What’s not to love about making a journey, about going somewhere? It speaks of hope and promise. I have taken many photos of paths leading toward the horizon. I have trod upon them with a lightness of being and a sense of enchantment and mystery. None is more sacred than this path on Haida Gwaii. It leads to a world heritage cemetery where totem poles are being allowed to return to the earth as originally intended.
In this photo the path symbolizes our journey from light and life through the unknown toward death itself. We must all make this journey without exception. Psychologists have created stage theories following chronological age. You would be familiar with Piaget, who in 1936 mapped out the stages of development for children. This was followed by Erik Erikson, who in the 1950s mapped out our development as human beings over our whole life span. These theories help us prepare for what is ahead.
There are also stage theories to help us prepare for the journey of our minds as we approach death I began my studies to become a psychotherapist as part of a research project led by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross in Billings Hospital in Chicago in 1967. I was in the chaplaincy stream and our task was to visit the dying. Dr. Ross wanted us to make notes and report on all our observations. From this clinical work came her formulations of the stages of death and dying. She made a map and it won universal acceptance. There was a clear sense that we died better if we reached the acceptance described in her final stage. Her stages were later given wider application to the grief experienced by people who were suffering loss.
Grand narratives that unfold in distinct stages have been around a long time. In Judaism, there is the catastrophe of slavery in Egypt, the call to liberate the people by Moses, a wandering and nomadic period of 40 years, standing on the edge of the promised land and moving in and occupying it. In Christianity we have three stages: Crucifixion, Holy Saturday (little recognized) and Resurrection/Easter Sunday.
We continue to describe stages in new ways. Here are but a few. Currently, perennial philosopher Ken Wilber and evolutionary psychologist Don Beck describe stages of consciousness spiralling toward enlightenment. In the world of popular psychology, we have Vikki Stark’s stages described by weather phenomenon: tsunami, tornado, thunderstorm, ice storm, fog, sun shower, early spring, and finally warm summer days. Just released are the three of stages articulated by the hugely popular social work scholar, Bréne Brown: The Reckoning, The Rumble and The Revolution. Clearly many people find the idea of stages of life compelling, encouraging and healing for their lives. Stage theories are inherently optimistic and hopeful.
In my experience listening to Don Beck present, he has been challenged by women in his audience regarding the linear nature of his theory, and how this is a reflection of male thinking. In response both Beck and Wilber offer the idea of spirals and lateral movement, where one spirals forwards and backwards through the stages. They also present the idea that an earlier stage is not transcended but included in each subsequent stage. Thus there develops a fluidity of movement across the stages.
This year’s Man Booker prize-winning book, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, concerns itself with Jamaican politics and life and the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. One of his characters, Bam Bam, a youth between the age of 10 and 14, comments:
“…better must come, but worse come first.”
This young kid really grows up amidst guns and violence, killing and running for his life. In the end of his short life he dies from drinking a glass of polluted water.
The path for Bam Bam’s life is hopeless. It is a deeply pessimistic path. He is born, life sucks, sucks more and he dies. James Marlon comments in interviews that he has been haunted his whole life by the character Bam Bam. In these dark times of world history, in my opinion, this story clamours to be heard. James Marlon tells it so that you can never forget it. Violence is not glamourized in any way. Note that praise for his book is staggering and totally positive. The literary world thinks we need to hear this work. Could they have a point?
Have we forgotten the ancient path of Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll down on him and then pushing it up again and it rolling down again over and over?
In a recent essay called Dance in the Dark, preacher Ottis Moss III puts it this way as he asks:
“Can we recover a blues sensibility? Do we dare speak with authority in the midst of tragedy? As it is, America is living stormy Monday while the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday.”
As I listen to my own trauma and that of others, I wonder if stage theory is always helpful. Life for Bam Bam and Sisyphus does not get better and neither are lesser citizens as a result. Romeo Dallaire is not cured of PTSD. Are we sometimes damaged beyond repair and then we manage that reality if we are lucky? Is it like managing a chronic disease? With the help of a strong and loving community, people cope, fall down again and again and then, as Camilla Gibbs puts in in her memoir, Happy at Last:
“It doesn’t matter that you are bleeding all over the grocery store floor. You have to stand. The Fuck. Up”
And it is also true that many do not get even to this place.
I find that there are times in trauma when the optimistic journey into light is just abhorrent. It undervalues and sentimentalizes the trauma. If trauma is cast as the catalyst for growth or a step on the path to wholeness, or as an opportunity to be transformed into greater light and wisdom born of suffering, then somehow is violence legitimized? A violator can say to him or herself, “well, this will be good for my victim.” There are those like Jim Rendon in his recent book Upside, who speak of PTSD as post-traumatic growth syndrome. Does this not imply that a non- violated person has a greater chance of evolving if they seek out a violator? Isn’t this like saying that cancer is good because as you suffer with it you will have opportunities for growth?
I also think that stage theory does not point out that a person may go through the stages over and over throughout a long life. For some people there are many crashes, violations of self and relationships, big deaths and illnesses. Too many violations can wear out resilience. Unlike Sisyphus, sometimes a person just can’t stand the fuck up one more time. Young teen Bam Bam could not. And as therapists, we have had cases where resilience is so fragile as to be non-existent.
For me when there is trauma, catastrophe, or tsunami, then the now is what is and there is no room for the future. The physical and mental anguish dominates and overwhelms any perspective. Stage theory in its forward trajectory may not take the now seriously enough. For the person in the midst of a trauma, there is no certainty of anything else and it is important that this be acknowledged. It is not an easy task for a therapist or loved one to be present for such bleak despair and not try to fix it. Playwright August Wilson says it this way:
“Speech wrapped up in the blues is the antidote to the blues. In other words, the only way to get rid of your blues is to speak to your blues.”
And, I would add, to have the blues heard and witnessed.
In the story told in the New Testament as Jesus comes to awareness that his death by crucifixion is just ahead, he longs for his disciples to be present with him where he is. They are not able to do so, and they literally fall asleep (this may have metaphorical meanings as well). I have always thought that if Jesus knew that resurrection was just ahead, then the crucifixion would be trivialized. In dropping Holy Saturday out of the story, Christian culture has skipped a very crucial part of the event. Even Good Friday is observed by a very few.
When and how is growth catalysed by love? Do we hear this story enough? From my point of view these are the hopeful and nourishing stories that stage theory has the potential to miss.
I recently heard Bob Rae interviewed regarding the journey of the Liberal Party of Canada under his care as interim leader. When he took this leadership position, the Liberal Party was decimated. More than a few felt a death knell had been sounded. What happened then? Bob Rae for some crazy reason loved the Liberal Party and agreed to be its interim leader. Gradually other good strong people began to love the Liberal Party and believe in it again. Five years later, the Liberal Party of Canada won an overwhelming majority and now their new leader Justin Trudeau is Prime Minister. At one level, this can be explained by a most ancient application of stage theory. of growth through suffering. Bob Rae himself recalled Moses standing at the promised land but dying before entering.
But could there be a combination of stage theory and a circle of enabling love? What if the reality of the trauma/fall is acknowledged and felt and even sung? What if there was enough courage to really explore this thoughtfully and without urgency? In this way, trauma does not cause or yield growth along a path lit by optimism. Rather it is that one by one, person by person,we stop and bind the wounds of the fallen one. Just sometimes, there is enough of this love for a different and even wiser light to appear.