I was about to eat at the table set for the homeless, but then my host said there was a place for me at her table. She was offering me a little bit of home in the midst of my homeless state.
As we near the end of 2016, a year in which the political landscape suddenly shifted dramatically, I sense that there are many people in the world who feel like that blind man, disoriented and fearful in a world they no longer now how to navigate. Collectively, we’re tapping our canes against walls, feeling the edges of the snowdrifts, trying to figure out why home suddenly feels so foreign and far away.
There are people out here on the street with us, but they’re just as lost as we are and we’re not sure we can trust them. What if they take us down the wrong road and we end up even more lost than when we started?
We who are lost need to find each other. We need to cling to each other in our lostness, pool our resources and our information, and stumble our way down unfamiliar streets together. Somehow, we’ll find our way back home.
Are you fumbling your way into 2017, feeling like you’ve lost your navigational tools? Here are a few resources that might help.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.