The Ever Given, what a name for strong emotional defenses; ever giving what was given in the past, forever feeding old wounds. It’s also the name of a 220,000-ton cargo ship carrying 18,000 or so containers, that blocked the southern section of the Suez Canal for over a week in March 2021. The freighter beached into the sandy Egyptian shoreline and became thoroughly stuck. Its immobilization blocked all international transport through the canal. Aside from mega doses of frustration and anger, all energy and flow were also rendered stagnant, like the blocked arteries of a human heart.
I consider this incident to be a brilliant metaphor for how strong and impenetrable human defenses can become. How hard it is to move those defenses or initiate change in our lives once they have calcified into a strategic (often unconscious) plan to cope with intolerable pain and trauma. We load ourselves with 220,000 tons of defenses for protection; to protect us from accessing and feeling unprocessed, sometimes unrecognized sorrow, guilt, fear, shoulds, family myths, etc., that are all packed away in 18,000 different rationalizations in our mind.
The pictures of the beached behemoth were impressive in the scale they revealed; the people and tractors on the beach looked like they were itsy bitsy ants against the backdrop of the 220,000 tons of iron that made up the colossal ship. It seemed as if they were using a child’s toy shovel to try and dig the vessel out of its misery. And that is how we can feel when we try to attack the dense iron that surrounds our wounded self. At one time, that metal felt necessary for protection, made us feel strong! But now it has become impenetrable and has blocked our way back to our souls, our vital life source.
So how do we move? How do we become unstuck? How do we open our arteries to let the energy flow? How do we heal? Well, in the case of the Ever Given, (according to Rory Jones and Amira El-Fekki of Micro-Soft News) the full moon came to the rescue. It was the first super moon of the year. Its gravitational force raised the tides enough for the freighter to float again, and that allowed tugboats to come in and drag the 220,000 tons of deadweight back into deeper waters. The metaphor for humans? We are not all-powerful; our minds and muscles cannot solve every problem, cure every trauma that life serves us. We need the aid of nature and time. We are so obsessed with control that we forget our strongest, truest ally is nature. Yes, we need our will and intentions, yes, we need others to help and guide or maybe even give us a tug, and we need nature, we need to accept cycles and seasons of life. Life is not linear. We don’t drop out of the womb and start climbing an ascendant ladder to fulfillment. We swerve and dance and twirl with life.
So how does this metaphor look on humans? I’ll give an example from my practice. Maeve (a pseudonym) is a successful, brilliant professional. By brilliant, I mean extremely intelligent. Her highly trained analytical mind has served to turn the chaos in her life into regimented soldiers. She puts these soldiers to task with her excessively diligent work ethic; she is never not trying to improve herself and become, in her words “a better person”. Between taking on extra assignments at the high-pressure think tank that employs her, she pretty much always has a podcast going, or an audiophile book plugged into her brain. Her quest for goodness is sincere, but the stringent rules that she uses to guide her every movement are not bringing her the quality of life that she craves. Those rules, the punishing discipline that she practices are all construed from the 18,000 compartments of reasoning that have tried to strategize a way of never feeling pain; they are trying to protect her heart. It is common for trauma survivors to find it extremely difficult to accept the horror of their experiences, to feel the emotions of what happened to them. They have their story, and this narrative can include gruesome details of the event, but the words are detached from the pain, the emotional trauma. There is no connection between the story and the felt experience. This process of detachment can be invaluable for surviving the experience(s) in the moment of the abuse, but eventually, the pain must be accepted and processed; therein lies the healing. So even though Maeve thinks she’s improving her personal world, she’s keeping it very small, allowing for little emotional development. The ever-giving mind’s busyness is like the toy shovels that the workers used to try to dig out the Ever Given. They are not capable of affecting the thick iron façade that threatens to rust her heart.
She and I have worked together for years. During the landscape of our therapeutic relationship, we have listened to the murmur of her psyche and intuition grow stronger as they found cracks in her armored defenses, like wildflowers that push through the concrete hardscape of the city sidewalk and find the nourishing sun. These gentle botanical warriors are nature’s answer to her soldiers of rationalization. As they breathe their verdant, recently undammed energy, they become active allies in supporting Maeve’s healing. Her dreams (an expression of nature through her psyche) have done considerable work in helping her touch some of the depths of her emotional pain. While in the nature of the dream world, she can survive intolerable pain. Even though the nightmares are often terrifying, they allow her to feel the terror that she dissociated from in waking life, allowing the processing of those emotions. The nightmares do not kill her, as she unconsciously fears her pain will. They have also drawn vivid, visceral images. Often these images have worked with the gentle warriors to be the catalyst needed to override the iron soldiers of rational temperance that always have a platitude at hand to stop her from touching her emotions. The worn phrases like “oh it’s not so bad,” “others have it worse than me,” or “my family has always laughed at my father’s quirks.” Some of his “quirks” include intentionally murdering family pets, letting other pets starve, playing with dynamite and blowing up the front yard, several arrests for sexual misconduct, and attempting to run her sister over with his car. But the cruelest quirk of all was his continual bullying her, demeaning her; always making her wrong or the butt of a joke. As hard as she tried, she could never gain his approval, love, or kindness.
Her rationalizing soldiers allow her to understand the cruelty of her father; “yes, his actions weren’t nice” she’ll say, “or yeah, it was really gross when he masturbated in my sister’s powder room and left the soiled hand towel on the toilet.” (The bathroom was located just off the living room where she and her sister were sitting. He went into the loo to take his pleasure after her sister walked into the living room wearing a tee shirt and no bra.) But there is no connection between her words and her emotions; they don’t allow her to feel how his actions have pierced her heart, embarrassed and shamed her. In fact, she generally considers herself to be the provocateur, thus her never-ending quest for self-improvement; “if only I were a better person, he wouldn’t treat me like this” has become her unconscious mantra.
Undertaking the challenge of calling in nature to dance with the mind’s soldiers has been an arduous effort and taken many, many full moons. As I mentioned earlier, years. Her dreams will create a fissure in the iron which allows an opening to acknowledging the trauma, her personal pain. The vivid dream images allow her to see her father’s brutality. And Maeve will courageously wade into the incoming tide of feeling, sometimes swim in it, experience an astounding epiphany...... and then the tide recedes, and often she’ll feel like she’s stuck in the muck again. Actually, she’s not stuck, the movement never stopped; it was just dancing a time step when she was begging for a galloping mazurka. After all, who doesn’t want the healing to be instantaneous, the pain to be immediately neutralized? But healing and nature take their own time, hear their own rhythm.
And then a few months ago, the tide came back into Maeve via her intuition. She was cleaning up her clutter of emails one afternoon and found an old invitation for a self-help seminar. She told me she wasn’t really interested but nevertheless opened the email and noticed that they had quite a menu of online classes and conferences. She casually scanned the offerings and noticed something about grief ceremonies. She says she has no idea what attracted her to this subject. In fact, she told herself that she had nothing to grieve and was wasting precious time even looking at it. But for some reason, completely unknown to her, she signed up, thinking she would never actually attend the seminar. And then, for some other reason completely unknown to her, she not only Zoomed into the seminar but found herself actively participating in the ceremonies. She shared with me how profound the experience was for her. Through the guided exercises given in the conference, dancing and moving and vocalizing, she discovered, finally, viscerally, that all that had happened to her as a child was not her fault. Others had victimized her; she was not to blame. Revelatory is an understatement for how deeply she found this experience to be. Through our years of vigorous work together we had discovered many openings into her psyche and intuition, we had laid a foundation of trusting the natural energy that flowed through her. An energy that was different from the mind's push to just repeat the old tropes of protective rationalization. Maeve was consciously digging into her depths and accepting her pain, but there was still resistance to changing her unconscious default; everything in her life was her responsibility, her actions had created everyone else’s meanness. And then one afternoon she stumbled upon the vehicle that shattered her iron girdled default. As the girdle released its suffocating hold on her gut, she was able to truly feel her words; connect her narrative to her soul. I wrote stumbled, but I think a more accurate accounting is that her natural intuition led her to this source of healing. Her reasoning soldiers kept trying to talk her out of pursuing this channel, but her intuition kept her moving forward, as the pull of the tides on a full moon.
The 220,000 tons of defenses were moving, the 18,000 containers of rationalizations were losing their potency. As her allies (her natural powers; psyche, intuition, heart, and emotions) overcame the mind’s justifications, Maeve’s world began changing. Many of the shifts were very painful; the trauma she experienced was real and there was good reason to avoid feeling any of it. But the good reasons weren’t answering her call to life and what’s worse than never having lived? Not feeling was a slow, brutal death. A long drawn-out killing of her soul. As she learned to trust her allies, her previously unrecognized resources, she found the maturity to tolerate what was once intolerable. She discovered that the pain was not eternal, there was an end to it. With this process came transformation: the transformation of ever feeding the old wounds into ever-giving new life. Now she had the courage to step into her own life, not the prescribed existence someone else had written for her.