Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Here are some pieces from Francis Weller's book "From the Wild Edge of Sorrow". I find Francis Weller's writings to be profound for any of us who have experienced general trauma and the trauma of grief and illness.
For many of us the diminishment of our soul life began in early childhood. We experience what is known as Developmental Trauma, what I call ‘slow trauma”. This trauma occurs from an experience of absence rather than from something dramatic happened to us.
There may not have been explosive events in the home, nor overt acts of violence, but there were more subtle omissions of attention and care. In those moments when we needed to be soothed or held, the touch often did not come, or what was offered was partial and distracted attention. What we were granted was too thin and did not provide us with enough substance to calm the effect of the experience we were having. This shows itself in the inability to regulate internal states of distress as they arise and in feelings of self doubt and worthlessness.
Zomerland has written about trauma as “shaking of the soul”… shaking us out of our usual sense of the ordinary flow and out our usual sense of time into and extraordinary state. Trauma then ruptures the continuity of our lives and tosses us into an alternate existence. When this soul shaking occurs frequently and early in life, as a result of neglect, what was originally an extraordinary state, gradually becomes the ordinary. It is the world as we know it --- unsafe, unreliable, and frightening. We live on our heels, cautiously assessing whether it is safe to step in; we rarely feel it is.
Here is the agonizing convergence of trauma and shame. The failure of others to adequately attend the painful emotional and physical experiences we have as children is translated as a reflection on our being inherently bad and outside the embrace of love… “if I mattered, if I were good enough, this need, this pain would have received attention and holding by someone.
Mark Epstein as quoted by Weller, states that "trauma is inherent in being human. However, when painful emotions and unpleasant feelings are not picked up and handled by the parents, the infant/child is left with overwhelming feelings that he or she is not equipped to deal with, feelings that often get turned into self hatred." Here the trauma remains a source of ongoing suffering, eating away at our sense of being worthy and worthy of loved, and undermining our ability to step fully into our lives.
Shame ruptures our connection with with life and with our soul…. It is a sickness of the soul (P.32).
When shame arises, we pull back from the world, avoiding contact that could cause or risk exposure. The last thing we want in times of excruciating self-consciousness is to to be seen. We avoid the gaze of others, becoming silent and withdrawn, all in hopes of slipping under the radar.
Goal of shame bound behavior is to get from birth to death without ever being on the radar of life… The tombstone could read “safe at last”
Kaufman in Weller's book states that shame leaves us feeling “unspeakably and irreparably defective” (P.29). It is unspeakable because we do not want anyone to know how we feel inside. We fear it is irreparable because we think it is not something we have done wrong – it is simply ‘who we are’.
We cannot remove the stain from our core. We search and search for the defect, hoping that once found, it can exorcised like some demon. But it lingers, and can remain, filling us with anxiety that it will be seen and simultaneously we long to be seen and touched with compassion.
No one survives on this earth encrusted with shame. Rather, shame settles in our bones over time, accumulating during times of neglect, trauma and violation. Everyone of us has encountered times when the connection between us and the one we needed for love and attention was ruptured.
We can endure a certain number of times when the connection is broken between us and the people we love and need. We can digest a certain volume of disappointments and criticism. At some point, with enough repetition, the internal stories associated with those events reach their saturation point and the fictions crystalize into things that we are convinced are truths. (P.33)
We become convinced that our joy, sadness, needs, playfulness, delight, curiosity, sensuality, and so much more are the cause of our unacceptability and we are forced to cut off portions of our psychic life for the sake of inclusion, even if it is provisional. We become convinced that on some basic level that those pieces of who we are, are not good enough --- that they are in fact shameful – and we banish them to the farther shore of our awareness in the hopes of never hearing from them again. (P.34)
During therapy, people want to rid themselves of these unwanted pieces. Shame encloses the heart to self compassion. We live with an internal state best characterized as self-hatred.
In order to loosen shame’s grip on our lives, we need to make three moves. The first is from feeling worthless to seeing ourselves as wounded. The second emerges from the first and it is a shift from seeing ourselves through the lens of contempt to one of budding compassion. And the third is moving from silence to sharing only with people that we trust and can honour our vulnerability. As long as we see our suffering is evidence of worthlessness, we will not move towards our means with anything but judgment
Illness is another grief that we find at the First Gate of Grieving. All lingering illness can activate a feeling of loss. When prolonged sickness arises, or even in some acute illnesses, we lament the life we once knew and enjoyed, the one brimming with possible with vitality. We feel emptied, drained, finding little joy or motivation for the day. We may feel betrayed by our body, as though we no longer have a foundation beneath us for living fully.. Illness dislodges our sense of control and invulnerability. (P.27)
We resist , resent, argue, and protest attempting to wrestle our lives back from this unwelcome guest. When our health deteriorates in illness, we feel diminished, whittled away by loss within loss, within loss. Here Weller cites Carl Jung as he described his experience following a heart attack as a “painful process of defoliation”. He said “ Everything I aimed for or at least wished for fell away or was stripped from me”.
When good health feels far away, we are taken into places where out faith in life can be questioned. Losing our body’s sense of wholeness, losses carried from being ill for a lengthy period of time, loss of work, loss of friendships, other relational losses.
Illness asks much of us. Illness throws us into a ‘rough initiation’. All initiatory events, like those still held in many cultures take one into an unknown and unshaped world. Here, nothing is as it was; nor is it intended to be. It is a time of shedding and endings. The familiar world is left behind, and we exist at the edge of something without shape. It is a place of radical change. The Identity we have known for our entire life has just been dissolved. (P.28)
Illness carries us to places of great uncertainty. Will we ever get better? Will we ever get back to where we were before we became sick? We can no longer lean on what we know for a feeling of stability. Things teeter and shake; we feel adrift on unfamiliar seas, and as in all initiations we fear we will sink into the waters of death.
When we are in the grips of an illness, a major focus in our mind is the hope of getting back to where we were before the sickness began. However we are not meant to go back. We must recognize that we have been uprooted by this illness and have been set down on some new shore.
Like a true ritual process, we are meant to come out of the experience deeply changed. Illness strips away all excuses, wallowing us down to the bare essentials. When the choice of denial has been stripped away from us, we are brought face to face with our mortal lives, our tender vulnerabilities, the old wounds that linger in our hearts, the fragility of flesh, and the immensity of our soul.
We are ushered into a darker night that sheds an astonishing light on our deeper and more genuine shape. In this more ripened place, we can see how much more we can hold, tasking both the sweet and the bitter, the beautiful and the painful, all in the same moment. Everything we have avoided for the sake of living in safety, yields to a desire to encounter it all. We gradually become able to embrace the full terrain of living.