Mistakes, Butterflies and Potholes
I have a special affection for leopards. As I love to say, “you know the old adage ‘A leopard can’t change its spots?’ Well, I can. And I change my spots every chance I get.” Healing is all about that. The “Decade of the Brain” and neuroimaging technology taught us that “Neurogenesis” is possible, that we can grow new neurons. Before that we believed we were born with our life’s quota of neurons, and that was that. We now know that with neurofeedback, psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, somatic therapies, mindfulness practice, and yes even the old fashioned “talking cure,” we can generate not only connections, ie networks, but molecules. This is wonderful news for all of us, both with respect to our own brains and our clients’ brains if we are practitioners of some kind. So why do spots have such a bad rap?
I remember when I used to drink alcohol, I had to either stop wearing white, or switch from red to white wine. All my pretty white blouses were speckled with unsightly red spots. Oy vey, I always was a sloppy drinker. As an adolescent, ugly facial spots, we called them “zits,” were referred to in commercials for acne products as “blemishes.” Spots were blights on the skin, and on faces that in so many cases already housed shame and self-doubt, or self hatred. Spots were like nature’s “mistakes.” But nature, for the most part, does not make mistakes. If left to itself, it has a brilliant unshakeable plan. Occasionally there is an aberration or mutation, as with the Corona Virus for example, but perhaps we will ultimately come to discover what the ecological (or existencial) intention of that was to be. Most likely it is human intervention that produces disasters of nature, or so is my jaundiced and not-research-based speculation.
Once I had the privilege to visit Milan, Italy. I admit, in my love for pretty things of many kinds, I love clothes. Milan is a wonderland as the fashion hub of the world. Of course, we had to visit the Armani showrooms, a veritable museum of haute couture, clothes I could and really never would buy, but love to look at like I love looking at art. I was struck by a theme, that in every window in a long seeming small city of windows, each of the numerous masterpiece garments, whether on a mannequin or a hanger, had a conspicuos wrinkle in the way it was hung or draped. It was striking. I wondered, “what is he trying to say?” My husband did not notice until I pointed it out. Was he trying to teach us something about “mistakes?”
Once in a training with the somatic therapy genius Peter Levine, we were instructed to make four “mistakes” in every practice session. It was an intentional part of the assignment. The idea was to integrate the idea that mistakes are inevitable in this work. And to develop the humility to tolerate and learn from them. And then to learn to repair them. So many of us who grow up with trauma and neglect, come to learn that mistakes can be life threatening, or have the “hubris” to strive to be “perfect,” blameless or safe from retribution; or worthy of love. A futile aspiration.
In relationship, “mistakes” are an inevitable ingredient in development. The attachment researchers teach us, that even in the ideal secure attachment, where the attunement of primary caregiver and infant is “good enough,” the optimal percentage of accurate attunement, the best we could hope for is 30%. 30%!! That means that the other 70 percent of the time is the delicate dance of rupture and repair, rupture and repair. That is how we learn about relationship, and really about being. How sad that in the world of trauma and neglect, these skills are rarely learned, so the inevitable ruptures are terrifying, even life threatening. And relationship comes to in effect be an icon for suffering, however much it is longed for.
Much like Peter, the attachment research people teach us that the “mistakes” of rupture are invaluable, and much better training than smooth sailing without rupture. As my husband exclaimed many years ago when we emerged from the nightmare of chronic cycles of triggering and reactivity, “Wow, knowing how to recover when we disconnect is such a relief! I don’t have to worry so much about screwing up, because I know we can get back together if I do. I don’t feel so chronically unsafe and fearful around you anymore!” What a blessing!
Potholes in Cuba
As long-time serious bicyclist, my nemesis became potholes. I have only had two serious crashes in my in my 50 plus year cycling life, and in both cases I lost consciousness, so I don’t really know all of what happened. I admit, that I am grateful to have had those two traumatic events so I could experience different trauma modalities on those sorts of “one-time” incident traumas. What I did know was that I came out of the accidents with anxiety about bad road surface, and a veritable phobia of potholes.
Riding in Cuba, was like a dream come true. Just going there was a bucket list item of many years. I could not believe it when we were riding through the beautiful scenic countryside, carefully dodging chickens and navigating around horse drawn buggies carrying crates of fresh eggs. Coming around a bend to the base of a hill on our first long riding day, I happened upon the most colossal potholes in the known world. Of course, after six decades of being suffocated and strangled by the world political economy, the Cubans certainly had not had resources for infrastructure, especially as they used the meager resources they had, to first take care of people. The roads were tragically un-maintained. I gasped. It was only our first day of riding!
Embarking on that pothole scarred road, out of nowhere I was visited by a flashbulb image. Back before the pandemic when I drove to the office every day, I was routinely stopped by a traffic light, just as I was getting off the freeway. At that street corner was a little skateboarding venue, a little “park” of concrete, fitted out with sharp hills and walls, obstacles and vaults to jump, slalom type circles. Groups of adolescent boys (I never once saw a girl!) in baggy hoodies wildly flying round and round, jumping, crashing, rolling up the steep sidewalls, clearly having a blast. From the large graffiti on the walls, it appeared they referred to themselves as “punks.” As I waited for the long red light to change, I loved to watch them, always thinking “You wouldn’t catch me doing that!” Never!
Well suddenly that day in Cuba, the “light changed.” Was it a neurofeedback “moment?” I don’t know…Suddenly the Cuban potholes reminded me of those kids, who intentionally sought out the bumpiness, the vertical crashing and landing on their wheels upright, the slalom curving and dodging and missing each other, they do this for fun! Suddenly I imagined myself one of the ”punks,” having fun with the Cuban potholes. For the rest of that trip, I made a game of pothole dodging and jumping. Missing infrastructure, and prior trauma became my game: joy, fun and triumph!
Another symbol of transformation that I love, are butterflies. However, I‘ve never been fond of caterpillars. I even have a terrifying childhood memory from when I was three or four, of a park in New York where there were so many squiggling caterpillars that I literally could not put my little feet anywhere without stepping on them. All I remember is just wailing “Daddy, Daddy carry me!” I don’t remember if he did, just the terror. Anyway, those unsavory little creatures somehow become butterflies. Which are beautiful and I love them!
Interestingly, we call nervous excitement “butterflies” in our stomachs. I remember Peter Levine’s reminder that in the body, excitement and fear feel very similar. The Cuban word for potholes is “paches.” Que Vivan los Paches!