Safety, Love, and Wonder
by David A. Yeats LCSW
Driving Julian to Chiefess Kamakaheili Middle School in 2001 in Kauai…he’s always curious about something, always wondering…It’s so great that he can.
At Koloa Public School, in 1999 when he was in sixth grade, where he spent a month before we pulled him, all his resources went toward creating safety, all his emotions were muted by a constant state of fear, all his interactions were shaped by dire anxiety about the likelihood of taunting or targeting or dissing.
His teacher sat him on the “girls” side. He said Julian sounded like a girl’s name. He was told to do lunch duty the first day—but they didn’t say what that meant. So Julian missed lunch. In the afternoon, he began to eat his sandwich and was told he couldn’t eat in class. When Julian said, “At my old school, Bear Creek, everyone could eat in class.” A mocking laugh from the teacher, first. Then, “Did you hear that class? This one says he can eat lunch in class. Who believes that?” The kids laugh derisively.
One must feel safe in order to wonder, one must wonder in order to grow, one must grow in order to know who she or he is, one must know who she or he is in order to create either the prospect of joy or the true possibility of finding anything greater or deeper. It is one of the greatest gifts to humanity—to be able to wonder. It is a human right, as much as the right to food or sleep. If it is taken from us, we have no choice, if we are to survive, but to redirect all our focus to establishing or reestablishing the ground of safety from which wonder flows.
Watching one wonder is a delight. Julian is a good example. He takes a notion, any notion, any passing thought and he connects with it. He relates it to other contexts. He studies it and draws links. He comes sooner or later, if left to his process, to some ah-ha, often little, sometimes big, but some new wisdom, some new putting together. “Dad, have you ever seen an accident?” “Well, let’s see. Well, many years ago, I was driving down the alley behind my house in a snowstorm that had dropped two feet. This guy comes barreling down the alley straight at me. There’s nowhere to go so I pull over & scrape along the wall. The guy just kept going.” “He didn’t stop?” “No, I think he was just totally out of control. Why?” “Every time you ask someone if they've seen an accident, they say ‘well, I remember one time I was in an accident…’ but no one says they saw one. With all the accidents everyday, someone should have seen one.” This conversation follows several days where Julian sees every dead animal along the side of the road, and is wondering if he ever wants to drive. Or if he’ll become so desensitized that it won’t bother him to see dead animals –a worse fate. So he’s thinking about cars and accidents. Today he wonders who actually ever sees one happen. We drive along a bit. I ask, “Have you ever seen an accident?” Without missing a beat, he replies, “Well, once when I was three years old and in preschool, and I was playing with this toy car on the rug, when this kid, Matt, who’s driving another car, comes barreling toward me and clobbers my car and just keeps going…” “Funny, Julian.” It was funny. A sick sense of humor, mocking his dad playfully. Turning a serious subject into something for us both to relate to more lightly right now. He’s a creative kid. But if he had stayed at the school he started sixth grade in, we wouldn’t have had that conversation. His sense of self would be fragile and powerless. He’d be guarded and suspicious. He wouldn’t be wondering about the fate of other beings, human or animal. All his energy would be focused toward safety…by withdrawing, or getting into some click, by acting tough and getting some twisted acknowledgement from his peers, by acting smart, or acting dumb or trying to anticipate what others want and being a people pleaser, or… Or not being himself, not being happy, and definitely not wondering. One of the great conversations of our culture these days is the question of child drug use. Money is being thrown at education, prevention, treatment, punishment. Everyone wants to know why, why, why. The question is good…it speaks to wonder. But we look for the answer in society’s structure. If we can “fix” the structure, we can fix the problem. But regardless of the structure of society—what we teach, how we control, what we expect, what consequences we impose, what judgments we make about our kids, we cannot have meaningful changes in our children’s drug use—or adult drug use—until we get it that the inner experience of each human must be one of safety. From safety flows wonder, growing, knowing one’s self, joy, meaning. Without the ground of safety, there’s nothing to stand on, no one to stand by. Drugs are a great alternative to the stark desperation of fear and loneliness. The real question about drugs is “How do we have our kids experience safety and a feeling of worth and love?” That’s the whole tamale. Safety, worth, and love. Because safety is so inextricably intertwined with our human experiences of bonding, attachment, relationships, feeling valued and loved and seen, and with a sense of belonging, the experience of a rupture of safety and love is as one. A 1930’s researcher on the nature of trauma, Erich Lindemann, went so far as to define trauma itself as “a rupture of attachment.” In other words, any self- or psychologically-compromising experience, be it physical or emotional, that a human may endure, has at its core a severing of the experience of a secure tie or bond with our fellow humanity. For so many in our world, safety and love are threatened or taken away very early. Although it’s often for different reasons, this is true for both first and third world cultures. For folks in third world cultures, the coping is different: third world experience doesn’t hold out hope or real possibility that life will be anything more than subsistence, so a stoicism, a toughing it out mentality, develops. My trauma is not much different and not less “expectable” than your trauma. There is a rupture of safety and love, one that occurs commonly and predictably. We both swallow hard and accept it, put it away inside us, and know that for ourselves and others, it’s the nature of life. This isn’t good, and if hope is offered to third world cultures, this coping style will change. But for most of the world this is the nature of life. Those in the developed world may even as frequently experience a rupture of safety and love. In first world countries and cultures, the individual has an expectation that this safety and connection and the material abundance that goes with it are reasonable expectations, givens, inalienable rights, entitlements. There is a hope, however distortedly defined again and again by the media, that I, an individual, can and should have “it all.” But of course that’s a myth. I may not have all these things—abundance and the implicit safety and belonging and rights underpinning abundance—but if I don’t, it’s too often suggested that that’s MY flaw, MY inadequacy. So in a first world culture, should I experience a trauma—a rupture of connection and safety—not only am I now exposed and vulnerable, but it’s MY fault, MY problem—not something commonly shared and known, not something that’s normal. It’s my own personal defect. That’s the myth citizens of developed countries are asked to buy. The sense of isolation in my vulnerable state because it’s my problem, not something commonly shared, compounds the damage. Again: without the ground of safety, there’s nothing to stand on, no one to stand by. Why not use any choice that takes me away from such pain?
The point is this: if we want to create a better world, if we want to reduce the risk our kids experience when they opt for drugs, the place to look is the arena of one’s experience of safety and love. Not my belief about whether my kid should feel safe or loved, but my kid’s experience.
John Briere, a contemporary researcher and therapist in the field of trauma, has written several books and numerous articles on the subject, and has worked with folks who have experienced a wide variety and tragic depths of trauma. He is sharp, humorous, intuitive, and kind. He has a wisdom, which he shares abundantly in his talks and writings. One of the metaphors he uses is the notion that self and trauma can be understood as “units”: units of self and units of trauma. As we develop through infancy and childhood and into adulthood, we gradually accrue more units of self. An infant has few units of self, relying on a surrogate self, for example a parent, to meet even the most rudimentary needs. An adolescent is capable of much greater self-sufficiency, and an adult reasonably can manage life with a high degree of competence. Units of self usually increase as one matures. Units of trauma can be “measured” too. A slap on the face can be represented in units of trauma, for example we can metaphorically quantify just how serious a slap in the face is—let’s say 20 units. A slap in the face is 20 units of trauma. For a competent and capable adult male, making a free choice to physically tussle with a peer in a playful way and in a safe setting, who get slapped in the face, these 20 units of trauma would be nothing, harmless. As a consenting adult, with lots of physical and psychological skills and life experience, with good relationships in a joyful setting, one may have, say, 3700 units of self. 20 units of trauma have a minimal or even insignificant impact on 3700 units of self. Take a newborn, still in a crib. The same behavior, a slap in the face, would naturally be something very different here. Units of self, perhaps 1; units of trauma 20. The same behavior, but a very different effect. What for me may be minor, even joyful, may for another be life threatening. The tauntings that can occur daily in schoolyards everywhere are a good example. The same taunting statement can be made in many different ways, to many different children. Few would be able to predict the impact without being very familiar with the child to whom the statement was directed. For most, the impact could be inconsequential: 2 units of trauma against perhaps hundreds of units of self. But not always. There is a girl on the bus that taunts other, younger kids. She says no one likes a particular kid, and persuades others to put that kid down too, or ignore him. Where does that go inside the targeted kid? As it turned out for Julian, he was able to ultimately befriend this girl. He felt secure enough in himself not to be overwhelmed by her manipulations, even though he was new to the school. He had verbal skills enough to talk about it, to get some perspective and insight. And he had enough intuition and empathy to see through her bravado. This girl was reeling from her parents’ divorce, and charges were being made about infidelities and irresponsibility toward each of her parents. She felt alone, not able to be close to either of her parents because of their great turmoil. Her sense of safety and love had been ruptured. In her crisis state, her gradually solidifying sense of self was compromised, and the units of trauma due to the divorce, the loss of safe and predictable access to each of her parents, an expectation that she pick one parent over the other, the teasing and taunting and name-calling directed toward her parents by individual children, the instability in her future, and more, began to overwhelm her tender sense of self. As with so many of us, she began to treat others as she was feeling: targeting others, putting them down, trying to isolate them and gain a sense of connection by inviting others to join her in taunting and isolating another. Units of trauma overwhelmed her units of self. She wasn’t bad; she was in pain. She wasn’t powerful; she was frightened. Rather than having the trauma spill over onto him, apparently Julian had enough units of self in effect to help her compensate for her units of trauma. They aren’t great friends now, but there is an understanding and a respect between them.
Feeling unloved and afraid is far too common an experience among humans. That experience gets in the way of joy, purpose, energy. That experience is the cause of all of human suffering and the source of all the "unhealthy” and “immoral” things that people may do. It blocks caring, connection, peacefulness. It sounds the red alert. Its distress must be reckoned with before any other goal. And humans are inconceivably clever in the ways they find to reckon.
But the reckoning is too often like plugging the holes of a dike with a thumb. Too little, too late, to deal with too much. Ineffective strategies. The intention’s worthy; the strategy destined to fail, or even to worsen things: bullying, seeking money and things, drugs, diversions and distractions—anything that moves in the direction of not feeling the truth, not facing the truth, not taking on the truth. We can—and need to—deal with all these symptoms, to create a safe place in our culture for all of us, but particularly for kids in their different stages of growing. A safe “container” is the ground of safety. However, we need to hold a clear vision that addressing the symptoms is not going to result in significant change in people’s choices, but only aid in guiding them. If we want to create a more supportive experience for our children, we have to think differently. What is interfering with their being able to wonder? If one wonders, one begins to reflect, one begins to make different, wiser choices. If wonder is inhibited, safety and connection are likely at risk, and that’s the place to intervene. How do we intervene? The single most powerful thing we can do as individuals and as a society is to act in ways that nurture a feeling of safety and love for all with whom we come in contact at all times. If we act always with all persons with an intention to nurture, and we promote others doing so as well, we will be doing the lion’s share of what it’s possible for one to do. With the young, hopefully it’s a matter of prevention of a rupture of safety and love; with most humans, it’s also a matter of promoting a sense of safety and reconnection. An intention to nurture requires that we assume that each human is doing the best they know how to do, perhaps judging the helpfulness or not of some behavior, but not judging the person. That’s no small miracle to pull off!