The defenses we erect to protect us create the very condition we are trying to avoid. Thus, when someone builds a castle to protect his liberty, he ends up as a prisoner in his own castle because he dares not leave it.
- Alexander Lowen
Two weeks have passed and it is clear that the tragic mass shooting that took place Friday, December 14th, in Newtown Connecticut, continues to be a national heartbreak. Within that it is obvious already that we are not all the same when it comes to how we respond to an event of such magnitude.
While a father who lost his daughter appeared the next day to give a loving tribute to her and speak of coming together in compassion, others have already begun to dig their heels in on both sides of the gun control debate.
Within my early learning of Bioenergetics, a type of relational, somatic psychotherapy, I was profoundly impacted by what I learned. Two things in particular come to mind for me at this time.
First is how the human organism alternates between expansion and contraction. In response to pain, we have a tendency to tighten up and pull in. When it feels safe enough, we release what we have been holding, and venture back out, becoming more expansive.
At times we can see these rhythmic alternating cycles take place across our society. Is the national response to tragedy to get tight, pulled in and contracted? Do we bolster up our defenses, increase our fear of one another, and rationalize that a form of me vs. you is the only way to survive?
Or, is there another type of response? Is it possible for a more open, compassionate response to take over? Can we step out and draw closer to one another? Can we still find it within us to take a risk by admitting to the innate vulnerability of being human? Can we find our way to being strengthened not through armor or weapon, but by increasing our connectedness, one to another?
The second thing, supported by the brilliant differentiation that comes through in the writing of Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics, is horror. Nowhere else have I ever heard someone discuss the difference between terror and horror, let alone the difference as it is experienced within the body.
While terror involves the extreme overwhelming fear that comes when our own life is threatened, we experience horror when we are witness to such a situation. Terror will activate the fight-flight survival mechanisms of the body, but that is not necessarily what happens in horror. Horror takes us into being witness to something so inhuman we cannot process it. It stuns our mind as we seek to comprehend the incomprehensible.
The problem with horror is, most of the time, we block it with platitudes. We come up with defensively motivated statements to minimize and dismiss it, such as, “well, that’s just what happens in life… that’s just the way it is…”
The secondary problem with blocked horror is that we stop fully registering it. This puts us into a state to stop noticing it for what it is, and thereby to become more able to perpetrate horrors upon others without realizing it. In interpersonal situations one of the most commonplace, yet insidious forms of horror is acting out coldness toward one another, normalizing the abnormal so that disconnection is shrugged off and accepted.
Why would we choose to feel our own pain if we could avoid it?
I would suggest that it is only way to live. It is in registering the pain and going through it that we can land in a different place of acceptance and increased compassion.
We must go through our fear together, thereby increasing our ability to stay open in spite of it. It is by increasing our connection to one another that we are best equipped to face the future, deepening our understanding of the ills we face in this life, and able to resist the temptation to perpetually build more and more, ever-thicker, well-armed defenses.
Executive Director, Living Ubuntu
[Ubuntu] n. Every human being truly becomes a human by means of relationships with other human being.