Violence in our world is multiplying. It’s painful to read about, think about, feel. But if we turn away, instead of really resolving the problem, we feed the escalation.
Last week in Norway, we witnessed frightening, painful attacks. Anders Breivik killed and injured people in downtown Oslo and gunned down teenagers at a nearby camp. The consequences of this tragedy in the present day are huge and deep. Many want to simply blame and punish Anders Breivik. Although he must be held accountable, blame and punishment won’t bring real healing to the individuals affected, the town of Oslo, Norway, or our world. In addition to the present reality, Anders Breivik was almost certainly acting out ‘escape hatches’ developed in his psyche in childhood.
If you were at the point where you felt so much – sorrow, hurt, anger, fear – you thought you couldn’t bear it . . . what would you do? When I ask people this question, we discover their escape hatches.
As children, when we are traumatized, we instinctively protect ourselves, doing whatever we can to get away from the pain. We numb ourselves, close our hearts, deaden our bodies, strike out aimlessly . . . even before we have mental concepts or words. When thoughts and words become available, they are added to these responses – decisions we make about ourselves, others, life, and about how to escape suffering. Among these decisions: I’m leaving – running away. I want to die – kill myself. I could kill you – attack the other. I’ll go crazy!
With time, actions are too often joined to the feelings, concepts, and words . . . usually unconsciously. What was once vital self protection, now becomes a defense – hard, brittle, and even destructive – and typically ends up creating the very thing we intended it to defend us against. Think about it: All of the above decisions created to escape suffering end up creating suffering.
What if you’re a child who spends your first year with parents in conflict – openly or beneath the surface. Then, they divorce, your father leaves but begins a custody battle to take you away from your mother. The tension, split, abandonment, custody fight, create so much suffering for you. You feel you can’t bear it. You decide unconsciously: Someday I’ll get back at them and make them suffer like they’ve made me suffer. You’re bullied and abandoned in later childhood, and you make the same decision again.
You spend your early years being outwardly compliant, but as you grow you become rebellious. Eventually, perhaps unaware you’re fulfilling your early decision to make them suffer, you make an actual plan for revenge – not on your parents, rather on parent substitutes . . . current leaders and future authorities being trained for leadership. Eventually you enact your plan, conceived as a defense against pain, an escape from suffering many years ago early in your life.
Hearing the news, your mother ‘escapes’ and hides out, and your father tells the media you should’ve killed yourself to save him shame. Whether you know their reactions or not, they’re showing the whole world what you grew up with: Your mother would escape and hide out; to escape from his own feelings of shame, dad would have you kill yourself. How tragically painful!
So, unconsciously, adults act on these young, raw, primal feelings. The example above is actually a compilation of details from the life of Anders Breivik, woven together by my understanding of how we try to escape suffering from our earliest time.
Escape hatches aren’t just true of Anders Breivik. They’re part of being human, whether we want to know it or not. People are killing themselves and others – domestic violence, suicide bombings, school shootings, wars, and more. People are wreaking havoc on life . . . in fruitless efforts to escape their own suffering. Until taught, children don’t draw boundaries between feelings and actions. Sadly, many adults don’t either: not knowing they’re having young feelings, they act on their feelings like children . . . only with the force and power of an adult. Children still alive inside adults are running rampant through our world, under the guise of adults. Whatever their childhood wounds, decisions, and feelings, people act them out at the expense of us all.
These childhood decisions – conscious and unconscious – have more power to drive a person’s life and impact our world than most of us conceive.
Denying this won’t help our individual or communal situation. Hate or fear isn’t going to solve this. Punishment is no resolution. Nor is giving up and letting it happen. Responding by creating more suffering isn’t, and never should have been, an option.
We need to handle things in the present, but we also need to understand what’s happening under the surface within us, individually and collectively, and work to heal the way we respond to suffering.
If we don’t hide our heads in the sand, we can utilize our minds and hearts to help resolve the acting out of escape hatches in our individual lives and in the life of our world. It isn’t a quick fix process. But it’s well worth investing our time, energy, and commitments in this task. Here is a handful of things you personally can do to help, for starters . . .
- Commit to find your own escape hatches. If we each find our own escape hatches, we are taking a first step in taking responsibility for our part in the problem.
- Commit to not act on your escape hatches, even while you still think and feel about them. If we make acting on our escape hatches unacceptable to us, we give ourselves the task, the challenge, and the opportunity to heal to the root the long-ago pain that caused us to create the escape hatches.
- Build your capacity to feel your pain, whether pain from the past or pain in the present day. If, instead of escaping, we are willing to feel the pain that existed and is still alive within us, as well as the pain that exists today . . . we will be able to prevent the creation of needless pain and suffering that would come from avoidance and escape of pain.
- Help your children and the children in your life build their capacity to feel their pain. If we help our children feel their feelings as they come up, we give them an option other than escape hatches.
- Be attuned to your children and the children in your life to sense if they have an escape hatch they need help with. We need to be very attuned and very sensitive here, but our children really need our help with this . . . and so does our world.
- Be attuned to family, friends, colleagues in your life to sense if they have an escape hatch they need help with. This is also a very delicate matter, but you could make a real difference in a person’s life if you can help him/her not take destructive action to escape pain.
- If you can’t do this on your own — and who can? — find a really good therapist who understands escape hatches and isn’t afraid of feelings.
Acting out our escape hatches can undermine our greatest possibilities and dreams and can create terrible destruction. Utilizing our awareness of our escape hatches well — on a thinking and feeling level — can open doorways to healing that most people have no conception of . . . yet.
© Judith Barr, 2011