I am learning both in the classroom and in life that we as human beings crave a narrative. We crave a story with a beginning, middle, and definitive ending. We describe our significant phases in our lives as “chapters.” We get frustrated in our day to day lives when it does not seem to be fitting into a larger story. We love a narrative.
In my trauma-informed care class, a concept that has really struck me is how traumatic memories are dissociative. Trauma survivors may dissociate their traumatic memories from their day-to-day lives, ignoring them as much as they can. They may dissociate their inner being from their body. But then a stressor of some kind hits, and the trauma floods their thinking. Even trauma survivors without PTSD can be overwhelmed by their same feelings from their previous trauma.
It all boils down to how the memory is stored in the brain. This idea was first described in 1889 by Dr. Pierre Janet who described a woman named Irene who was traumatized by her mothers’ death and acted as if she were still alive. As Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and trauma researcher, described in The Body Keeps Score, “traumatized people simultaneously remember too little and too much.” Irene remembered vividly taking care of her mother, but she was amnesic to her death because she had dissociated herself from it.
Memorable events are linear with a beginning, middle and end. Traumatic events, however, are chaotic but vivid. In The Body Keeps Score by Dr. Van der Kolk described as study where he asked trauma survivors to recall a happy memory and a traumatic one. The narrative was completely different. As Van der Kolk wrote about one person, “Our subject remembered some details all too clearly (the smell of the rapist, the gash in the forehead of a dead child) but could not recall the sequence of events or other vital details (the first person who arrived to help, whether an ambulance or a police car took them to the hospital).” Much of behavioral-cognitive therapy in trauma survivors is teaching them to put their traumatic memory into a larger narrative, giving it a definitive ending.
But what about us whose story does not have an end? What about us who are suffering our traumas now, wanting that definitive ending? Us who ache for a spouse but are perpetually single? Us who ache for a child but are infertile? Us who are striving in our careers without making headway? Us who are raising children and feel like we are getting nowhere in teaching them how to be upstanding little humans? Us who just want our graduate programs to be done?
What about us who are in the middle of our narratives?
As much as we can want to rush the ending, as Dr. Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong, “absolutely no amount of experience or success gives you a free pass from the daunting level of doubt that is an unyielding part of the process.” She had given a conference at Pixar, talking about creativity and vulnerability as a part of her Daring Way certification program, a three-day program. Brown writes that day two is often the hardest. While talking at Pixar and learning about their creative process, she realized something simple but profound: “You can’t skip day two.” Day two or the “messy middle” or Act II or whatever it is called is the juice. For Pixar, it is the point in the movie where something gets upended, and Pixar always has an Act II that sets up Act III, usually our favorite part: the definitive and satisfying end.
But you can’t skip day two. It’s messy, hard, and hits your ego right where it hurts, but it cannot be skipped. We can blame circumstance, other people, God, and ourselves, but sometimes we are just avoiding the fact that we’re in the messy middle and that things need time to take shape. We need time to take shape. We need to be transformed, and if we embrace the process, we can be. But we can also resist it and wallow in bitterness.
As Brown writes,
“Day two, or whatever that middle space is for your own process, is when you’re “in the dark” – the door has closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light…People find all kinds of creative ways to resist the dark, including taking issue with one another.
What I think sucks most about day two is exactly what Ed and the Pixar team pointed out – it’s a nonnegotiable part of the process. Experience and sucess don’t give you easy passage through the middle space of struggle. They only grant you a little grace, a grace that whispers, “This is part of the process. Stay the course.”
– Dr. Brené Brown, Rising Strong
That grace can also be a Person who whispers softly, “I am with you.”
I have come to the conclusion that I am just in the messy middle. I am too far into my graduate nursing program to turn back, and I know the light of graduation is ahead, but it feels too far away to see it. But as Ven. Fulton Sheen wrote in Life of Christ, “never is there any humiliation without a hint of glory.”
If there is any example of a good narrative, it is the Passion. It has a linear story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The middle – from being sentenced to death to being betrayed and abandoned to being crucified to being buried and thought dead – is really messy. But the last act crowns the play. There was not one humiliation in the whole story of the Passion that Jesus would not glorify. Even Peter’s betrayal becomes a glorious moment of forgiveness in Act III with Jesus resurrected.
And so, at this start of Lent, I realize that I need to journey to my cross. Where I am in life right now is my cross, and I am tired of running away from it. I am in day two, Act II, the messy middle. And there is nothing that can help me escape.
But I have a Travel Companion who has walked the lonely, hard road before. I have a Friend who has felt the sting of loneliness and ache. I have a Savior who can bring good from even the most difficult of circumstances.
I am in the messy middle, and it’s time to embrace the cross.