'Calm After the Storm,' monoprint by Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 40: The storm before the calm

Yet at the present moment, as in the forest, we are learning that all of us live in equipoise between life and death, albeit some with more protections than others.

To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

April 4, 2020

As I walk through the forest in the still beauty of early spring, I notice that the forest floor is littered with the crushing weight of fallen trees. Stumps shoot jaggedly into the sky. Severed limbs ensnarl broken canopies and smash into the undergrowth. Lightning strikes splinter and scorch the trunks of ancient oaks. Fungal growths girdle and choke the birches. Brutal endings and tender beginnings intertwine.

Everywhere I look I am reminded that the yin of death balances the yang of life. I need that reminder as we all grapple with the meaning of the pandemic that is upon us.

Brutality of the forest. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

Last week I checked in with a close friend. She had been sexually abused throughout her childhood and suffered from flashbacks and nightmares ever since. She told me that she was surprisingly comforted during this moment of fear. She now feels less alone. Her observation reminded me of a former patient, now living a full and joyful life, who had also been brutally sexually abused as a child. She had been drawn to a television series that was full of surreal horror. It made her feel more normal, less different from the world around her.

A child of the Depression, my mother had been through her own trauma of poverty and delayed aspirations. I remember how, many years ago, when my parents splurged on a king-size bed, she sewed together the remnants of her children’s camp blankets to place under the expensive new bedspread. Her young-adult children thought this was endearing and funny, but I now realize that it was an expression of her belief that she had to use what she had because one couldn’t be certain of the future.

My experience as a psychotherapist and an academic researcher on the effects of childhood trauma tells me that experiencing a life storm can make some people more vulnerable to the effects of repeated storms in the future. But it can also provide a sense of “I’ve been here before. I know this” that those of us who haven’t been here before may lack. Someone who has been through a storm is more likely to recognize the next storm on the horizon, the importance of preemptive action, and the knowledge that they can get through this.

In contrast, many Americans with solid homes, ample food, adequate livelihoods, freedom from discrimination and the benefits of a so-called civilized life may feel invulnerable, or worse, deserving of a kind of armor against adversity and the misfortunes of others. Unlike my mother and those who have emerged from traumatic circumstances, many are unprepared for catastrophe or even to believe that catastrophe applies to them. Furthermore, the trappings of civilization provide a false sense of security from and presumed control over nature. Yet at the present moment, as in the forest, we are learning that all of us live in equipoise between life and death, albeit some with more protections than others.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a life-altering crisis. People we have known and cherished have died of this virus, as have many more, and more will follow. Those with the least will suffer the most. We are in the midst of a storm, but this is also an opportunity to learn the lessons of the forest. Calm after the storm resides in an acceptance of our vulnerability; that we are all connected to each other through our vulnerability; and that within that vulnerability is the gift of life, possibilities for love and service, and opportunities for renewal.