Posted on July 24, 2015
As we discussed last week, in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth the hero descends into darkness by choice. This is a choice made to consciously go from light into darkness, from a normal and peaceful life into one of danger and suffering. With trauma there is no choice, no heroic decision, no perceivable goal, such as wealth, glory, or spiritual growth. There is just darkness.
I want to focus this post on the line between light and darkness and when that line is crossed. In the world of myth, there is a moment, a powerful choice that changes one’s life and self forever. I started to consider when this line is crossed for those who I’ve worked with, and what I realized is that for many of them, their whole lives have been lived in darkness.
Let me state here that my conclusion does not include all of those I’ve worked with throughout the years. Some had “light” in their lives – a good home, economic stability, loving parents, educational achievement – before something dramatic changed. Addiction, violence, neglect, tragedy…something took away the light. For this group, the loss of light is a powerful and often overwhelming event that truly demonstrates the power of trauma to destroy stability, peace, and hope. However, when I looked back, this was the rare exception and not the rule.
Most of those that I’ve worked with never experienced “light.” Going back perhaps even to the moment of conception, their lives were characterized by stress, hardship, and pain. When I was able to do full family assessments, I realized that the majority of my clients experienced high levels of harmful chemicals in the womb, either from the drug use of their mothers or through the cortisol released during their mother’s constant struggles with poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, and other stressful realities of their existence. These chemicals were passed from mother directly to the unborn baby during the most critical time in human biological development.
Even before birth, darkness was an ever-present companion. Once born, the young child continued to experience the chemicals of stress and hardships of poverty, stressed or absent parents, and failing (and violent) neighborhoods and schools. Through a process called epigenetics, a homeostasis (check out this post for more information on homeostasis: http://coldspringcenter.org/mattsmumblings/homeostasis-theory-of-trauma-healing/) is established between the stressful and dangerous environment and the neurobiology of the young brain. We can see the darkness of poverty, homelessness, and violence in the brain scans of those experiencing these hardships. While this brain is equipped to survive the stress of the environment, it too often struggles to adjust to the demands of the educational and employment environment so critical for economic and social health.
In a way we can actually observe, the darkness is internalized into the biology of the person. Campbell’s hero goes into the darkness – our clients not only have to survive the journey through homelessness, violence, and poverty, but they also take this dangerous journeys without a sense of the light or spiritual, emotional, and social contentment. Using attachment language, there is no secure base or safety in which to journey from or (as in Campbell’s model) strive to return to.
It is easy for those who have lived mostly in the light to judge those in darkness. Without empathy for the impact of the environment, we see isolated actions which appear criminal, evil, or immoral if seen outside the context of scientific reality. When we skip the question “What happened to you?” we miss opportunities to address the societal problems that result in the action we punish, as if it is the individual, not the darkness, which is evil.
As helpers, we must see ourselves as archeologists of the human condition. Discovering the answer to “What happened to you?” is a process where trust, empathy, safety, and the right questions are our tools of discovery. If we are truly going to be the “mentor” Campbell describes later in the journey, we must grasp the spiritual, emotional, and social darkness in which the person in front of us is struggling.
My challenge to you this week is to look at a client whose behaviors are challenging you right now. Try to take a bit of time to review their files and histories and, in the role of archeologist of the human condition, sit with the question, “What happened to you?” Sometimes this approach brings forth insight and, for me, always helps builds my empathy and compassion for their journey in the darkness, and the impact it has had on their biology and life.