I remember Jake from my first year of teaching; shaved head, small for a 10-year old, wiry, quick. Never quite in trouble, never quite on task. He lived in a tower block with his mum and her boyfriends. He thought everyone had six dads. He never smiled.
One day I raised my arm in front of him; pushed my glasses up. He flinched and his little fists came up. Poor Jake. That one hard-wired action showed me his whole life. How often had he defended himself against peers and those supposed to protect him?
Jake’s home life was a cauldron of neglect and abuse. We did what we could. I don’t know what happened to him, I hope he made it. That was over 20 years ago.
Jake suffered a continuous barrage of ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences. Violence, rejection, abuse, bullying one after the other, again and again. Most childhoods have one or two ACEs. His never stopped. He was damaged, possibly beyond repair. Jake suffered chronic, acute stress and carried a huge allostatic load. Each shock to his tiny system pumped out cortisol, shutting down his pre-frontal cortex, impairing his executive function, his ability to think ahead, to persevere, to succeed. He was physiologically and mentally scarred for life.
I can never feel what Jake felt, but since COVID-19 I have a much better idea about it. One shock after the next, one loss after another. First security goes, then safety, then power, control, income and finally freedom. There’s no time to process one loss before the next arrives.
An ‘ideal’ loss looks something like this:
The model is not without its critics but it helps affirm our emotions. They may be unwelcome but they are definitely expected.
When the ground beneath us moves we reach out for something to hold: family, friends, habits and behaviours. We cling to values, beliefs, objects and experiences, whatever it takes to keep steady. When Jake’s ground moved his fists came up. When our ground moves we seek out our comforts, our knowns. In this we can, if we choose to, find our gains.
I’ve spoken to my father more in the last two weeks than the last two years. I’ve learned more about Zoom since Sunday than in 20 years consulting. I’ve built personal and professional relationships of a quantity and quality unimaginable even a month ago. And I’ve set up a Zoom pub with my old university pals. We meet every Friday. We drink, we talk nonsense, we connect.
We will be remembered for what we do, what we say and what we write during this crisis. We will all be transformed. We’ve been shown something terrible and how we respond to it will define us for the rest of our lives.
If Jake is out there, I know he’ll be one of the strong ones in this. His early life was nothing but loss. He knows it, he understands it. I truly hope he found a life of gain and transformation.
What are you losing?
What are you gaining?
How are you transforming?
Suffering is a universal experience occurring across space and time, revealing the “big T” Truth that going down, going through, and going into the unknown can be powerfully transformative.
Fr Richard Rohr