“I’d like to see the tiger before—“

His voice trailed off.

We sat in the zoo café, staring at the figure before us: large eyes, thinning cheekbones, pale muslin hat with long flaps like the blinders on a warhorse.

No one finished his sentence. He could have meant “before I go.” We all heard, “before I die.”

I jumped up, racing blindly out into the thick stream of bodies at the San Diego Zoo, searching for a golf cart-like vehicle I had seen carrying VIP’s around the park. I found one. “Someone needs to see the tiger and he can’t walk all the way up there. Can you take us? I’ll pay you anything.”

“Do you have a reservation?”


“We’re not supposed to.”

“He has cancer….”

The driver’s face showed no emotion. “Just a minute”. She called on her walkie-talkie. Could my tearful request be so common that it touched nothing within her?

“Ok,” she said into the phone with no expression. To me she said, “Hurry up. I don’t have much time.”

“Neither does he,” I said, my voice cracking.

I ran back to the café, “Bring your coffee, everybody. We have a ride to the tiger!” David moved slower than the rest of us, the flaps on his hat swaying in the warm breeze. He climbed into the back of the vehicle, his long legs folding like a praying mantis.

Our driver didn’t look at him, but she drove with a sense of a woman on a mission. No one spoke as we flew down twisting back alleyways closed to the public. There was something quite magical about it that I knew was not lost on David. We  got to see the zoo backstage: a baby giraffe on wobbly legs still hiding in the tall  barn, odd goat like creatures getting a pedicure, the baby panda on her way to a nap, and, as we rounded the bend, the back entrance to the Bengal Tiger Exhibit.

She was larger than any of us imagined, a magnificent head, and a body like a mountain range at sunset. She rested on a ledge in the shade, looking right at us as if she had been waiting all day for David.

He got out slowly, camera tucked in his hand, his eyes misting as he walked toward her.

Our stoic driver slid her hand off the steering wheel, and we all watched David’s languid stride until he stood at the fence, looking in; the tiger looking out.

A stillness settled in the air.

I wanted to call out to David, “Don’t move!” Once he lifted his camera, he would take pictures; the tiger would move off the ledge. David would go home to chemo and all that lay beyond.

Don’t move. Stay there, looking at the tiger, the tiger looking at you….

The late afternoon light shifted, the tiger’s face illuminated, her golden eyes unblinking.  Her spine lengthened as if to say to David, “Here I am, in all my magnificence: a gift to you.”

David’s body suddenly became animated with the energy of his youth, the camera an extension of the wild creative spirit that he shared with this animal.

As if she knew all of this, the tiger did not jump off the ledge. Perhaps she was a matriarch, in the later stages of her life. Perhaps she felt a kinship with this man in the funny hat, whose life was also waning.  She stayed on the ledge, her head shifting slightly as David knelt and leaned sideways and forward – stopping short of standing on his head – to get just the right angle.

I never saw his pictures. Months passed, and it has been two years now since he has been gone. I know the photos are safely in his digital library, but no one can quite look at them. Not yet. And how we grieve, for when love is so fundamental, its absence is simply not to be believed.

I wonder if the Bengal tiger is still on her ledge, her golden eyes shifting in the late afternoon sun, searching, as we all are, for David to walk around the corner, lift his camera, and capture us all.


The title is poetic. This first caught my eye. Then I read what it is about: the memoir of a brilliant young neurosurgeon dying of stage IV lung cancer. ..When breathe becomes air….the moment when he made the transition from a breathing human being to living in the everywhere, the oneness of existence some call Eternity.

How could I resist?

Never mind that I lost my soul mate, my mentor, my cousin, David, to the same disease two years ago next month. Perhaps this is the book David would have written had he been a writer. He was a therapist, and as Paul Kalanithi continued to do brain surgery up until a few months before he died, my cousin chose to spend his last months with family, friends, and his patients.

Paul Kalanithi opens a world for us that is far more about living than dying. A literature major and lover of books from childhood, he had always wanted to write. He mapped out the course of his life in neurosurgery and the vast and dynamic horizon of neuroscience. In one section he details doing an operation with tiny electrodes that target an area unreachable by surgery. The patient is wide awake, and suddenly reports, “I feel sad. Crushingly, terribly sad—“ Paul adjusts the electrode almost imperceptibly. After a few minutes, the patient sighs, “I’m myself again.”  Paul reflects that it is of little use to cure the cancer if his patient lives with a terrible sadness. And so opens the possibilities for the future of treatment for so many brain disorders, from schizophrenia to Huntington’s.

Paul had a beautiful and brilliant wife, and had every reason to chart his life in decades: twenty years in neuroscience, the last ten as a writer.

With the diagnosis all of this shifted. Alongside the precious time with his patients in the operating room, he took up the pen – or these days, the laptop—as his way of finding meaning in the morass of the tragedy unfolding inside his body.

What is it about words that opens doors into the soul? I could ask that about any art form. It requires a peeling away of the layers of protection we erect in ordinary life. The role of “Doctor Kalanithi” gave way to a man who was entirely vulnerable, one foot in this world, the other in a much larger reality.

From this place as half man. half eternity, he writes not only the story of the course of his illness, but opens the book with Part One: “In Perfect Health I Begin”. We become a fly on the wall in his loving childhood family, his decision to focus as much on science as literature. The grueling hours of medical residency in brain surgery. The mistakes made. The evolution of his soul and consciousness in relation to the realities of medical practice.

His guiding principle? Meaning. Paul was ignited with the vision that  penetrating the physical properties of the brain can tell us even more about the mind and the soul and the meaning of life than the most enduring works of classical literature.  His quest – right to the end – was to find the connections through the healing pathways of brain circuitry that link us to purpose, to the core of existence, to each other.

His revelations, the mere persistence of his vision, his strong relationships with colleagues, patients, and his beloved wife, propel us through the story.  A portrait emerges of a man whose allegiance to meaning is so deeply embedded in his character, he is astonished to learn that after medical school most doctors choose “light” professions such as radiology, or dermatology. For Paul it had to a journey of the soul that took him into moments of life and death with patients and their families, finding in these moments, the most extraordinary and meaningful experience of life possible.

I leave you with Paul’s own words:

“Being with patients in these moments certainly had its emotional cost, but is also had its rewards. I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity, it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul –was obvious in its sacredness.”



Kalanithi, Paul ( 2015) When Breath Become Air Random House. New York.


They are intimately connected. What is their relationship, and how can we live in the dynamic reality that emerges from their unquiet union?

We hear so much about it these days, Living in the Now, as if it is the holy grail of spiritual freedom. Schools of psychotherapy, yoga, and Buddhism have done a tremendous job in bringing the focus of our collective consciousness into the Now. And yet, I often wonder if Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory, is weeping? If so, perhaps what she needs from us is not wallowing in the misery of the past, but a careful threading of images and symbols into the Now that doesn’t leave our identity out in the cold of spiritual zeal.

What if a path to experiencing the Now lies in a very simple, but often elusive tool: the ability to listen to ourselves, and to others. Some of us listen for a living. We cultivate these skills over decades. Nonetheless, I find it is a capacity we can never take for granted. Like meditation, it requires a commitment to consciousness that is born anew each moment.

Listening can be the gentle floating bridge that allows the simple magic of life to emerge. After Alan Rickman died I found an interview with him on You Tube, on acting and listening. He makes the elegant case that the whole game for an actor is to surrender to active listening on stage. This is where the character comes to life, not in the reciting of one’s own dialog, but in the deep listening to the other characters, being sensitive to the energy of the space on stage, making every moment a discovery.

How would this change the experience of every day life, if we could listen deeply, valuing the beauty of the Now.

In Shakespeare’s last play,  The Tempest,  Prospero, disturbed by the discovery of the treachery of his fellows, tells his daughter, “A turn or two I’ll walk, to still my beating mind.” I have often wondered if Shakespeare was referring to his own mind in late middle age, “beating” with all the images and memories of the past and present, as he looked down the road to the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” (Hamlet, from the “to be or not to be” speech)

Shakespeare probably knew well another great treasure of the Now: the wellspring of creativity. Imagine the difference: Will Shakespeare walking through the streets of London, worrying about the receipts from his last play, gnashing through an argument with an actor the night before, chiding himself because he has no idea what he’s going to write for his next play….Contrast Will Shakespeare walking through the streets of London, listening to the voices all around him – a street vendor selling strawberries, a woman talking to her baby, a riff of music in the distance, a lark heralding the dawn—and, as he listens, his eyes take in the faces of those around him, the texture of the stones on the path, the tiny bud of a rose appearing in a garden.

I like to think Will Shakespeare brought himself back to the Now, time and time again. That he knew better than anyone that a worried, distracted mind is not a creative mind. The mind needs rest, and presence, to spring forth words that evoke the tragedy, the comedy, the beauty of our precious life on earth.

Just now, on this frosty January morning as my freezing fingers tap on the keyboard – a dog barks – a crow lands on the roof – I can see the dense fog settling on the Lake through the bare branches of the coral bark.

Where are you at this moment? What sounds, sights, memory, or dreams are emerging? I wish you a life of listening deeply, and finding a place from which creativity, love for self and others, and emotional freedom can flourish.

The Effortless Motility of Being

motility: Of mental imagery that arises primarily from sensations of body movement or position. Having the power to move spontaneously. —The American College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin. New York. 2000

It was a phase used often by my beloved analyst, Dr. Lee Roloff: The Effortless Motility of Being.  I think he told me once where it came from, but the source has faded from memory. Not a quote from Jung, but from a philosopher or artist. Perhaps Lee made it up himself. Its meaning was clear: the fluid, awake state of existence free of irrational fears or anxieties, self doubt, complexes, blame, aggression, or self-denigration.

I realize now this is an apt description for our relationship, as it evolved over the course of ten years of analysis. There was humor from the beginning, and excited gasps as we discovered that we knew the same quotes from Shakespeare, or loved the same Dylan Thomas poem, or hummed together a phrase from Finzi’s Ecologue for Piano and Strings.

Especially in the last two years, as I entered my mid sixties, and Lee his late eighties, the play of emotion, the ease of connection, anticipating each others sentences took on an art form of its own. Our laughter was more gentle, our movements less boisterous. The way we looked at each other held all that was unsaid between us: every single moment delightful, sometimes contentious, sheathed in the illusion that it would never end.

When I picked up a voice mail telling me that he had died, I was not shocked. The undercurrent between us had known this for awhile. Two days before, I had dreamed of my father’s death, and was eager to share this with Lee. Turns out, it was a precognitive dream of the passing of a man who was father to my creativity and my soul.

The morning after Lee died, I woke from this dream:

I open the door to my office and in the garden, two enormous columns of pale lavender flowers have grown up overnight. They resemble no flowers in waking life. One is a tall, strong, reaching to the sky. The other is bowing toward me, trembling, in that moment right before all the petals drop…..Then I am a little girl. My family is in the Witness Protection Program. We live in a cathedral. My mother comes to me and says, “Your cousin is here. He is so excited to see you.” I run down the stairs and open a door. There on the top bunk of a bunk bed is a boy, a few years older, wild yellow hair. He jumps down and we greet each other, so happy to be together.

I have come to see the tall, strong lavender column of flowers as Lee’s Eternal spirit, the one bowing toward me, the mortal Lee. Both are this luminous shade of pale lavender, of a texture so delicate, so beautiful. The color of his soul.

The Witness Protection Program? I was protected for so many years by his careful, gentle witnessing of my every feeling and fear. And our work was in a sacred place, where we found a space of our own, to play.

Not long after this I had another dream:

I have parked my car, which has a dream catcher hanging from the rear view mirror. I return to the car, and the dream catcher has been taken away. I am very upset. I notice a small note tucked beneath the windshield wiper.

When I woke up, I asked Psyche to tell me what was in that note. This is the response I received: “Dear Elizabeth, this is a great loss for you. I am so sorry. His desire to be close to me was very great, and I welcomed him with open arms, in the effortless motility of being.”

Whoever you are, wherever you are, may you come to know this place where you are held in a sacred space by a mortal being who brings you Eternal love.


Improbable. Delightful. An unfolding gift of community, magic, and the natural world. I saw the flyer in the waiting room of the North West Hospital Cancer Care Alliance. “Casting Call” for all breast cancer survivors who have been treated at NW during the past year to join the women of the medical team on a fly-fishing expedition!

“I don’t have time for that!” I muttered. “I went fly-fishing years ago when the kids were little. I never was any good at it!–What does that have to do with getting through radiation??”

My husband saw it differently. “Do it. You never do things like this. It will be good for you.”

I still resisted, but once the reality of radiation got a hold of me, I began to reconsider. Perhaps I did need something out of the ordinary to look forward to, beyond my “Hiroshima bosom”… Dr. Allison Perrin, my surgeon, encouraged me. “It’s great fun. We all take a bus over the Yakima River – spend the whole day in the fall colors, on the river—and you might get a fish!”

That got me. I realized how long it had been since I had had the chance to get  out in nature, much less float down a river. Summer 2015 had been spent at work (thank God! My practice kept me going through every stage in the ordeal) –and in the corridors of the hospital, in doctor’s offices, and curled up on the couch with ice packs healing from a partial mastectomy. Nature and its wonders seemed a distant dream.

A dozen of us – “survivors” (I have to get used to this new identity) met early one Saturday morning in early October. The trees had already turned from lazy summer green to the crisp, burnt colors of autumn. We had been through training a few days before, where we learned the entomology of flies, and how to propel the rod out into space in an elegant, arch. Very artistic, this fly fishing, I thought. It seemed to have a particular appeal to all of the women.

And what women! Age range from 50 to 88! Everyone with a different story, in a different stage of recovery, reconstruction, radiation, chemo, or drug therapy. I was humbled and awash in gratitude that my cancer was caught early, and my recurrence score so low I was not a candidate for chemo.

Gratitude quickly became a theme woven throughout the day, like a golden thread in a fine garment. I felt it in every moment: the laughter, among women who shared a journey no one signs up for, but 1 in 8 will take. The rambunctiousness: on the all-female bus, we shared stories, reconstructions, tattoos, with joy and pride. The beauty of the sunny, seventy-degree day on the Yakima River.

We were two to a boat, with a guide. I ended up, delightfully, in a boat with my radiation oncologist, Dr. Wang. She was as naïve to fly-fishing as I was, confessing that in her few times in a boat, she had always capsized, “at least once”. Our experienced guide, Tim, chortled and took this in stride. “Nobody’s going over today!” he said, “Not on my watch!”

Veterans of the trip had described it as a peaceful, renewing, communion with nature. This may indeed be the experience of some women. For us it was MOBY DICK! Tim was hell-bent that we first-timers would get a fish, constantly directing us to cast, cast again, and pull the rod out of the water at the slightest hint of a nibble.

In the end I caught one tiny little “pickle fish”. Dr. Wang got a picture of it, with a smiling me. Had it been a great white shark, I would not have been more stunned, or overjoyed, or proud!

I felt gratitude for the sheer life force pulsing through every moment of the day, even as the sunlight danced across the surface of the river.

I learned how deeply I am not alone. Cancer ignites the soul, the spirit, the gamut of emotions like nothing else. With each cast, we all seemed to cry, “I am here.

This Thanksgiving, for me, is not about turkey or what kind of pie to make, or Black Friday. It is about a cornucopia of love and gratitude for my family, my beloved friends, and, –who could ever have predicted this a year ago?–for the women on the bus, and that tiny little fish, released back to the river, free, and alive.


This month I am hosting an on-line book club for The Depth Psychology Alliance, of my play ON THE DOORSTEP OF THE CASTLE, published by Fisher King Press. This is a marvelous venue for an author to interact with readers and promote lively discussion of all the spiritual, political and psychological aspects of the drama.

In my first posting,  I referred to the opening speech by the character, Alma de Leon, a young Jewish woman seeking sanctuary with Sister Teresa of Avila. The latter is igniting the imagination of 16th century Spain with stories of her intimate colloquy with God. Alma petitions to join Teresa’s order, longing for her own rapture, explaining that she suffers from an “aridity of soul.” She later speaks of Spain, as “our wild, arid country.” I asked book club participants to reflect on the relationship between being arid of soul on the inside, and living in an arid land.

I received a response from Bonnie Bright, director and creator of the Depth Psychology Alliance. She wrote of a conference she recently attended where they discussed the “drying” of the planet corresponding to the “drying” of the soul. Surely there is a reciprocal relationship, We live in a time that is replete with the violence we have done to the planet, amid daily reminders of the violence we do to each other, It is very difficult not to feel depressed, and pessimistic about the future.

And yet, here were these women, Teresa and Alma, living in wildly oppressive times. They could either get married with no birth control and no political power as women, or join the church and be subjected to whipping themselves and chanting hymns at all hours. A husband, or the Inquisition.  Not a lot of choice there. But within the confines of this arid world, they created something uniquely their own. Teresa was a wild rebel from the start. She could not “hear” God in large groups of nuns chanting prescribed Latin verses. She discovered a book, The Third Spiritual Alphabet, which taught, in essence, modern meditation. You, alone in a room, counting letters of the alphabet until your mind clears and you can know the voice of God. Teresa’s copy of this heretical text was impounded by the Inquisition, but then she discovers that Alma has a copy hidden in her robes. They forge a bond in their secret desire for a private, active relationship with God.

Beyond this, they look at the arid world around them. People in great need, many fleeing the Inquisition, many simply living in abject poverty. They respond to the reality of their environment, taking their own sumptuous dinners to those in need, creating a democracy of resources on the belief that all people are One. This begins a long struggle to create a new order of the Barefoot Carmelites, modeled on the legacy of Francis of Asissi. At first the church fathers are horrified at the notion of women traipsing about Spain barefoot, serving the poor. Teresa realizes she must use old family connections. She sends Alma to appeal to King Philip, who uses his own delicate strategy with the church, and at last the Order of the Discalced Carmelites is born.

Teresa and Alma addressed the aridity of their inner life, and used their well-nourished souls  to penetrate the darkness around them. Jung used the term Individuation to describe the evolution of the soul to wholeness. He stressed that it is not enough to have insight, to know the source of our pain and longing. We must step out into the world and manifest our visions, dreams, and by living creatively in the now, let go of the many things in our environment that are beyond our control.

We are living in times that will become more and more complex, and more challenging. “What then must we do?” Tolstoy asked, as he looked out at the poverty in the streets of Moscow. My vote is to continue to nourish our inner lives, manifest our creative essence, and respond with compassion and intelligence, to the changing landscape of our world.


I dream I am in a house of rough men dressed in black. I am naked from the waist up, jewels of gold, red, and blue embedded in my breast. The King comes in and I tell him the thieves have stolen my clothes. He doesn’t believe me. Later, I am walking on the road with the King. We see the thieves with the clothing. “Now do you believe me,” I say. “I am so sorry I doubted you,” says the King. I walk away from him. He wants to go with me. “No,” I say, “This path is for me to walk alone.”  He is sad, but does not follow. I walk out onto the top of a high, ancient stone wall, without fear or anxiety, one step at a time, the jewels in my breasts luminous in the rising sun.

          I had this dream the night before I met with my breast cancer surgeon. It gave me an ebullient image, filled with meaning, as I entered a path so many women have walked. All the “clothing”, –the façade of a no-cancer body has been stolen. The King, the animus or ego, has been robbed of the self he showed to the outer world.  What remains is the divine essence of the feminine, the jewels, atop an ancient wall that straddles the membrane of life and death.

I have experienced all the terrors, high anxiety, and roiling emotions of a woman facing cancer.  Partial mastectomy left me with radiation to follow, and years of medication to inhibit the return of the disease. Excellent prognosis. A low grade breast cancer so many women have endured and recovered from. And yet, when my surgeon said, “Looks like it is cancer,” I knew my life would never be the same. I felt I had a choice: to go through each ordeal, trembling, searching the Internet, focused on what could go wrong, or I could take a step back, and see this as a profound journey of self discovery.

I chose the latter, and it has brought me into a new world. I feel my own vulnerability as never before. I feel the reality of the suffering of others as never before: the faces of the people in the waiting room, each one with eyes that know cancer, women with head scarves, men who make jokes to cover their fear.

Everything that was ordinary is now extraordinary. I feel a depth of joy, relishing every moment with family and friends, delighting in the warmth and caring of the angels at Settle’s Northwest Hospital, splashing my granddaughter in the swimming pool even as I fight back tears.

Each day brings new revelations. Carrying “jewels” in my breasts, I remember my pregnancies. When I carried my children, my breasts grew hard, enormous, so sensitive to the cold. I watched in awe as the dome of my uterus grew, even as now I notice the long lateral scar across the moonscape of one breast. In my dream, I walk across an ancient stone wall, the jewels in my breasts radiating in the rising sun.  Now I receive the rays of a large mechanical eye that moves in its orbit across my body, shooting its greys as an act of healing, even as healthy cells are also being destroyed. A part of me is being sacrificed so that a more healthy, and a more conscious me can be born.

As with pregnancy, I pay close attention to everything I eat and drink. No alcohol, no caffeine, 85 grams of protein a day, veggies and fruits in abundance. Pregnancy brought a shift in my identity as I prepared to become a mother. Now, far beyond child-bearing age, I feel pregnant with a new wholeness, a new creative identity, held and cherished by the divine. As I walk along the ancient wall between life and death, the light of consciousness shines into the jewels of the archetypal Feminine, the giver and nurturer of life, embedded my body, in all of us, regardless of gender.

Halfway through radiation, I had the following dream:

            I see a beautiful green plant, like no plant I recognize in waking life, full foliage, rounded leaves. Out of the center of the plant comes a  gentle fountain of water, from a source deep within. The water bubbles up and over the plant. This image is bathed in light, a light that brightens and brightens until all I see is the blinding white light.

            I woke and thought, “Was that the white light? Am I dead?” I realize, no, I am vibrantly alive, and the self-watering plant is the life force. It lives within me. And when I die, I will live in IT.

Does this mean the cancer is a “gift”? Certainly no rational person wants such a diagnosis, but at some point, we all face the reality of our “mortal coil”, as Hamlet would say. But if we can listen to our dreams and search our inner and outer lives for meaning, the frightening things can be not only endured, but transformed, and echo into eternity.


“Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us?…What, if not transformation, is your urgent command? Earth, my dearest, I will… Unspeakably, I have belonged to you, from the first….Look, I am living…Superabundant being wells up in my heart.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, #9. translated by Stephen Mitchell

She approaches: Summer. Revealing herself to us as a goddess slides her nightgown from her shoulders. All corners of our heart and soul that lay buried under the leaf litter of winter, are now exposed, throbbing to be seen and known. Even the lacey blooms of spring have fallen, giving way to the stark beauty of dark red flutes, their female parts languid, sticky with desire, anticipating the erotic tongue of a hummingbird, the tickle of a warm wind.

Summer’s proud burlesque throws us into a vulnerable landscape of the soul, thawing the protective parts of us that thrived in winter.  We claim to adore the harsh light of the sun, yet tremble to imagine what are we being asked to reveal, to learn, to conquer in this most sensuous season.  Some all-too-human part of us longs for the frigid certainty of winter, where we could forget that we are made of the fluid substance of the stars. Where we can stand in our snow boots and cry, “I am a person. I have ideals. I deserve to endure!”

Summer strips all the ice away, crying, “You are here! In youth, in age, in pain, in love, in grieving, in wild joy, you are here.

It sounds so simple. And yet, in the winter of our souls, we put our noses to the grindstone, not within the petals of a gardenia.  We stay frozen in our longing to keep our bodies and beloveds secure, untainted by time and mortal shore.

Summer watches us, shaking her silken hair, the pale grasses of summer.

“Come,” She whispers, “be with me in Eternity. Walk through the garden and peer into the gently swaying leaves of the birch.  Be still. You will see the mother wren wrangling an earthworm, hear the piping of her babies: know that you are not separate.”

Can we let Her teach us? Can we allow a thaw?

If we can bear to love the bones of our true nature, laid bare in summer’s beckoning light, being mortal is not so terrible. We run, we leap, we love, fearless, in the bounty of the now.

FEAR OF FEAR ITSELF: Finding Emotional Courage

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech in the 1930’s on conquering the Great Depression

One of the major blocks many people face in healing from emotional depression is fear. This comes in many forms. Fear of intimacy is often a fear of rejection and shame. Fear of the future is a fear that if we embrace optimism, something awful will happen. Many people fear taking risks in relationships, or in their careers. Someone once said “I fell in love once and it didn’t last. How can I ever love again?” Another sentiment, often expressed: “I felt the presence of something deeply peaceful and beautiful in myself. I called it God, or the feeling of divine love. It didn’t last, so why should I believe in something that goes away?”

There is an intimate relationship in the psyche between traumatic loss and fear, often resulting in a life lived on the surface of things, unable to commit to others . Even if we pretend otherwise, many people secretly believe that everyone will either hurt them, or at best be a huge disappointment. This fear protects us from the anxiety that comes with reaching out, or daring to hope for more depth in our relationships or our work.

This  also shows up in our relationship to ourselves: a fear of trusting or valuing who we are, in all our imperfection and vulnerability. We think we have to make ourselves perfect, or no one will love us. This is a hopeless enterprise at best. So when we make a mistake, we beat ourselves up, mistrusting our own misunderstood human capacity.

All of this can translate into a dysfunctional relationship with fear itself, as if fear is the guard dog that keeps the us “safe” from the misadventure of trusting or loving ourselves or others. We come to respect our fear as we would an old friend, knowing it, obeying it. Herein lies the trap. Giving fear so much power, keeps us forever trapped in depression, anxiety, low self worth, and loneliness.

In the classic Broadway musical THE FANTASTIKS, the Narrator says,

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain

            Who understands the secret of the beating of the rain

            Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain

            Or why we must all die a bit, before we grow again?

This beautiful lyric has meaning on so many levels. We all suffer. We all “die a bit” when we lose someone, are hurt by them, or experience disappointment or loss. And yet, this allows us to grow, to open to new parts of ourselves, to find the courage to confront our fear and to experience the real feelings lurking in shadows.

What can this be? What is behind the fear?  Courage is the ability to face the unknown. To say to this tyrannical fear, “You are hiding something from me. Whatever it is, I can face it.”

This can be so many things. People often idealize a parent who has been abusive, out of a deep need to believe in an all-nurturing father or mother. Pulling aside the veil of fear can expose them for the flawed, damaged people they really are. To see, and feel the truth behind the fear means experiencing grief, anger, sadness, the rage of the betrayed.

“So why should I do that?” you may ask. “Why would anybody want to go through all those bad feelings?”

The truth of it is that if we give fear the power to alienate us from our true feelings, we suffer far more in the long run, by leading an “as if” life locked in depression and emotional distance. Carl Jung called tears, “the royal road to the soul.”  And yet, it is not so easy to open up all those buried feelings. Tears often need a nurturing other – a dear friend, counselor, or group of like-suffering souls, to extend compassion while the wounded person grieves.

There is another paradox, at first as invisible as the secret of the beating of the rain. As we learn to feel the depths of loss, betrayal, and rage, we can awaken to the universal human condition. We are not alone in our suffering. Even if we had an idyllic childhood, as was apparently the case for the famous Asian prince, Siddhartha, eventually, the reality of death, loss, illness, pain, comes to us all.

At age 30 he stepped outside the walls of his palace and saw a dead body, people going hungry, people in pain. He left all of his worldly goods behind and set out to find a way out of the cycle of death/birth/loss.

After many years of wandering and struggle, Siddhartha found his answer in Enlightenment. He experienced the oneness of our humanity in all our suffering, and joy. The way out of individual pain is to acknowledge this reality, step through our fears and reach out to each other.

Healing from depression calls each of us to step beyond the castle walls of our own fear and feel our way to our own Enlightenment.  We can learn to carry the reality of loss with us every day, without succumbing to depression. We can choose joy and beauty and meaning because life is temporary. This flower will never again be so beautiful, my little girl is a woman now and I will never again lift her high in my arms, I will never hear the voice of someone who meant the world to me because he died, but my love for him is eternal.

Joy, even as spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain.


I remember her so well, my maternal grandmother: eyes searching our faces, her hands brushing each other as if smoothing a silken cloth into bare threads. She was always worried about something. Was the ice water cold enough? Was the bath water warm enough? Did we get enough tomatoes for our pimento cheese sandwiches?

My mother echoed the same pattern, adding into it an expression of self-blame. Somehow when things went wrong, especially with her children, the fault lay squarely on her shoulders like the harness of an ox. Somehow she could never get free of it.

I write of an archetype, not confined to gender. Many men feel this sense of over-responsibility as well, whether it is to their children or to their corporation. I am searching to articulate an energy embedded in the dark side of the Feminine. Believing that you are responsible for the happiness of others is a distortion of Eros, the principle of love, which, in its pure state (and when is human love ever in a pure state?) it is free of these leaden convictions that erode the self.

At its heart the culprit seems to be what modern psychologists call “Enmeshment”, the melding together of two or more people in a family or a close relationship where it is difficult to tell where the identity of one person ends, and the other begins. This happens in marriages, lover to lover, parent to child, child to parent. Unraveling the coils of enmeshment is slow, often painful work, complicated by the fact that it almost always comes alongside real feeling, secure attachment, and the fact that people simply enjoy each others’ company.

Another complication is the fact that the mistakes of a parent, their reactions, decisions, and behaviors do have a profound impact on the psyche of the child.  I was deeply impacted by the anxiety and over-responsibility of my mother and grandmother. When I had my own children, I wasn’t even aware of how deeply I held the conviction that it is my job to create a secure and happy life for them, indefinitely. I have come to realize that I am in the grips of this over-responsibility complex, handed down, generation to generation. It goes further back that that. Greek myths are replete with the dramatic over-reaction of mothers when something goes wrong with their kids. To the extent that women have been oppressed –and still are, especially in some parts of the world –a core aspect of this oppression is this belief that females (or the feminine principle in a male) are responsible for the health, nurturance and happiness of the family, and, by implication, of society as a whole.

Like feminists before me, and so many women today, I want to be free of this. I am weary of carrying a stone in my heart that turns to the branding iron of self hatred when something goes wrong. It is not rational. Often the choices of adult family members is far removed from my influence or even my values. Yet, when there is suffering in others, I cannot abide it. I have made a profession of helping people take responsibility for their emotions, actions, and inner life. Yet, I believe in large part because my over-responsibility conviction runs so deep, I exempt myself from this aspect of wholeness which I nourish in others.

A paradox, you say? Indeed.

So, how are we to free ourselves from this menace? If I were a person coming to my office, what would I tell him/her?

Awareness. Begin there. See this over-responsibility complex for what it is. Imagine the face of the grandmother and mother who inspired such a torture. Did they deserve it? Didn’t you grow terribly weary of watching them writhe and beat themselves up? Aren’t you sick of it in yourself?

Can you pronounce yourself “Guilty” for choices you made years ago, when you were young, unaware, reactive, unenlightened? Do you judge others that way?

Can you see the grandiosity in this? Believing you have so much power over others, even your children? Especially your adult children.

If you embrace humility, and a grounded perspective on your whole, flawed humanity, it suddenly seems ludicrous to believe that a choice you made years ago, or yesterday, has that much influence on anybody, Even those close to you, or those who admire you.

Awareness. Humility.

What about respect for yourself. In most cases, you did the best you could. It is delusion to think you could have done more. Why is it so hard for so many of us to like ourselves, much less love ourselves? Yet that is what is required for psychological wholeness, health, and freedom from the over-responsibility curse, and her cousins worry, guilt, anxiety, and depression.

I tell my people self love requires a three-pronged approach: love your qualities, what shows in the world and in your relationship with others; love your essence, the very core of the goodness-seeker within; receive love from the divine within you, making a place in your busy life to listen, reflect on, and remember the sacred.

The first one is at least somewhat empirically verifiable.  The second, sensing your personal essence, is more subtle, a movement beyond ego to record and remember, and value your character. What are the values you hold, the principles you believe in? What do you respect, in yourself and others? It is no small thing to bear an allegiance to the good, the true, and the beautiful.

And the sacred? It comes in so many forms. Speaking of grandmothers, I recently heard a story of a woman in her 90’s who spends most of her time either singing or praying.  One of her children witnessed her saying the Lord’s prayer, then, when she came to the word “heaven”, she burst out in song, “Heaven, I’m in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak!” – When she finished a stirring rendition of Cole Porter’s “Cheek to Cheek”, she returned to the Lord’s prayer, right where she left off.

She found beauty, joy, and a sense of “Heaven” in both.

Awareness. Humility. Learning to love yourself, for what you do, who you are, and for your relationship to Universal Love.

This is the approach I would lay out for a person coming to my office to heal themselves from the curse of over-responsibility. Can I apply this prescription to myself? Time to embrace my own humility and embrace the confidence that I can do this, not just for others, but for myself.