Ambiguities: Harm, Responsibility, Peace

As a devout listener to BBC, I got an earful of the recent coronation event. Monarchy is something I so rarely think about, apart from the recent death of Queen Elizabeth, which similarly took over a day of BBC coverage. From the endless memorial feed, my mind somehow floated back to junior high school European history. Admittedly I don’t remember much. Junior high school was a truly terrible time in my life. A half-starved anorexic, I foggily remember that I stared absently out the window a lot and did not hear much. So perhaps, thankfully, I have little memory at all. Curiously, however, what floated to mind that day, was the term “benevolent despot.” I don’t remember which royal figure it referenced, but I remember thinking, “What?!!” I did not understand how absolute power and the quality of well-meaning kindness could go together. I guess it made about as much sense as “Let them eat cake!” 

The world of neglect is fraught with many ironies and contradictions. That is part of what makes recognizing, understanding and working with it so complicated and fraught. Recently, in a conversation about my work with a highly esteemed colleague, she made a comment about “benign neglect.” Somehow that struck the confused and admittedly sensitive nerve about “benevolent despot.” There is something to me oxymoronic about the idea that neglect is “benign” I think of benign as meaning harmless. A tumor, for example, that is malignant is cause for alarm. It may be serious or even fatal. One that is benign may be aberrant or even unsightly. But not to worry. No neglect, if it is, in fact, what I refer to, what Frank Corrigan has so exquisitely named “attachment shock:” rupture, loss of connection, abandonment, withdrawal of the other, is benign. Certainly not for an infant. It is not only devastating but potentially lethal as well. I think my colleague meant not intentionally malicious, which is often the case, but harmless. Not! If intentionality is the question, that is a different conversation.

No Fault Insurance

 A lover of words and also admittedly quite fussy about them, I started thinking about the word “neglect.” If I am on a mission to make “neglect informed” a concern for the psychotherapy field, and the world for that matter, I had better come up with precise definitions. Perhaps the noun “neglect” works, but as a verb is floppy and ambiguous. In my mind, neglect, by its very nature, is a failure of awareness, a blip of intentionality, an absence of agency. Whether it be a preoccupation with the urgency of some sort, a limitation of circumstance, emergency or trauma, disability, loss of means, or long or short-term loss of capacity: whatever the cause, the agency goes offline. Something does not get done. In general, my paradigm is one of “no blame.” This means ascribing fault and villainizing the negligent does not serve the sufferer/ victim, or anyone really.

However, the child, or anyone who is abandoned or neglected, is grossly mistreated and pays dearly for it. The losses in terms of opportunity, relationship, choice, capacities, freedom, time, joy, quality of life… I could go on and on… they are too numerous and too costly to begin to try and name. So the grief, rage, agony, bitterness, contempt and judgment are understandable. This is another of the great challenges of neglect, another of the dilemmas the survivor must struggle to navigate. The old saw, “they did the best they could,” with the backwash of every kind of emotion.

Long before I was aware of it, I knew that my mother was overwhelmed and taking care of us was simply too much. I remember being haunted by the newsreels of concentration camps I saw at Hebrew school when I was barely six years old. If I was haunted by movies, what would the impact of lived experience be? My mother was anxious, brittle and sad. I remember hustling to clean up and eradicate clutter before it would make her more jumpy and irritable, being as helpful, inconspicuous and as little of a “bother” as possible. Partly to try and make her “happy,” or happier? And partly for my own benefit, in the hope that she might have more presence and more to offer us if she was calmer. Was she intentionally neglectful? No, of course not! Was it benign, absolutely not! Only after the onslaught of symptoms and problems that plagued me for decades and the years and thousands of dollars of therapy could I figure it out. It was not only what I was previously aware of as my various forms of overt trauma, but the attachment trauma, the missing experiences, and the neglect had scarred me deeply. It was not benign, and I went through at least a decade of terrible conflict and emotion. Of course, she/they “could not help it.” And I was enraged about the price that I was left with.  Another Rubik’s cube of neglect. How to hold both?

The child of neglect is caught in the headlights of the “dilemma without solution,” which I talk about endlessly. The object of longing and the source of agony are in the same person. How to manage that. And similarly, the tangle about responsibility. They could not help it? Well, maybe not. And the damage? It is not like the simple calculous of car insurance. The responsible party pays, and the victim is somehow compensated.

Making Our Peace

For those of us challenged by the work with neglect, whether our own, loved ones’ or clients, we are faced with the flopping dissonance of ambiguities that may blur and alternate, expand, contract, compel, embarrass, frustrate and flummox us for years. They can be paralyzing, or we can think we are crazy or “stuck.”  Many of us look so good, accomplished, or are so good at numbing that no one would even know there was someone inside who desperately needed help. I remember how surprised I was when I read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography and learned that the “Boss” had sometimes spent up to two years in bed with depression, unable, in his words, to “turn off the faucet.” And this was well after he had been long busting charts and filling stadiums. The healing of attachment shock is a complex journey of cycling and often frozen opposites, where both are painfully true and real and yet seem crazily incompatible. That is why great compassion, patience, and the ability to tolerate and hold wild ambiguities and stay the course are all essential.

There is also no substitute for information, about the brain, attachment and healing. And the recovery stories of those ahead of us on the path who can attest to coming out the other side, that a joyful life is, in fact, possible. It is a very hard sell! And certainly, no substitute for the emotional and somatic work that really affects trauma. In those moments when the pre-frontal cortex is firing, they may serve to bolster hope. 

I often say, sometimes my main task is to be the harbinger of hope. The one person in the room who is not activated, so I can keep the perspective that it is not happening now, something different is possible, and progress, however glacial is in fact happening. You may not believe me. But I won’t stop holding that. And someday, all of a sudden, maybe for only a minute, you will.

Making our peace and coming to peace takes however long it takes. If it seems to take “forever,” it is not that you are doing something wrong. It is like correcting a terrible environmental insult: nature has been rudely interrupted and the organic processes of restoring it are underway, and not to be rushed. I remember as a child, pulling open the petals of a flower that was not quite ready to bloom. It really only spoiled it. My intentions were not bad. But the result was a small disaster. And we must continue to look upstream to address the social, political, and economic forces that perpetuate these many contradictions, so ultimately peace has some kind of a chance.    

Today’s song:


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