I have a dear friend who is struggling with the residue of a nightmare childhood. When one has been betrayed by those closest, those who should have been the keepers of trust and love, it is easy to fall into a default setting of fear and defense. Ordinary interactions become minefields, as the person adopts a policy of perpetual watchfulness, always scanning for imagined dangers lurking in the folds of ordinary time.
Some fun, hmm?
My friend has been working hard to release these inherited fears, but one perceived obstacle keeps getting in the way. “I want to let go,” my friend keeps saying, “but I don’t have another way of being to replace it.”
This phrase—”another way of being”—is immensely rich and revealing. The person who is in the grip of ancient fears sees all of life as a test. For quite a while, I couldn’t really understand this. It seemed to compare being oneself with casting a play. I just couldn’t see the connection. “I don’t have a ‘way of being,'” I would say. “I just am.” But then I realized that distinction is precisely the point. Living like my friend requires a great deal of conscious preparation, scores of rules about how to act in certain situations, countless prohibitions, a strongly willed idea of who one should be, and a long effortful, frustrating time of trying to live up to the casting director in your head.
So I dug into my operating software, whatever it is beneath the persona that supplies my prime directives, to discover my “other way of being.” The good news is that all it requires is remembering three points:
I’m not saying I always achieve this “way of being.” For the last month, for example, I’ve been suffering with a pinched nerve. I’ve watched the horizons of my world shrink until there have been times when very little beyond the boundaries of my own aching body can interest me. My pain is slowly lessening, but it hasn’t been responding as hoped to the remedies and palliatives I usually find effective. So at moments, I’ve been taken over by an utterly self-involved despair. Yet, as they say, pain is a great teacher, and I’m beginning to learn a few lessons from it that have general application: that troubles don’t always yield to my ministrations, that every problem can’t be quickly solved, that sometimes it’s good to do nothing, that I need to remember how pain shrinks our horizons psychically as well as on the physical plane. But it took me several weeks to agree to show up for this learning, let alone pay close attention to its unfolding.
When I shared my three-part “way of being,” my friend tested it for flaws. “Couldn’t an evil person adopt that?” my friend asked.
Despite the many horrors of the world, I don’t think I am ready yet to believe in the existence of evil persons, just evil acts and damaged people who are in the grip of what Jewish teaching calls the Yetzer HaRa, the Evil Inclination. But by either standard, my answer was no. Bring to mind any torturer or sadist: I don’t think it’s possible that a person committing such acts is fully present and fully aware, on all levels, of their many effects and implications. We know from many firsthand reports that such perpetrators construct a false picture of themselves and their deeds which they interpose before reality, so that instead of seeing what is there, they see only their projections. The molester imagines his victim taking pleasure in his deeds; the torturer preens before a reflection of his fantasized power; the warmonger imagines himself a hero of the people, heading a victory parade.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins on Friday night. My t’shuvah—my reorientation, the turn I hope to make—is to bring myself in deeper alignment with the three premises of my “way of being.” For my friend and for all of us, may this be a year of healing and happiness, love, connection, deep nourishment and peace.