“Will you catch me when I fall?” Those are the words of a refrain from a Danish song by the group Danser med Drenge (Dancing with Boys). The image helped me recall the old trust games used in group-building back in the day. Someone stood in the center of a group, crossed their arms across their chests and closed their eyes. They were to fall backwards, trusting that they would get caught before they hit the ground by their co-workers. That exercise was used to ‘teach’ trust among people who were supposed to be a team. Reading between the lines, of course, it speaks to the trust that wasn’t there, otherwise, why build it in such a concrete and forced way? I shudder to think of it today.
Now, I see the set up, for both the outer group and the inner person. In an environment where you have to work together, are you really going to show that you don’t have the bully’s back? Are you really going to fall backwards knowing that the others will be forced to catch you or be outed as the missing link in the team? That’s one memory of a throw back to a cultural phenomenon that sought to create safety in unsafe terrain.
I don’t know if that is still used in team building, I have to think it is. What emerges more powerfully for me now, after completing the Trauma and Healing Cerificate from the Assisi Institute, is how essential trust is in our ability to navigate the world and how elusive its provenance. For those whose life experience was that no one was there to hold them, or even worse, that whoever was there was out to destroy the very essence of their being through violence, incest, or neglect, falling is not an option. On the contrary, falling is the worst possible outcome, because you either fall into nothingness and perish in existential dread, or you fall into the unspeakable. And no one comes to help, save or protect, no one to say “don’t go down that street”, no one to say, “don’t you dare touch that child.”
These are the experiences of those who have suffered harm at the hands of those entrusted to their care. We read about it every day, stories of mothers or boyfriends or fathers or nannies or day care workers who harm the very lives they are mandated to protect. The survivors experience the world as unsafe and others as untrustworthy, they walk over and over again into the maw of the beast, because that they can trust. What they cannot trust is that there will be somewhere, someone who will be there to catch them. Those of us in the clinical field, know this and we try to orient them to navigate the world, not asking for trust, but hopefully, over time, earning it.
That’s the clinical aspect of working with survivors of trauma, but there is a far larger field not tied to the personal experience of trauma. We live in a world that is truly unsafe, we cannot trust our leaders to catch us, or that the justice, legal or cultural system will protect us from violence if we are women, or children, or transgender, or black, or Muslim or any other ism that is currently seen as the enemy.
At a dinner party the other night, I mentioned Michael Moore’s “I am a Muslim” challenge to protest Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. He asked people to take a selfie of themselves holding that sign and to post it. I was surprised by some of the responses, "that’s cultural appropriation", "you can’t say you are a Muslim because you are not", "we have to be allies, we need to say, I am not a Muslim but I stand by you".
That argument, while politically correct, missed the most important aspect of what is needed if you are truly going to catch someone falling: the symbolic life. It is not enough to say the words, I am your ally. It is not enough to say, I am a man and stand by my sisters, 'cause man, when I walk out the door as a white woman and even though I stand with my black brothers and sisters, I am still a woman and not a man. I am a target, a magnet with two x chromosomes. And I am still not a black woman or a woman of any color or race, nor am I a Muslim woman, I am still not those who face even more dangers than I in this world.
I appreciate the symbolic life to gain access to mastery over evil, like King Christian X of Denmark, who wore the yellow star on his arm to stop the genocide of Danish Jews. The whole town of Billings, Montana placed menorahs on their windows to combat the incursion of white supremacists and ran them out of town. There is a way to enter into the reality and change the course. But first it must be named.
We cannot afford to be fragmented by being caught in verbal hyperbole while lives are destroyed and demolished. I believe there is something begging to be born, a new awareness and consciousness of what is afoot, like the beast slouching toward Bethelem, that needs to be named. The new year brings the possibility of seeing more deeply into what is driving such violence. May we be part of the catching.
Dr. Silvia Behrend is a Certified Pattern Analyst, educator and mentor