Unfolding the Map
Here, on Tilghman Island at the very end of Part 9 in Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) appears to have hit on an important truth. Coincidentally, it also appears to be an important truth that by different ways and in different time periods, I have discovered also. To see where Tilghman Island, which led to LHM's understanding of his journey and transformation, is located...make your way to the map. The graphic at right, by Timothy Knepp, is of Maryland's state fish, the striped bass. It is hosted at Wikimedia Commons.
"A human being is not a waxen rubbing, a lifeless imprint taken from some great stony face. Rather he is a Minuteman or a dog soldier at liberty to use the inclinations of the past as he sees fit. He is free to perceive the matrix, and, within his limits, change from it. By seeing both the futility in trying to relive the old life and the danger in trying to obliterate it, man can gain the capacity to make anew. His very form depends not on repetition but upon variation from old patterns. In response to stress, biological survival requires genetic change; it necessitates a turning away from doomed replication. And what of history? Was it different?
"Etymology: educate, from the Latin educare, 'lead out.'"
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 15
Tilghman Island, Maryland
At this moment I feel incredibly close to William Least Heat-Moon, despite the fact that his quote was uttered thirty years ago and I "hear" it in my mind as I interpret it from the page. However, in most of the particulars, I am reaching, at the cusp of my 49th year, the same place that took him approximately 12,000 miles and possibly a year or so of traveling.
I have written in these posts about my family history: the dysfunction, the alcoholism, the sexual abuse, and other various things that served as one big traumatic wound on my childhood. The large malignant stone that was thrown into my family pond sent ripples out through time and space that still reverberate through my life today. Like actual ripples from a stone, as I move farther away from the origin the disturbances come farther apart. Yet the way I have dealt with life disturbances has remained constant.
I began therapy at my university when I was nineteen years old, and have continued it through my life. For the most part my various therapies had a pattern to them. I would have a crisis in my life for some reason. I would seek out a therapist and tell him/her my story. Weekly, I would spend time rehashing my childhood traumas in some way until there was nothing more left to say, and then I would stop therapy until the next crisis came along. That has been my response to crisis for 25 years.
And the crises would continue to come. What I did not understand was that I had developed certain ways of dealing with crisis - patterns that were based on old traumas and information and not really in tune with the present. These patterns often were just as destructive to my self-esteem as the original trauma. I would react to things with anger, guilt and shame, which would often send me into spirals of destructive thinking. The various attempts at therapy were bandages, dressing the wound when something ripped off the scab, but they weren't helping me grow. By allowing me to dwell in my past trauma I was not moving forward and healing.
As LHM writes, and I'm repeating it because it has become important to me: "By seeing both the futility in trying to relive the old life and the danger in trying to obliterate it, man can gain the capacity to make anew. His very form depends not on repetition but upon variation from old patterns. In response to stress, biological survival requires genetic change; it necessitates a turning away from doomed replication." It took a number of years and a new type of therapy for me to learn what LHM learned on his Blue Highways trip. Isn't it amazing how different people get to the same place?
I finally began to change my patterns when I began seeing a therapist trained in a technique called "somatic transformation." It was maddening to see her sometimes because she did not allow me to relive my trauma. I wanted to tell my stories, and think through problems, and she would stop me. My response to crisis, she explained, was buried in my neural pathways and to change them I would have to retrain myself. The key was to recognize what my body, not my brain, was communicating with me and to trust my instincts. Instead of reliving trauma, I could become aware of the negative emotions triggered and with practice train myself to keep emotionally regulated rather than head down a self-destructive thought spiral.
The patterns that have triggered those spirals have been harder to address, because they are deep-seated and they have become part of my relationships. My wife and I, for example, have been working on patterns that we have established that take us into emotionally unregulated states. Sometimes a tone of voice, action, word, or assumption will lead to a series of events that leave us both angry and upset. These patterns disrupt our communication and leave lingering resentments. However, we have made great strides in our relationship brought about by awareness of our patterns and some new tools that we can use to maintain our emotional composure. If one or the other of us is having a bad emotional time that is unrelated to the other, we have learned that we don't have to take responsibility for the other's feelings and emotions all the time, which was a key stumbling block.
And what of LHM's question about history? I've written in a previous post that a favorite Mark Twain quote of mine is "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Oh, how I've learned that! Present crises are never the same as past crises, but the present does recall the past. But I'm also aware of another old trope attributed to Albert Einstein but probably from the Narcotics Anonymous "Basic Text" circa 1980: "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results." In the microcosm of my life, if the present rhymes with the past maybe I can be forgiven for not recognizing the patterns for a while and repeating my mistakes. My journey is now one of new self-discovery that is in some fundamental ways reshaping my life. My history is still there, but it doesn't need to determine my future. In the macrocosm of humanity, perhaps we should remember that we are not slaves of history. Humans can rewrite the patterns in how we deal with crises. We can learn from the past, but only we determine our futures.
I had always associated this song, Shout by Tears for Fears, with therapy. I had trouble finding a suitable song about transformation so I thought this would do. After all, Tears for Fears was known for writing songs about primal scream therapy. While their first album was conceptually about that type of therapy, this song off their second album was actually about protest, so I was wrong. But, I put it here anyway because I guess I still have work to do on my sticking to outmoded patterns! By the way, primal scream therapy is based in reliving trauma and so it's exactly the opposite of what I am now doing in my therapy.
If you want to know more about Tilghman Island
Next up: Annapolis, Maryland