We hear the word catastrophe a lot these days. In the news. In the mental health arena. In the therapy room. In relation to all arenas of life. According to different sources, what’s happening to our climate is a catastrophe. What’s happening to our earth is a catastrophe. What’s happening to people who have lost their jobs and are unable to support themselves and their families financially is a catastrophe. What’s happening to people who will be unable to have adequate healthcare is a catastrophe. What’s happening to people whose homes have been threatened and/or destroyed is a catastrophe. What’s happening to people whose lives in their country are being threatened is a catastrophe. What’s happening to the truth and integrity of our country and our world is a catastrophe. What’s happening to the leadership in our country and our world is a catastrophe.
I could go on and on and on. But I won’t. Each of these is, indeed, a catastrophe in its own right. Each of these is a catastrophe in the current time – 2017. Step one in responding to a catastrophe in the here and now is to validate it, have compassion for the person experiencing it, and find what actually needs to be done in the here and now.
But there is more to it than this. And given the presence of catastrophes in today’s world, it’s curious, even odd that many people in the mental health world teach their clients not to “catastrophize.” They are trying to help their clients calm themselves. They are trying to teach their clients that thinking about catastrophic outcomes will upset them unnecessarily. They believe that is a good thing to teach. It might be helpful for a client to have the word “catastrophe.” When we can name something, it empowers us. But if the therapist stops there … the therapist leaves the client able to know there is a source of power, but unable to see it or find it.
There is also a similar cultural response … as demonstrated in the childhood fairy tale about Chicken Little. Despite some published endings and interpretations of the fairy tale, all the people I talked with about this had the same experience. Basically: When they were told the story as children, it was made very clear that you shouldn’t say what you’re afraid of. You shouldn’t say when you see something happening that feels bad or threatening … or you will be dismissed by people telling you mockingly “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
Someone who is afraid of catastrophes certainly doesn’t need to be dismissed, and most certainly doesn’t need to be mocked. And even more certainly doesn’t need to be threatened out of expressing their fears with the warning of humiliation.
Someone who is afraid of catastrophes, doesn’t need to be told to stop “catastrophizing.” He doesn’t need to be told to stop thinking that way. She doesn’t need to be told to stop imagining those catastrophes. He needs to be helped to understand that the catastrophes he’s thinking of are very likely catastrophes he has already experienced in his life – possibly catastrophes he doesn’t even remember consciously. Likely catastrophes he has no words for. Likely catastrophes he had no way out of as a child. He needs help to understand that we can guide him safely as he works his way back to the earlier catastrophes and heals from them. She needs to be taught that as we move toward the original catastrophes, it is likely her fear of catastrophes in the future will ease; she will stop projecting the past catastrophes on the future. That is step two in helping people with catastrophes. If you can help someone know the catastrophe that they’re fearing in the future has actually already happened, long, long ago … that has a calming effect of a different nature. It will likely still be scary, but it’s a different kind of fear. It’s a fear from long ago, still alive within.
It gives the person a chance of having a step three: to find and heal from the original catastrophe… and this time with help. This time not alone. This time as an adult with a little child still alive within.
Here’s an example* …
Burt’s mother hit him from the time he was very, very young. She smacked him anyplace within her reach. He remembers looking down at his leg and seeing her handprint on his little thigh below his diaper. He recalls her holding his hand to pull him close enough to smack, and his trying to stay far enough away that she couldn’t reach him, while she swatted at him again and again. He remembers feeling terrified. These were individual catastrophes for little Burt. But even these two alone would create a fear and an anticipation of more catastrophes to come. A waiting … for the other shoe to drop.
Yet these were not the only two times Burt’s mother treated him this way. In fact, for Burt it was like living in an ocean of abuse and waiting for abuse through his entire childhood. His childhood, in other words, was filled with catastrophes. Catastrophes in the moment and catastrophes about to happen.
Burt’s anticipating and fearing that would continue in his life today and in the future is not catastrophizing, but rather transferring that young ocean of catastrophe onto the future. And since no one helped Burt as a child, or helped him understand and heal the child catastrophes as a young adult, he kept re-enacting and re-creating this in his adult years. He drew to him women who mostly didn’t hit him with their hands, but smacked and swat at him consistently with their words, their looks, their energy, their feelings. That left him continuing to live in an ocean of catastrophe. And he mistakenly thought it proved that life is a catastrophe. That relationship is catastrophe.
Without even realizing it, Burt contributed to the election of a woman president of his country – one who verbally smacked at those who disagreed with her and those who didn’t do what she wanted. Among the others who contributed to this election’s win by an abusive president were other men and women whose mothers smacked and swatted at them when they were little girls and boys… creating catastrophes in their young lives. And since none of them had the help to heal consciously from the original catastrophes, they were all re-creating their early catastrophes in the life of their nation. And almost everyone in the nation thought it was a current national (and global) emergency only. Only a few knew that the citizens unconsciously and communally had helped to create this national catastrophe out of their childhood catastrophes. And try as they would to inform their country-people … to show their country-people … the citizens didn’t want to know. They seemed to really believe the situation today was the only catastrophe. They seemed to prefer to live in and co-create the current abuse and catastrophe rather than remember, feel, and heal their past young experiences of catastrophe.
Sandy’s experience is another example of the real catastrophe …
Sandy’s father touched her in ways and places he never should have touched her … from the time she was 3 years old – that she can remember – or perhaps even younger beneath her memory. Sandy’s father would hold her and rub her back when she was crying. He would sing songs to her in a sweet voice, too. It seemed loving and comforting to little Sandy. Eventually, once Sandy became acclimated to this, he began to rub other parts of her body – first with his hands and then with other parts of his body. With each step, what once seemed loving and comforting to Sandy eventually felt alarming, scary, and painful. And his use of the guise of comforting her to cover up his molesting her was terribly confusing to her. Everything got short-circuited for Sandy – love, comfort, pleasure, trust, and even wanting. Her world was one of catastrophe after catastrophe till the air she breathed was made up of molecules of the impending doom of catastrophe or actual catastrophe itself.
Sandy’s mother didn’t help things either. She didn’t protect Sandy. She dressed Sandy up like a little doll from the time she was very young, certainly by 3. And with each year her mother dressed her more and more like a little model – already looking like a teenager when she was only 8. In this way, Mom colluded in the creation of Sandy’s vulnerability to men molesting and assaulting her. Her high school dates all wanted to get inside her, the consequences be damned, moreso than the stereotype of high school boys. Her first real boyfriend would draw her in with comfort and tenderness and then use her in every way he wanted to satisfy his own appetites. And the same with her first husband. Sandy was frozen. She believed she was frozen in the teenage and early 20’s catastrophe of sexual abuse. Having repressed and forgotten her early experiences of sexual abuse in her childhood home with mother and father, she had no way, without help, to realize she was really frozen in her early childhood catastrophes of sexual abuse.
No one helped Sandy as a child. No one helped her as a teen. No one helped her in her 20’s. A whole life-stream of catastrophe. So when she was 28 and the presidential election was coming, Sandy was frozen in the face of the male candidate who promised to provide comfort for the citizens and the country. Comfort in different forms for different citizens. But comfort nonetheless. In her frozen state, and beneath that with such a hunger for comfort, Sandy was vulnerable and, as a result, seduced into supporting him. So she did. Whatever was exposed about the candidate, she still supported him … with no awareness that she had transferred her hunger for Daddy’s comfort onto the candidate. With no awareness that she had transferred the whole catastrophe stream from her childhood onto the process of the buildup to the election.
When the candidate’s molesting of women was unexpectedly exposed to the public, Sandy still supported him. She was still frozen and unconscious in the place of a child, living with daddy, needing daddy, needing attention from daddy, needing comforting from daddy, needing daddy to take care of her, and more …
Other women who had been molested by their fathers as children were split. Some were still supporting the candidate, through mechanisms like Sandy’s frozenness and unconsciousness. And others, triggered by the revelations, woke up and realized what the candidate was doing and what their fathers, uncles, grandfathers, brothers had done. Those who woke up stopped supporting the candidate as the catastrophes from their own childhoods became real and conscious to them again.
Without awareness, those women who continued to support the candidate were participating in the creation of a catastrophe in the current day out of their inability, unwillingness, fear of looking at, working with, and healing the catastrophes in their childhood. There were others, too, who supported this candidate out of their “no” to making conscious their experiences of sexual catastrophe as children. Men who had been sexually abused as children. Men whose fathers had molested and sexually abused or harassed their mothers, sisters, women out in public … or even women on TV. Many of these men felt powerless in the face of sexually abusive men. And many of them became like those sexually abusive men as a way to defend against their young experience of powerlessness. The catastrophe of this candidate getting elected was created from many different childhood catastrophes amongst the citizenry. Even the catastrophe the candidate was creating came out of catastrophes in his early life. Catastrophes from long, long ago that he obviously had no intention at all to remember and heal … for his own sake or for the sake of his country.
These profound, deep, raw, and real examples offer a clear introduction to the real catastrophes … and the consequences of not seeing them, finding them, working to heal from them.
There’s another important clue and gem here. If we interfere with a person’s seeking and finding the original catastrophe, they not only will keep being afraid of a catastrophe in the future, but also will unconsciously co-create catastrophes in the future. Our unconscious selves – our souls – call us and push us to bring the original catastrophes into consciousness however we can. That’s the only way to heal them. It’s safer if we bring them into consciousness in our dreams. Or in glimpses of waking memories. It’s safer if we bring them into consciousness watching a movie or tv program. It’s also safer if we bring them into consciousness in small benign re-enactments in our lives, re-enactments that trigger memories of the original catastrophe but don’t cause more catastrophes. But if we don’t unearth the original catastrophes in those ways, we will co-create them in other ways … either in our own individual lives, or along with others who are co-creating them in the life of our world.
This is not something to blame people for. This is not something to punish yourself for. It’s something to be aware of. It is a gem to be thankful for. It holds the key to our healing. We are not responsible for what happened to us as children, but we are responsible for healing from the experiences we had as children and the consequences caused by those catastrophes. This is the key to our healing our individual catastrophes. And the key to our healing our communal catastrophes – familial, national, global.
If you know that the catastrophe was long ago…
If you know that you’re afraid of a catastrophe in the future because you’re transferring the original catastrophe onto the future…
If you know that and don’t do the work to heal from the original catastrophe…
and you know that your refusal to do the original catastrophe work will result in your creating a catastrophe in the future…
If you know that if each of us does the exact same thing – refuses to do the original work and so creates a future catastrophe instead…
we will create catastrophes in our world …
The worst catastrophe is to create a catastrophe in the future
because you said ‘no’ to tending to and healing the catastrophe from your past.
The worst catastrophe is to create a catastrophe in the future
because we together said ‘no’ to tending to and healing the catastrophes from our pasts –
individually and communally.
This is what is occurring in our world today.
It has been since ancient times.
It will continue unless … we take responsibility for our part.
I have written to media editors and hosts … who haven’t even responded.
I have written to leaders in power… most of whom haven’t responded. One leader from another country graciously replied. One leader from an organization responded personally – not in a form letter – but offered no help, didn’t even accept my offer to help.
I have written to others with platforms who could help spread this understanding across the world… no response.
People don’t want to know.
People don’t want to take responsibility at the deepest levels.
They’ll take outer action. They’ll pray. Both of which are also needed. But they really don’t want to see, hear, know, and feel their inner responsibility from their own experiences long ago. They really don’t want to take inner action. They really don’t want to take action on the deepest levels.
I hear people in many places say they don’t want to know. They want to live in a bubble. They’re usually talking about the outer world – consciously – but they mean the inner world, too. People I work with get to the point where they realize as soon as they say “I don’t want to know,” they do know that some awareness is right beneath the surface of their consciousness. And then we explore, at a rhythm and pace they can work with what that awareness is.
We need to know! Our lives and our sanity depend on it. Our children’s lives and their sanity depend on it. The life of our world depends on it. Depends on our preventing future catastrophes by healing from the ancient catastrophes in our lives.
Even if you don’t fully understand this. Let in the essence and create the passageway within … so you can take the next step.
How can you possibly refuse to do the work of the original catastrophe?
How can you possibly choose to be part of creating a catastrophe in the future
instead of meeting and going through the process of healing from your original catastrophe?
How can you possibly choose to be part of creating a catastrophe for perhaps trillions of people
rather than meet and heal your own early catastrophe?
We each have a choice. We each have a choice right now.
How can you not choose healing from the past?
How can you choose to keep participating in the future catastrophes instead?
The worst catastrophe of all is to know you participate in creating future catastrophes
by refusing to heal the earliest catastrophes in your life … and to still refuse.
The worst catastrophe of all is to know you participate in creating future catastrophes in our world by refusing to heal the earliest catastrophes in your life … and still refuse.
*All examples are either fictional, composites from many anonymous people, or examples used with permission.
© Judith Barr, 2017
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP KEEP OUR WORLD SAFE
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Catastrophes, large and small, personal, national, and global, touch all of us at one time or another. What’s important is how we utilize life’s catastrophes to help heal within.
When you experience or witness one of life’s “catastrophes” how do you react? Do you threaten, dismiss, or mock yourself for feeling the impact of the catastrophe? Do you try to “manage” the feelings that well up within you – feelings that may be both about the here-and-now situation and about a catastrophe from long ago – of which you may not even be aware? Do you try to “hide” from the situation, “forget” about it, jump into bed and pull the covers over your head? Do you try to hide from the reactions of others – discounting, intimidating, humiliating you out of your feelings about the catastrophe? Or … do you explore the feelings you have in the moment, using those feelings as clues to the catastrophes within – current and ancient – that need to be healed?
Commit to the latter … to utilizing the catastrophe for your own healing. When a catastrophe happens, after ensuring your safety and the safety of others if you need to, allow yourself to feel whatever comes up within you, without acting out on your feelings. Can you remember when in your past you felt this same way? Trace those feelings back as far as you can, and if you need help to explore and heal those feelings, find a compassionate, caring, integritous therapist who can help you do that.
Catastrophes happen to all of us, but if we can see them for the treasure they can be, and use them to help us in our own healing journeys, we can help prevent the re-enacting of those same catastrophes in our lives, in our societies, and in our world.