It is summer and we are busier than we expected; this leaves us eager for time to play and create. Here in Vermont, summer is short, even with climate change, so there is an imperative to use these warm days well. Now that we are a couple of weeks past the solstice, the evenings are noticeably shorter, and although the days grow warmer, we know winter is not that far off.
I spend most of my days with people who have survived The Unimaginable, looking for words and images that communicate something of the experiences that have driven folks to me. Often enough, I find myself in conversations about the ways The Unimaginable makes even the simplest human task daunting, the most everyday experience, other.
Take feeling. Most of the time most of us know what we are feeling, along with our dreams and desires. The Unimaginable frequently replaces dreams, aspirations, and yes, feelings, with numbness and unknowing. In its wake, simply choosing something to eat for lunch can seem a daunting task. The Unimaginable also makes violence mundane, everyday, ubiquitous; too often, it is multigenerational, touching lives across across long stretches of time.
There is now an enormous clinical literature that addresses The Unimaginable. Usually writers describe the process of recovering from its effects as either dreadfully mundane or heroic, a dialectic that names two sides of living in its aftermath, but which obscures the complexity of the experience. Confusion, despair, rage, and a host of other emotions, feelings, and desires break through the numbing, threatening to destroy relationships, careers, and aspirations, to consume one’s life, then retreat as numbing and routine regain control. It can seem as though one lives life midway up the beach, always subject to the whims of the ocean and the ever shifting boundaries of the shore. No footing is firm, no resting place safe.
Much work that seeks to aid people in their search to wrest their lives from the grasp of The Unimaginable is itself, from the outside, mundane. The first task is to establish a sense of relative safety in the present. Then we work together to slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, make room for feeling and knowing, for meaningful daily activities and rewarding relationships. Of course, stages are just a convenient construct, for healing is a complex endeavor. Yet throughout the process, whether it be months or years, we are alert for moments when The Unimaginable becomes something we can imagine, know, and find meaning in, for these are the moments that open the way for deep healing.
It is the transition from the realms of The Unknowable to the place where we are free to imagine, feel, and fully engage life that offers the possibility of renewal; it is frequently a hard won relocation, and it is this that gives rise to narratives of the heroic. Yet, the journey may well not be experienced by the pilgrim as heroic. Surprisingly often, it is simply a long, hazardous walk taken in response to some deep, insistent impulse, some demand of the mind and soul. More often than not the journey is memorable more for its everyday discomforts and revelations, than for deeds of courage, although much courage is demanded along the way.
At some point on that healing journey one must wrestle creativity from the grasp of the Unimaginable, must find ways to express that which maintains its hold on our lives by refusing expression. The arts, ritual, and simple conversation are all avenues for both imagining The Unimaginable, and giving it solidity and form. The Unimaginable is a lot like Chaos, a close ally perhaps, and, like Chaos, when it is given form it becomes something else. The urge to give shape and form to The Unimaginable is, ultimately, the impulse that guides the healing journey.
– Michael Watson, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC
© 2015, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, All rights reserved