Friday, April 21, 2017

An Inquiry: Who Do We Allow Into Our Hearts?

Photo by Molly
  War and peace start in the human heart - 
and whether that heart is open or whether that 
heart closes has global implications.
Pema Chödrön

The more we love, the more real we become. 
Stephen Levine

Who Do We Open Our Hearts To and 
Who Do We Exclude? What Is the Nature of  
Our Circle of Caring? Why?

A recent Facebook thread threw me into a flashback. A friend of a friend asked of me, "Don't you think though that there are people, no matter if they have had the best circumstances, are just bad seeds. Exactly like the little girl in the film." 

The whole conversation arose in response to my friend's post about the nationwide manhunt underway for Steve Stephens, the 37 year old African American man who randomly murdered an elderly man while posting the horrifying tragedy to Facebook. Ultimately, Mr. Stephens committed suicide before allowing himself to be arrested. Another friend of a friend posted, "He's dead... Happy, cheap ending..." This same person previously had posted about the man who committed the horrific act of violence, "... some people need to be put down like dogs.. No wasting time or money on trying to figure them out." I had attempted to interject another perspective, one which reflected more layers and depth and compassion, but there was little interest. I was also told to "not make excuses" for a "cold blooded killer." There was, however, this one question: Don't I believe some people are just born bad seeds?

Flashback. It was April 1985. I had just graduated from a 28 day inpatient alcohol and drug treatment program. In March of that year, I had checked myself into Laurelhurst Manor in Portland at 9 months clean/sober because there was childhood trauma arising that I felt I could no longer keep down and which I also absolutely knew put me at risk of relapse. (I've never met an addict of any kind - certainly myself included - who doesn't have a broken heart!) Either I was going to drink again, or I was going to somehow learn to stop running from myself. Terrified as I was, more than anything I was fierce in my determination to break the tragic cycles of addiction, abuse, and suffering for our sons, 2 year old Kevin and 5 year old Brian. (Matthew wasn't yet born.) So I checked myself into treatment and made it through this experience, definitely coming out stronger on the other side.

It also needs to be acknowledged that the greatest trauma of those 4 weeks was when my mother came from Michigan to attend the family program offered that last week. I thought that she had come because she was afraid that I would commit suicide like my twin had in 1978 if she didn't come to support me. I thought, miraculously, that my mother actually wanted to help me. Wrong.

And now here I was on this April day with John Derrickson, my therapist at the time, who, now that I was out of treatment, was able to tell me what happened when my mother made the appointment for a session with him. John looked at me, pained, and told me that my mother had come to Oregon to be sure that everyone knew it was me, and not her, who was bad. I knew that she'd been trying to convince my sons' father and Grandma Kitty (who came from North Carolina to care for our sons while I was in treatment) that I was bad. And after what happened during Family Week, I definitely knew that she hadn't come to help. But I hadn't known what happened when she saw my therapist. 

During the session, John related that my mother became increasingly furious with him when he was not buying into and colluding with my mother's stories of how horrible I was and how much that I had done in my young life that was beyond unforgivable. In her determination to not be exposed, and to successfully project onto me what she avoided within herself at all cost, my mother then proceeded to pull out the big guns. She was determined to convince my therapist that I had been born a bad seed. She used those words. The story which was her most damning piece of evidence took place when I was somewhere just over a year old. She reported that I would not stop crying. No matter what my mother tried, I simply would not stop crying. So I made her put a pillow over my face and nearly suffocate me to death. I was that bad.

John Derrickson wrapped his arms around me, obviously himself shaken, and told me, "I never want you to have to go back there again," i.e. be endangered and abused again. He also went on to tell me that my brother and I were lucky to have physically survived our childhoods. And John said that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I could ever, ever do to make my mother love me. He told me that she compelled to push away love and was incapable of allowing me into her heart... or, tragically, anyone else.

Molly, John Strong, Jr., and Nancy Strong, Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, 1954

Back in the 80's during the early years of my sobriety and trauma work and awakening, I devoured books like Scott Peck's People of the Lie. Two therapists had told me to read this book, and one of whom had also told me that on a scale of 1 to 10 of people of the lie that my mother was a 10. As I read this book and others and uncovered more and more memories, I began to frequently use the word evil to describe my mother. She was Evil. It wasn't until several years into my thawing out and growing consciousness that using that word when referring to who my mother was grew uncomfortable and ultimately I dropped it altogether.

Yes, evil things absolutely occurred. This darkness consumed our family and my twin brother's suicide was directly related to what had happened to us. Yet, I had come to realize that, while my mother's actions were horrific, she was not evil. Coming to this awareness has been a long, long journey into the depths of my heart and soul. Vital to my awakening has also been learning to connect with the Sacred thread that is soulfully woven through the hearts of us all. And critical to dismantling a voracious inner critic who could judge myself, or avoid judging myself through judging you, was cultivating the antidote to the subtle and not so subtle forms of violence that I had absorbed in my family and in the larger culture. That antidote is compassion. Doing the deep work of cultivating compassion is a profoundly courageous process, and especially in a culture that teaches us to turn away from seeing and consciously experiencing and understanding our suffering and that of others.

There are many who I will always hold in my heart because, to one degree or another, they saved my life. In the earlier days, there was the family that took me in and allowed me to live with them during the summer of 1971. My twin brother had made a serious suicide attempt and was hospitalized in the nightmarish state hospital outside of Detroit. And my mother's psychological and physical violence had escalated, resulting in her slugging my head into a wall and injuring my father when he tried to hold her to prevent her from assaulting me. And there was more... I will always be eternally grateful to JoAnn and John and their parents who provided me an escape from the horrors I had been living with.

Many years later, there were the teachers who began to appear in my life as I actively sought to heal my broken and deeply traumatized heart and wake up. And it wasn't that they saved my physical being or that, without them, I would have intentionally overdosed on vodka and Valium as my brother did. But without the teachers, mentors, healers, visionaries, wise Elders, loving friends, and more, I would have stayed asleep. I would have, to some degree, been among the walking dead without knowing it. I would have stayed disassociated and addicted (to substances and non-substance additions) and the walls around my heart would have been growing stronger and stronger as the years passed rather than gradually, piece by piece, being dismantled.

In 1984 John Derrickson reflected to me in my very first session with him that I lived from the neck up and that he was going to support me in making the long journey from my head to my heart. I had no idea what he was talking about. I just knew that his words terrified me. And they gave me hope. Now, over 30 years later, I have come to the understanding that each time we allow our hearts to break open when we are fearful and hurting, rather than close down, more space is created for love. 

This journey of lifting the veils of my distortions, illusions, ignorance, unskilled actions and harmful belief systems, of healing the wounds I had carried in my heart, has given me my life. I had grown up with a mother so severely wounded herself that she was incapable of compassion for nearly all of her life. Yet, here I am today fiercely passionate about compassion and blessed with the extraordinary wisdom that there is no greater gift that any of us can give to ourselves, each other, and this beautiful world we share than the openness, presence, and compassion that is in our deepest hearts and that, I believe, is our true nature. This experience of ever expanding compassion, understanding, and capacity to love is so extraordinary because I know both sides - I know what it is to be asleep, and I know what it is to be on a path of awakening.

To one degree or another, it is my belief that we all fall somewhere on the continuum of being asleep on the one end and awakened on the other. What does this mean? It means that we are more or less conscious of our relationship with our hearts and the hearts of others. We are more or less aware of our interconnectedness with one another and conscious that the Sacred - God, Goddess, Spirit, Creator, Buddha nature, or whatever we refer to the One as - is imbued within all of life. It means being mindful of ourselves, our shadows and wounds and gifts, and how it is that we are in the world - are we more or less connected with our hearts, are our actions in alignment with the values we hold, are we living with integrity and authenticity, are we generous and kind, are we doing the work of growing into greater wholeness of who we truly are?

E.E. Cummings once said, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." I have found this to be a profound piece of wisdom. It is truly a courageous journey to simply become ourselves! Yet, without courage, curiosity, humility, and a commitment to exploring ourselves and one another and our world indepth and over the course of our lifetimes, we may have no idea that we are often or largely asleep. My tragically tormented mother lived in hell and had no idea that there was any other way to be in the world. I was consumed by fear and addictions and shame and anger and an ocean of unresolved loss - and I didn't know it. I had no idea that I was stuck up in my head and that I had learned from the time of being a tiny new baby that I had to fortify my heart. And this was the lens that I saw the world through. Until I became willing to listen to others and grab onto the lifeboats that God was sending me that I had been pushing away. 

It takes courage to grab on to these Sacred lifelines and begin to surrender to allowing the world as we have known it to fall away from under us so that a new one can be born. This is the journey of growing up and becoming who we really are. This is the path of becoming conscious and growing into our larger Selves.

We all have these lifelines offered to us, these doorways, these people who grace our lives and who Spirit works through to try to seep into those places we have walled up with our rigid and fear or shame based belief systems. While it may be easy to see that, wow, Molly has really been through it, and think I'm so glad that didn't happen to me - yet, life happens to us all. We are all wounded and, to one degree or another, either in our families or culture or all of the above, absorb messages that tell us to not feel, not trust, not talk, not be. These are the harmful stories we may have no idea that we have absorbed that cause us to be injured and then neglect those injuries to our hearts. We shut down, shut up, shut out, and turn away from our suffering. In doing so, any suffering outside of ourselves can cause us to be confused, fearful, and trigger judgment and rejection. We cannot open to compassion for others if we have rejected bringing tenderness, empathy, and understanding to the pain we carry in our own hearts. 

All around us we see the impact of individual and collective disconnects from the Sacred wisdom of our hearts and souls. We can be oblivious to how it has become much easier to justify our judgments, our criticisms, and justifications of subtle and overt violence in ourselves and others, our media and entertainment, our nation and political leaders, the way we treat our Sacred Earth Mother and anyone who is seen as Other. We are sure we are right - he's just a cold blooded killer - no wasting time or money on trying to figure him out. We think - they were just born a bad seed. From the vantage point of what I am able to see and experience today, that once was completely beyond my consciousness, I see the great danger in making anyone into someone who is Other and worthy of being demonized.

Many years ago I had the gift of having James Garbarino come into my life. First I picked up his book, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. I read that book and cried and cried. It triggered all the violence, mostly psychological, that my brother and I had grown up with. Toward the end of his life, and after I'd moved to Oregon from Michigan, I knew from my mother that she had confiscated one gun of John's, but that she didn't know where the other one was. Here I was 2,500 miles away terrified that my brother's rage and desperation was so acute that he may blow our mother and himself away. I also feared that John may come visit me and shoot me. So many monstrous things had happened to us that I understood that these horrors could possibly now be perpetrated on our mother and/or myself. People who commit montrous acts do not fall from the sky.

I'm sitting here crying................

So I read Jim Garbario's book and wept and wrote him thanks and also part of my story, and he wrote me back. What followed were different occasions of getting to meet and we stayed personally connected over the miles for several years. What a gift. Because Jim understands violence. And he knows in his deepest self the roots of violence. He's worked in the aftermath of Columbine directly with families and much more. Jim's latest book is Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases. 

A summary of this latest work:
Listening to Killers offers an inside look at twenty years' worth of murder files from Dr. James Garbarino, a leading expert psychological witness who listens to killers so that he can testify in court. The author offers detailed accounts of how killers travel a path that leads from childhood innocence to lethal violence in adolescence or adulthood. He places the emotional and moral damage of each individual killer within a larger scientific framework of social, psychological, anthropological, and biological research on human development. By linking individual cases to broad social and cultural issues and illustrating the social toxicity and unresolved trauma that drive some people to kill, Dr. Garbarino highlights the humanity we share with killers and the role of understanding and empathy in breaking the cycle of violence. (For a list of books by this prolific author, please go here:

Jim Garbarino has been among my many treasured teachers. He taught me so much. And his work broke my heart open again and again and again. Among the gems I received was how Jim was the first one to give me the concept of "circle of caring." He described how the circles of caring will vary greatly for any one of us depending on what it is that we grow up with and surround ourselves with as adults. When I first embraced the concept of circle of caring and allowed it into my heart, I set an intention: I will spend my lifetime expanding my circle of caring, seeking to increasingly exclude no one. Of course, the only way this intention can unfold in an ever deepening and authentic way is to allow our hearts to break open again and again as we allow in the empathic understanding of the suffering of others. Also, and very importantly, their innate beauty.

Which brings me to the question of what wolf do we feed? My blog post summarizes this inquiry here: This is among the most vital inquiries that I believe any of us will ever make. What are we drawn to? What are the family, religious, political, cultural, etc. stories that we hold as meaningful and true? What are our deepest values? Do we live by them? Who do we turn to and trust as resources of information? How conscious are we of the degree of integrity, values, wisdom, and commitment to truth and kindness and a higher good that these resources reflect? What do we feed ourselves? Are we absorbing what brings out the highest good in us and our relations and the world we share? Are we becoming more and more inclusive or excluding? Are we welcoming more and more into our circles of caring, or are we justifying exclusions - those Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, criminals, gays, women, lazy welfare idiots who don't want to work, idiot Trump voters, anti-American liberals, cold blooded killers, bad seeds, and on and on...? 

Truly, can we have the courage, curiosity, humility, and deeper wisdom to make a serious and ongoing inquiry - who do we allow into our circles of caring? Who do we exclude? Why? What are the stories we believe in that move us to be more or less caring about other humans and other beings and the beautiful Earth Mother we share? Are these stories fixed and rigid, or are they shifting and evolving and expanding? It is my experience and my belief that if we are alive and breathing, there is more work we can do to lift the veils of our ignorance, indoctrination, limiting belief systems, and stories which cause harm to our hearts. It is vital to see that the ripples we send out into the world are deeply impacted by the stories we consciously or, often, unconsciously live by.

My personal and professional experiences over the course of my lifetime - including 30 years as a social worker and 30+ years on a path of awakening, and combined with all the amazing teachers who have graced my life and continue to bless me every day - have taught me again and again that I need to not believe everything I think because there is more. Beyond each story I know and belief to be true, there is another, more expansive one behind it waiting for my discovery and integration into my life. This is the Sacred path of becoming who we most truly and deeply are. This is the blessed journey of allowing our hearts to break open again and again to clear more space for love. This is the path of being in the world with our eyes and minds and hearts wide open - taking in the losses, tragedies, and that which needs grieving - and also opening to joy, beauty, laughter, vulnerability, connection, courage, kindness, purpose, wisdom, and love. 

This inquiry into the nature of our hearts and the hearts of others naturally leads us to greater clarity of why we are here. What is our purpose? How can we add to the beauty, healing, compassion, truth, wisdom, and higher good for myself and other beings? When we are on our deathbeds, how will we answer these questions: Did I live fully? How well did I love?.........

Do I believe that anyone is born a bad seed? No. Over time my own related belief systems and stories have shifted profoundly. Today it is my belief, and my experience, that our true nature is one of beauty. Then, as James Garbarino and so many others have written and spoken about, life happens and horrendous things happen to people. Sometimes, on the outside, we can be oblivious to the deeper suffering that has happened to others we do not know, or even to ourselves and those we most love. If we push away the pain in our own hearts, it is threatening and scary to begin to open to the pain of others. And we can be blind to the understanding that, given the right circumstances, there is the potential terrorist who exists within each of us. You may say, no - not me! Yet, how do you know? Have you even tried to look deeper and walk in the shoes of those who cause so much harm?

For me, because I have gone deeper and been willing to go into the dark places within my heart and the hearts of others, I understand in my deepest being that people who commit monstrous acts don't fall from the sky. Monstrous things have first happened to them. Or, in the very least, there was some injury within the family and/or culture that crushed the person they truly are. Looking deeply into Donald Trump's history, it is clear why he holds many of the same diagnoses as my mother and how it is that he is a symptom of something so much greater in our culture. Thus, I am moved again and again to share both the reality of the darkness which is ever present, and the potential within us for being human beings who bring light into the world. Often the birth of this light emerges from first shining light on dark places...

Such is the story of my mother. Four years ago she had a major breakdown, her fourth marriage ended, and she attempted suicide. In stepped a former stepson from a third marriage who had long recognized my mother's vulnerability and had been pursuing her with the ultimate goal of making my inheritance, and that of my children and grandchildren, his retirement plan. Long, long story short, and nearly $250,000 later, I prevailed in a legal battle with this former stepson to bring my mother to the Pacific Northwest to spend the rest of her life here with her family. In bringing her here to live by me and our family, my husband, my children, and anyone who knew my mother also knew the extent of her severe mental illness. Remember - this is the mother who is incapable of love and compelled to push love away? Yet, we brought her here and, for the first time, she gained successful treatment for her mental illness. WOW! Combining the antipsychotic drug Risperdal and other medications with being immersed in the authentic love of family, the impossible happened. My mother woke up.

I am not saying that all the layers after layers of steel walls that she'd built around her heart came down. But, for the first time, there was an opening, an opening that allowed my mother at the age of 87 to experience love for the first time in her life. She was awakening from the excruciating nightmare she had lived in and was compelled to inflict on others - especially those who were closest to her. And, under it all, there was this beautiful human being. Under all the diagnoses - the Schizoaffective Disorder, the whole array of Cluster B personality disorders (Narcissistic, Histrionic, Borderline, and Antisocial), under all the anxiety and major depression, under the alcoholism and addictions to rage and chaos, under the shame and terror and dementia and Alzheimer's - under it all there still existed the beauty of my mother's true nature. 

And, today and for the past nearly four years, the toxic insanity is gone and in its place is the mutual love that we now share together for the first time in our lives. Miracles happen.

My mother, age 90, and me today.
My teacher Michael Meade, who has worked with veterans and violent youth and many others over the course of his lifetime, has blessed me with the  awareness that it is in our wounds that our gifts are to be found. Truly, what doesn't kill us or shut us down or feed and fuel our ignorance and unconsiousness, can awaken us - if we pursue this path of awakening and becoming who we most wholly are. On this journey, we get to welcome home all the unruly and disowned and neglected and hurting and unkind parts of ourselves that we have turned away from out of fear and shame and confusion. But we do have choices, summed up perfectly in this poem:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Rumi
Today I am a mother and step-mother to four children. I am a grandmother to two grandchildren and with a third on the way. And again and again and again I am moved to be a voice for the voiceless. Especially the children. I am moved to do so because I have spent many years working with severely abused and neglected preschool aged children, and many more years with traumatized families in my work with Oregon State Child Welfare. I am also aware of the Sixth Major Extinction that is well underway, and that we sit at a precipice that endangers us all related to global warming. In addition, I understand the toxic authoritarianism and late stage corporate capitalism that has taken strong root in America and around the world, and which also endangers our nation and the planet. For these reasons and many more, I am moved to speak to compassion as a path of courage, empathy as the antidote to violence, and cultivating the beauty of our true nature so that we may live our lives as prayers and be the peace our world hungers for. This is the time of the Great Awakening. And we all need to be part of this new story that is trying to birth itself within us and this world we share. We need to do this for the children, for all the children of all the beings everywhere. Our intentions hold more power than many of us recognize. May we choose our intentions wisely. This is mine:

I am passionate about being a part of a revolution in caring and kindness. I am passionate about peace, beauty, joy, compassion, love, laughter, truth, healing, and growing in consciousness. My personal experience has been that as I have embraced, healed, and opened my heart, I have discovered the sacredness in myself and all life. It is my belief that the ripples of the strong and sacred heart energy in us all is what will awaken and heal our world.

Bless us all on our journeys ― Molly


When we hold on to our opinions with aggression, no 
matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more 
aggression to the planet, and violence and pain increase. 
Cultivating nonaggression is cultivating peace.
Pema Chödrön

Our greatest strength lies in the gentleness 
and tenderness of our heart. 

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