Thursday, February 18, 2010

Life's Earthquakes Bring Up Rubble from the Past

The earth is broken.

A few days before the earthquake in Haiti, I watched a movie with an earthquake scene. The people ran every which way to escape it. Some fell into the cracking ground. Some were killed by the toppling of tall trees.

An earthquake is “a shaking or trembling of the crust of the earth, caused by underground volcanic forces or by breaking and shifting of rock beneath the surface.” This is what causes our personal earthquakes, too. Stuff we are not aware of going on beneath the surface.

“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In an earthquake, that which was hidden is suddenly right there on the surface. The things in the darkness are exposed to daylight. Calamity does this, brings to the surface one’s forgotten past, repressed experiences, unexpressed feelings, buried traumas.

In the clean-up, we can bulldoze it all back underground again. Or, if we are brave enough, we can poke through the rubble. We have a rare opportunity to change.

When the world is put right again, do we really want this to be a part of it?

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that we are products of our first family. Our responses to our early childhood experiences form our character traits, the good, the bad, the ugly.

For instance. In a recent conversation, my friend and I realized we both had the same type of father: loud, funny, explosive, endearing, intimidating. I was afraid of mine. When I was little, his yelling terrified me. In order to avoid his angry tirades, I became a very good girl. I fetched his slippers, got straight A’s on my report card, looked pretty, laughed at his jokes. When he did get angry, I tried to placate him. I felt it was my responsibility to make him happy. If he got mad at anything or anyone, I took the blame.

My friend was afraid of her father, too. But instead of cowering, she stood up to him. She told him he was wrong, that he had no right to bully anyone in her family.

We grew up to be very different women in relation to men. It didn’t take much for us to feel threatened and—not always, but most of the time—to move into our operating modes: me into a placating role, her into a dominating role. Other women may have different responses, such as distancing themselves in some way.

Of course, we didn’t realize what was happening until we hit crisis, earthquakes. Then it was exposed.

In times of calamity, we can choose to not see the truth about ourselves. We can choose to blame others. However, if I decide to blame my father, that leaves me powerless to change. And how, then, do I explain my friend’s personality?

It was not our fathers who made us what we are, but our responses. It’s clearly up to me how I want to respond. Do I want to be stuck in this mode? As an adult, I see my father as a broken and flawed human being. He is no longer scary.

In “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” by Salman Rushdie, the character Rai Merchant describes an earthquake: “Here was the eternal silence of faces and bodies and animals and even nature itself, caught … in the grip of the fear of the unforeseeable and the anguish of loss, in the clutches of this hated metamorphosis, the appalling silence of a way of life at the moment of its annihilation, its transformation into a golden past that could never wholly be rebuilt, because once you have been in an earthquake you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth’s breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again, with an even more devastating force.”

The reality is that if we don’t deal truthfully with the past, our responses to it, and ultimately, our fear, it will always be shifting and bubbling beneath the surface. It will affect our relationships, our jobs, our major and minor decisions.

If we do deal truthfully with our past, we must remember that it is always a work in progress. We never “arrive,” never fully master it. If we think have, we will be surprised.

For we are, as humans, broken.

No comments: