Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Family Sculpture - Safety and Belonging

Fractured Family - by Marie Findlay

Almost 20 years ago, I took a pastoral care course at the Montreal Pastoral Institute. One of the tools we used was "Family Sculpture." I was curious (be careful about being curious) and innocently volunteered. Family Sculpture involved taking other people in the group and props like chairs, and setting them all up in a way to express one's experience of family - for me, as a small child. 

I set them up. A slight arc facing inwards. Three chairs.  Looking from outside the arc, Mum sat to the right with her head down, resting her hand on Lorne, our brother who had died, who was sitting at her feet. Jim who was 5 at the time of Lorne's death, (but this could have been later than the actual year, 1950), stood partially facing Mum, to her right, not touching her or being touched. Gram (who lived upstairs in our home), sat facing the middle. Dad sat to the left also facing sort of inwards. No one seemed to see each other. All was still. Except in the stillness, I found my three-year-old self running back and forth behind all of them - not touching them - looking, looking for a place to belong. To connect. To be seen and safe. The sculpture had a feel that we were all invisible to each other in deep sadness -in our own worlds.

That experience had an emotional impact (as it was meant to - sneaking past the intellect to experiential knowledge) that still reverberates in my soul. The image is imprinted on me and I can see the set-up as if it were yesterday. Ohhhhh! Ohhhh... Thus began a new level of understanding that led to ... wuff... more growth. 

We all need and want to belong. We all have our own experiences of searching and finding - or not finding - safe people, safe places - a family or community or .......  We're human after all, and our journeys differ in the details, but not for the most part in our longings and needs.

A colleague recently told me a powerful story. A woman who lived in a 'hot-bed' area of a city had been invited to preach in his parish in a quiet suburban church. She told the people she would like to live there (at least on one level). She imagined they might feel fairly comfortable and safe, whereas she lived in an area where people seldom felt safe. It was as if she had kind of stroked them, lulled them into a sense of peace and security with a heart-warming homily and then WHAM! 

She told them they are NOT safe. No one is safe. We are all going to die someday. In some areas, it may be more likely that people will die young of violence. But we are not safe. Something will invade us and kill us one day. 

I spent my life trying to feel safe. Trying to find a safe place, family, community, 

I built walls of poor and destructive theology around me like an invisible heavy plastic armour. In terror, I crushed the life in me until I became like a very hard small kernel filled with darkness - but a tiny, tiny red flame remained - unable to escape - seemingly hopeless. I wasn't quite dead. I recognize this image now; I didn't them. Many people helped me crack open that shell and come to life. 

There is a wonderful story by Rachel Naomi Remen - in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. A dynamic and powerful business woman of Asian descent came to Remen for psychotherapy as she was being treated for ovarian cancer. As a small child, "Mary's" family was massacred by invading troops, but she lived because her mother hid her in a wooden rice box. When all was quiet, she exited the box to find the bodies of her family on the floor. Mary survived on the streets by committing horrific acts with other orphan children, including murder. She was adopted by Americans and, being extremely intelligent, excelled and in time climbed the corporate ladders over the 'bodies' of anyone who got in her way. 

Now here she was in her 40's with a life-threatening disease, telling her story for the first time in all its horror. Sometimes, Remen said, it was all she could do to listen, and all Mary could do to speak. "Over and over a wall of silence and despair threatened to close us off from each other. Over and over I would beat it back, insisting that she tell me the worst...
I often found myself not knowing how to respond, unable to do anything but stand with her here, one foot in this peaceful calm office on the water, the other in a world beyond imagination... I had never been orphaned, never been hunted, never missed a meal except by choice, never violently attacked another person. But I could recognize the whisper of my darkness in hers and I stood in that place in myself to listen to her, to try to understand..." (p.132).  

Many months into therapy, Mary had a dream. She was looking at herself in a mirror... saw the darkness and felt the familiar intense shame, but couldn't look away. She passed into the mirror into her own image, moving deeper and deeper into her darkness. "Just as she was certain that there was no end, no bottom, that surely this would go on and on, she seemed to see a tiny spot ahead. As she moved closer to it, she was able to recognize what it was. It was a rose. A single, perfect rosebud on a long stem."

Mary said, "I can see it very clearly, the stem with its leaves and its thorns. It is just beginning to open. And its colour is indescribable: the softest, most tender, most exquisite shade of pink."  (p. 134)

Asked what the dream meant to her, she replied, "It's mine. It's still there. All this time it is still there. It has waited for me to come back for it." (p. 134)

Taken on my walk-abouts while recovering from back surgery
June 2013

Yes. Stories of healing. When we tell our stories - even if simply to ourselves, we find healing. When I first read this story "Remembering" I cried. It's a 're-read often' story. Telling our truths frees us. Listening to other people's stories can be freeing for them and changes us as well.  We're in it all together on this human journey. Sometimes, we find we aren't as alone as we think or feel we are.

Safe? No, we're not safe. But are we maybe not safer when we own our truths and stories? That little Rozzie running about in the family sculpture still lives, but she hasn't the power she used to have before I listened to her story. My story.

Where's God in this, you may ask? God says She's been there all along, and that I don't need to talk God-talk - sometimes used as a distancer - to understand and accept the painful parts of the journey. And while I give God some credit for the healing that has taken place over the years - accompaniment - sometimes carrying - I do not give God the credit for all the hard (understatement) work I've put into becoming more whole. And I give Bryan some of the credit for walking with me, listening, allowing me to learn to understand myself and grow through sacred play. Isn't life sacred play? It's how children learn. (There's a very good book btw  - The Playground of Psychoanalytic Therapy)

Safe? No. Yes. The old Anglican both/and. Paradoxes? If we don't accept that none of us is safe, then we won't find places (inner and/or otherwise) of safety. Comments welcome. Disagree with me if you like. This is a work in progress. There ain't no perfect family.  This Advent, though, p'raps there is hope and peace to be found in the midst of wrestling with our inner children - and accepting and loving them. And admiring their courage!

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