Broken Spirits…..Part 2

After much reflection and filling half a journal, I have peeled off a few more layers of understanding about the impact that our protective armor can have on our spirits. I actually had a really big AHA moment this morning, which is the reason for this addendum to yesterday’s post.

What started this search was an explanation of how I fell back into old childhood patterns so late in my life. The clues were hidden in the fibers of my life story. I have often said that I lost my compass after Skip died in October, 2002. Now I can see more clearly just how incredibly true this was. But there’s some backstory that also deserves attention.

In September of 2001, my daughter Brelana was just beginning high school at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia. This was her decision and anyone that knows my strong-headed girl can appreciate that she was all-in for this empowering decision she’d made for herself. Her devoted step-dad Skip was a graduate of VES and it was evident that she embraced this fresh start for herself as a chance to “belong” in ways that made her feel worthy and valued — by association, being the “daughter” of a respected, congenial graduate of this boarding school. While I supported her decision, my heart was aching because I knew I would miss her terribly. I knew all the reasons she’d made this decision, which is a story for another time. Just know that she was desirous of a clean break from a confusing pattern with her dad as a result of our divorce. While I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, I now know that I was very angry at having to pay the price of being separated from my daughter because of my ex-husband’s behaviors and choices. This pattern of paying the price for someone else’s actions has a very long thread in my life story and those origins lie in my childhood.

Skip urged me to go with him to Scottsdale Arizona where he was conducting an international banking conference for a week. He thought the distraction would be good for me. Bless his heart — he hated to see me sad and he could tell that I was struggling with emotion about my baby girl being so far away from me for months at a time.

Skip knew the bond that Bre and I have – he often told me that Helen Reddy’s Song, “You and Me Against the World” reminded him of the two of us. Each time he passed a bubbling water fountain in the Philadelphia plaza near his office, he would toss two pennies in it as a symbol of his pact with God to protect us.

Perhaps if I had stayed home, I could have processed all my emotions. The anger about who and what had prompted such a decision, the gratitude for Skip and the role model that he was for my daughter, the sadness about being apart from her and not having conversations over cookies after school.

But as often happens in life, that big life event got swept under the carpet very quickly. While the banking conference had indeed been fun and a distraction, it came to an abrupt and tragic halt on the morning of 9-11. Just typing 9-11, I can feel so many strong emotions coursing through me, the memory of that morning returning with such clarity that I can feel it in my bones. Skip’s adult children were scattered across the country, as were my three children. Phones were jammed as we frantically tried to make contact with loved ones. Bre’s classmates at VES had parents who worked at the Pentagon. The VES faculty were scrambling to keep kids safe and address their fears. In a split second, our world had changed so dramatically. Collectively we all felt fragile, vulnerable, scared.

Skip was a hero in my eyes with how he conducted himself at that conference, being a source of comfort and resilience to so many. Again, the full scope of his efforts are a story for another time. I have shared some of it in an earlier post. We got home, to a small apartment in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It wasn’t really home. It was a temporary place for us to live while our house was being built. Home for me was our cute townhouse back in Millersville, full of happy memories, familiar furniture, treasured keepsakes.

Ironically Skip had to leave shortly after our return for an international business trip. Flights had resumed and although there was much uneasiness in the day to day life routines, everyone was trying to get back to some sense of normal. That is, all while keeping a watchful eye out for suspicious white vans or shady activity. So I was home alone, in an apartment, where I did not know any neighbors. I’d go to work each day at PNC Advisors, grateful for friends and something to do to pass the hours. But things were changing rapidly at work due to the terrorist attack and safety precautions being instituted to protect clients and financial affairs. It was overwhelming to process it all especially with a healthy dose of fear added to the mix.

Cell phones did not get good reception in those days. We had not yet gotten a land line installed in the apartment, so I would go to a payphone outside the apartment complex gym to call Brelana or await a call from Skip. A few weeks of standing in the dark, talking on a pay phone hoping that I sounded cheerful, calm, and comforting.

Just one month later, my mother died suddenly. A blood clot from a surgery I did not even know she was having. Now my mother and I did not have a really good relationship, but we had been trying to get it back on track. Oddly enough I had heard some church bells ringing in the distance while walking our small dog at the very moment she passed. As I realized that coincidence, I took a little comfort from it. A sign that in the end, we were ok.

In 2002, I had high hopes for the pendulum to swing back to more positive experiences. The house Skip and I were building was a source of joy for both of us. But only two months after we had moved in, my beloved Skip passed away in my arms…..having just returned from a 2-1/2 week business trip in Cairo. My world went dark….and extremely quiet. So did I. There was just not an ounce of grit and determination left in me. I was beyond worn out. For a very long time, I felt numb. I think it is the body and soul’s way of protecting us — cocooning us when things seem so unbearable.

I know this story of mine is beginning to sound surreal — so many big, impactful life events all unfolding like dominos….one right after the other, without a moment to catch a breath, cry it out, start to heal.

Yet I am sure that if you look around, you will see similar stories that are unfolding right now — through this current collective event of a global pandemic. It is the impetus for me sharing all of this. To open your eyes and hearts to the many events and experiences that are breaking spirits of others.

A key similarity to my life experience and the pandemic is isolation. When Skip died, I was all alone. We had moved from my hometown to the Philadelphia suburbs. No family, no friends yet. Too much isolation during my darkest hours.

I believe that it was that isolation — that long lonely recovery period of grieving — that really put me in a tailspin and sent me spiraling backward into unconscious behavioral patterns.

In my post yesterday, I shared how even experienced practitioners can get snagged on emotional baggage from their past. These deep emotional experiences can have very strong currents that pull on us when we are most vulnerable. So often, we then begin to sift through old memories and excavate other painful experiences. I have done this myself, stringing together a series of past events where I was alone, vulnerable, in struggle. It amplifies our emotions and can flood us to the point of overwhelment.

I have witnessed this happening to people I love. They ask questions I cannot answer and those questions reveal the unhealed parts of their life that still snag them.

This is why I am sharing such personal vignettes with you today. It has only been through a lot of inner work, with the help of a cherished friend, that I have been able to go back and process what needed to be faced and healed. I was dragging around of lot of old baggage for far too long and allowing it to hold me back. This is precisely why we need to help each other with non-judgment, kindness and an abundance of empathy.

Scattering the Seeds of Change

A puffy snow white dandelion is absolutely irresistible to my six year old granddaughter as she skips across the front lawn to pluck it and blow enthusiastically, sending tiny seedlings airborne on wispy tendrils. “Where will they travel, Gigi? Where will they land?”

This timeless joyful outdoor activity is the perfect metaphor for what I am witnessing in family members and friends who are doing the same with the seeds they are sowing on their own personal growth journeys. Immersive conversations with several close friends have been so inspiring and uplifting. As these women have peeled off the layers of personal narratives that no longer fit, and shed the armor no longer needed, they have become invaluable resources for sons and daughters, for siblings and friends.

I’ve planted a few seeds within my immediate family over the past few years. I’ve nurtured and nourished those seeds with patience, shared personal experiences and even hard conversations. I can see and feel them sprouting now — and it fills my cup with joy, gratitude and hope.

While I wished for these kinds of results in the past, I am now well aware that I had a lot of personal weeding to do first so that I could discover the places where old conditioning, old triggers and outgrown behavioral patterns were stunting my growth and contentment. Now that I am tending my own personal growth in a healthier way, I am able to see more clearly and empathically where others might be entangled or stuck.

My friends are experiencing this very same thing in their immediate families. They share stories of how their adult children are embracing personal growth much as they would a new nutrition plan. They see the benefits of doing this preliminary work earlier in life (in their 30’s and 40’s) so that they don’t end up like Bob Marley chained to a lot of baggage that restricts them from evolving through life.

What are the seeds we are planting? For starters, we are showing up differently. This includes a laundry list of shifts like being curious rather than judgmental, listening to learn and understand, refraining from offering advice and asking more questions to help others solve their own problems. We honor other’s feelings, don’t take things so personally and we hold boundaries. People can feel this difference in how we are showing up for both them and ourselves. It is often described as feeling safe, building trust and fostering a sense of agency.

As those seeds take root, it becomes a lot easier to lean in to each other and share vulnerabilities. It opens gateways to ask for help when needed, or to have those really hard but necessary conversations. Deeper connections are forged in these most vulnerable spaces. A lot of misunderstanding gets cleared and a lot of healing takes place.

To be certain, none of this happens overnight. Meaningful personal growth changes take time, practice and patience. It is the consistency of these changes that become so noticeable to others.

Personal growth work is becoming more mainstream. They are so many relatable, useful and game-changing tools readily accessible to us — through books, podcasts, apps, online tools, classes and counseling. Even my doctor’s office has been highlighting the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in managing stress, sleep deficits, inflammation and overall quality of good health. There is also a realistic understanding that personal growth is an on-going process throughout our entire lives, just as caring for our physical, nutritional and mental well being.

No doubt the pandemic, quarantine, and ongoing uncertainty about a new normal has also played a relevant role in awakening many to the ruts and routines that were not serving them well. The Atlantic recently featured an insightful article about why so many people are quitting their jobs, moving their families and seeking a new balance for work and family. This reset may be fertile ground for seeds of self-discovery and personal growth to take hold.

I am so elated when my friends tell me stories of the personal transformations they are witnessing with their adult children. We are all feeling so inspired that this younger generation is learning some of these big life lessons much earlier than we did. It is easy to recognize that they will have better skills, resilience and compassion for whatever life has in store for them as the years unfold for them. Some of these wise young adults also recognize that they can pass along multi-generational issues if they don’t do this inner work. They are motivated to change so that they can free their young children from debilitating family narratives and patterns. In some cases, adult children are helping their older parents heal from their past traumas through their own personal growth work. The effort and benefits can truly flow both ways.

A recent conversation with my lifelong friend Judy had us laughing about needing a “Johnny Appleseed” kind of name for those of us who extol the huge benefits of personal growth work. As I watched my little granddaughter joyfully blowing the dandelion seeds into the brisk autumn air, I realized that it was the perfect analogy. Anyone doing personal growth work and sharing their discoveries with others is scattering the seeds of positive transformation. We don’t know where they will travel and we don’t know which ones will take root — yet we will joyfully scatter nuggets of wisdom, empathy and encouragement every day.

Here’s to those who are scattering seeds of positive change — by sharing their stories, by setting examples, by recommending a book or a podcast, by being brave enough to have hard conversations, by pausing before reacting, by offering grace and kindness, by recognizing that we really don’t know each other’s full life stories and being willing to listen to gain understanding.

Recommended Resources:

Brene Brown

Yung Pueblo

Dr. Rick Hanson

Dr. Bruce Perry

Tara Brach

Dr. Dan Siegel

Beatrice Chestnut

Ian Morgan Cron

Tim Ferris

Glennon Doyle