Our Beginning

By Teresa (Pitt Green) Hartnett

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[1]

When it comes to recovery from child abuse, it really boils down to whether you believe our identities are born in eternity, whether our wounds are limited to our finite mortal lives or hurt, also, us as spiritual beings. Let me explain using these four lines of verse from T.S. Eliot’s famous poem “Little Gidding.”

When I first read Eliot’s poetry, I was a young professional starting out in New York publishing. I was fiercely determined to outrun my memories of abuse. The poet’s lines disturbed me. How could all my scrambling to escape my early life end in nothing more than a return to a doomed past? Surely, I would somehow leave “all that” far behind.

My circumstances refuted Eliot. I was living in a fairly high-crime, low-rent neighborhood in Jersey City. That was long ago, before neighborhoods would be reclaimed from ruin. The blight was like nothing I had encountered. Or imagined. It was comforting, oddly, because by contrast I could be sure the past was no more. Yet, Eliot haunted me.

Life then was full of fear and vigilance. I commuted home late most nights along deserted streets, and I headed to work most mornings before rush hour. It wasn’t a happy time, but it felt, well, familiar. If asked, I would have replied I was “fine.” My past had prepared me for this, meaning that I had somehow recreated my past.

Yet, as long as I kept running, I was confident I’d get even further away from the horrible early years. I was defining progress as a degree of escape, and escape as finding new kinds of dangers. That would turn out to be quite a problem.

Another problem? Like many survivors of any trauma, once I landed somewhere safer than where I had been previously, my psyche could let go. My nadir hit in April, the month which T.S. Eliot describes as cruelest of all. It is when new life destroys the frozen comfort of unfeeling.[2]

What happened was that, after years dreaming of escape and more years running away, I found myself where I had started—in pain and in danger.

The realization hit me hard. It was time to explore the past in professional therapy. It was time to return to the beginning. Eliot had won, it seemed, and I had lost. What a cruel month that April was. Fellow survivors may recall, each in his or her own way, the grief and shock of this watershed realization.

It was a dark time. I lost all hope realizing that therapy would ask me to explore what I had fled. How sad that we heal by untangling the present from the past. It’s very hard work. It’s excruciating at times. It’s an injustice to need to do so. But it’s work worth doing, and an injustice better overcome than avoided.

So, I did what I had to do. I explored the past, reluctantly and very slowly. For a very long time, all I could see in my early life was suffering. Trauma was so distinct that it eclipsed, for a time, anything else in view. The emotions unleashed by the exploration hid a great deal as I fought for my freedom. They hid the source of my freedom.

Here is how I came to believe spiritual healing enriches therapeutic healing. I was too alienated from the Church to feel at ease there, and too shy to reach out for spiritual support. I learned a hard way over many years what I talk about now.

With a spiritual guide, we can look deeply into our wounds to find the identity that precedes abuse. We find a Heart residing in our broken hearts. We find a Longing for nothing more than our longing in return. We find God, our Source and our Destination. We began as His precious children long before we ever became victims.

It took me too many years after escaping Jersey City to believe the truth that my pain was an echo of Divine pain. This is true not because the idea is poetic and pretty, but because our Savior bled too, betrayed and alone and shamed. As He walked my pain first that I would not suffer it alone as a child, I started to find in my lingering pain a way of returning the favor to Him, keeping the Lord company in the suffering He bore for me.

So, take heart.

Sometimes it’s tempting to read Eliot’s verse as if we never leave the place of abuse, never escape the cycles burned on young psyches. The truth is that was not our beginning, and it does not need to be our end. We are free to choose that we end where we began—of God and with God.

His Son is our Savior who has definitely vanquished all sin and evil, even that of abuse. His saving power is far greater than the power that wounded us in abuse. When we rely on Him, we can find lives that are far larger and more wonderful than what remains of those wounds.


[1] Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.” New York: Harcourt, 1943. For an online version of this poem, see this link.

[2] This reference is to these lines: “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain. / Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers. / Summer surprised us…,” from The Wasteland, by T. S. Eliot.

 

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