Friday, May 28, 2010


All day long I listen to stories. I listen to stories of survival, stories of triumph. As a trauma therapist, I am a witness to tales of brutality, unimaginable savagery and cruelty directed toward children.

I also witness the more mundane struggles of adult life, including the struggle to be a good, maybe excellent parent. I can identify, as a parent, with both the struggle and the not-so-rare failures. Parents share with me their shame, their deep disappointment in themselves when they have not been able to love as fully, as un-ambivalently, as perfectly as they had hoped and planned.

This is the best kept secret in “parentland.” Good, loving, well meaning, well educated, even well-“therapized” parents sometimes, maybe often, have bad feelings toward their own children.

Parents envy their own children, compete with them, resent their advantages, desire parenting from them, seek to have them enhance their social status, repair their wounds, improve their marriages, redeem their suffering. They are angry when their children get in very public trouble, not only because of the consequences to the child, but also, maybe chiefly, because of the shame of being exposed in all their imperfection themselves. Parents find themselves not always wishing the best for their children.

So what? Why do we need to know this? Why not suppress all of this and do what we can to keep the beast from emerging. The culture has long ignored this phenomena, isn’t their some wisdom in this? I think not.

I share the following parable (from Jack Kornfield) of the poisoned tree. A lone traveler coming upon a “poison” tree is understandably frightened and cuts the tree to the ground, chopping at whatever roots are within reach. The traveler seeks to protect himself/herself from the dangers of being poisoned.

The next traveler, coming upon a similar tree of poison, recognizes the tree, honors its right to exist and decides not to cut it down: “I will build a fence around the tree so that the tree may have its life, but I will be safe from it.”
The wisest person in the story coming upon the tree, thinks a moment and says “oh, goody, just what I’ve been looking for, a poison tree.” The wisdom of traveler #3, is to see the tree as a gift, an opportunity to transform the poison into that which can heal. Medicine is sometimes made of that which causes the sickness. The poison from the tree be transformed into an important remedy for our ills.

In my application here, the poison of the tree is of course all our nastiest thoughts and feelings. Our impulse is to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of what can be terribly destructive and poisonous within ourselves.

If, for instance, one should stumble upon, become conscious of, envy toward our tender offspring we would surely seek to squelch this un-admirable feeling. How can one begrudge the good fortune of our children even if it makes us feel our own deprivation keenly? “Lets cut it down,” Lets banish the thoughts of anger and jealousy and replace them with those of intensified duty, or displaced anger.

Unlike real trees, however, unacceptable feelings can be displaced or even turned inside out, but they cannot really be destroyed. As in the second law of thermodynamics wherein energy can be transformed into different forms but never destroyed, so it is with passionate feelings. Acted out, denied, displaced, walled off , they are nonetheless there. And they make trouble.

The lessons of the consulting room, the lessons taught by my patient patients, have converged with the lessons of child-rearing for me. There are dark feelings associated with parenting, they are as an important a part of the topography of parenting as loving, instructing, and playing with our children.

Unfortunately a parenthood “mystique” permeates the culture in which such feelings are unspoken, forbidden. As a result guilt, shame, and abject horror As a result guilt, shame, and abject horror are automatic in the parent encountering these dark thoughts and feelings. We move quickly to cut down the tree: we deny, suppress, and dissociate when we can. The result are symptoms, unresolvable conflicts with the children, paralysis in the our own lives, and acting out at key transitional phases.

I would like to write more on this subject, but would very much like some feedback from readers: comments on how this strikes you: horror, relief, boredom? Thanks.