As a teacher trained in Special Education I was taught to use every question children ask as a learning opportunity. “What is that,” the child asks pointing to a stop light. I would answer, “it is a stop light and watch it change colors, red, yellow and green. Red means stop, yellow means slow down and green means go.” In recent years, I have seen teachers in the Waldorf School respond differently. When a child asks a question (and inevitably children ask a ton of questions) the parents and teachers are likely to answer, “I wonder.”
Sensing the wisdom of this, I was challenged to change my approach and answer, “I wonder.” And it took me a while to understand the depth of this philosophy of letting children stay in the wonder and mystery of world, and find the answer for themselves when they are ready.
This week in sessions, my own and someone else’s, I notice a pervasive human tendency to try and answer difficult questions. How do we answer the “unanswerable questions?” Like, why do bad things happen to good people? Why do innocent children starve to death or are tortured in war? And especially, why is this terrible thing happening to me?
One person I work with is wrestling with a terrible thing that is happening with her son. She has a whole list (I captured 6 items) of how she has failed him as a mother and caused all his troubles. Some of them have a grain of truth (after all, there are no perfect mothers), but most of them feel very harsh and exaggerated to me. I am curious about her list. I know when we blame ourselves or others (and she can bounce back and forth between herself and blaming her son) that there is a difficult feeling being guarded, a difficult feeling that the blame game is protecting us from feeling. I ask her if she can put her list in a little thought bubble outside of herself and look at. I am trying to help her get some distance from it. “Oh no she says, I need it right here close (and she motions to holding it on her lap). I ask if she might consider making it a balloon and holding it by the string. “No I need it right here” (same motion), she says. And we get curious together about why she needs to literally persecute herself for this fate that has befallen her son. We ponder this for a few moments and finally she says, “Well, I need a REASON for what has happened”. And we both feel how powerful the need for a reason is—an answer in the moments when life unexpectedly serves up painful circumstances.
If we do not have a reasonable explanation for inexplicable and painful things, what are we left with? She did not want me to take her reason away—even a little away. What do you do without a reason? Without one, we live in a very dangerous, chaotic and random universe.
Without a reason we are left to find support from some other means. And a lot of the “reasons” that we imagine are ways to turn against ourselves and create shame and blame. Without these reasons, we are back to “I wonder”, and we are left with the MYSTERY. As I feel into this “I wonder”, what I find is the miracle of spirituality.
My client needed support as she struggled to separate her grief from her grievances. A “council of women” appeared in her imagination, all women who had struggled literally and figuratively through the labor of having children and then losing them. This group of women surrounded her and wailed with her in grief. They were a collective but they also had individual stories. One was the mother of the son who was one of the Columbine killers. Another a mother of a lonely son, who became radicalized on the web and put on a vest and blew up himself and others. Were these mothers “bad mothers”? No! There was not a clear cut answer to what happened, why this happened to them and their sons. They were fallible mothers but… it was a mystery how this happened. As she felt surrounded by these women, feeling their support, she began to relax into and feel her true grief. And then came a more universal grief, a non-personal grief that is clear and clean and true.
Later in the week I am in my own session, unpacking some of my own trauma. In my 15th year I am sitting in the front pew of our Synagogue right next to the altar (which feels very close to God). It is the funeral for my mother who has just died. I feel the support of those around me and the support of God. There is a comforting fabric of all that surrounds me, affirming that this is a very sad and terrible thing to have happened. Grief comes quite easily. A year later, I am sixteen, sitting in the same pew at the same altar, but this time my father is getting married to a woman I hardly know. It is supposed to be a happy occasion but it is too much for me, and much too fast. I fear I am now losing my father. I will be an orphan. And I look up at the altar and decide that God is now punishing me. I have done something terribly wrong to deserve this. Something is so wrong with me that everyone is happy around me but I am not. Since that moment fifty years ago, I have lived with a subtle feeling that I am being punished. Pain in my body follows me around most days and it is confirmation of the punishment by God. I have my REASON.
Then I too move into the MYSTERY and I am surrounded by a group of women. They have all lost their mothers and it did not go well afterwards. This “it did not go well afterwards” is the new puzzle piece of my work. The women form a collective but each has her own story as well. One women loses her father to grief and has to raise her younger siblings; another is shipped off to other family members and boarding schools. For me it did not go well with my stepmother and I did in fact lose my father. As I am surrounded by this support I feel a fullness creeps into my chest and a fullness surrounding me. I look up at the sky at twilight and the sky is luminous. A confirmation of a God that is so grand and true and loving.
That night I have a dream. I am at a shopping mall—dropped off there by my husband—and as I go from store to store, no one is wearing their masks. I am the only one. I feel like I have been dropped off into a world that is so different from me, that does not understand the threat and danger. I am so upset, I wake myself up and have to walk around the house for a while before I can go back to bed. These are the feelings I had with my father and new mother. I am able to feel them now through this dream. No one understands me and no one understands the danger and threat. Having been dropped off there I am trapped just like I was at 16 in my family. Everyone seems to think everything is normal. The feelings are difficult but I remember the luminosity of God that I felt and go back to sleep.