When I think of resilience, I think of a stream near my home where tiny fry of coho salmon—quickly disappearing—swim above a bottom clogged by sandy sediment from logging. I think of a pond also nearby where the black eggs of California red legged frogs—disappearing, too—hang suspended in jelly clinging to underwater branches, and I think of the tadpoles who survive UV from ozone depletion, survive pesticides, survive predators to hop, tiny as quarters, onto the shore and into the woods. I think of aromatic Port Orford cedars—disappearing like the rest—fighting against an introduced disease. And I think of American chestnuts, whose crowns once grew one hundred feet across, felled also by an introduced illness: young trees rise up, die, then sprout again from the roots only to die once more. Where does that pool of strength come from—for chestnuts, for all of them—what is that rootstock of resilience from which, given a chance, these others regenerate?
When I think of resilience, I remember the determination I once saw in the eyes and in the set jaw of a child who’d vowed when he grew up he wouldn’t strike his son or daughter as his father had struck him. I think of the open tears of fright from a grown woman transported by an innocent gesture to a time in her childhood when her father could and would have killed her had she not slipped from his grasp, and I think of how she has successfully fashioned a creative life from the wreckage of her childhood. I think of the pride with which another woman—this one beaten and raped by her father as a child—states that she has never struck nor even shouted at her sons.
When I think of resilience I wonder where all of this strength comes from, and I wonder how people so violated—stabbed in the arms and chest with a steak knife, or beaten with ropes, or starved, or forced by fist to finish plate after plate of unwanted food (and these are just people I know personally)—can sometimes grow up to live lives marked by grace and compassion.
My own first experience of resilience—or rather of conditions that called it forth, then shaped it to my body and emotions, made it necessary—came early. When I was a child, my father beat everyone in my family but me and raped my mother, my sister, and me. I can only speculate that because I was the youngest, my father somehow thought it best that instead of beating me he would force me to watch and listen. I remember scenes of arms flailing, of my father chasing my brother around the house. I remember my mother pulling my father into their bedroom to absorb blows that may have otherwise landed on her children. We sat stonefaced in the kitchen, captive audience to stifled groans that escaped through walls that were just too thin.
One of the ways I survived was by pretending nothing was happening, nothing was amiss. I had a deal with my unconscious: because I was spared the beatings, I made myself believe that if I didn’t consciously acknowledge the abuse, it wouldn’t be visited directly upon me. My father’s first visit to my bedroom didn’t abrogate the deal. It couldn’t, because without the deal I couldn’t have survived. In order to maintain the illusion of control in an uncontrollably painful situation, that is, in order to stay alive, the events in my bedroom necessarily didn’t happen. His body behind mine, his penis between my legs, these images slipped in and out of my mind as easily and quickly as he slipped into and out of my room.
Of course it’s simply not possible to survive such trauma. The pain was too strong, the pressure too deforming, for me to bear. I repeatedly erected psychological and emotional walls to keep out this relationship too terrifying to tolerate, and just as repeatedly these walls were smashed down in the next wave of violence, only to be re-erected by a child desperate to keep some parts of himself safe, separate from the violence, and thus protected from terror.
When I was a child, I used to climb out my bedroom window at night to lie beneath the stars. The tiny points would get bigger and bigger as they rushed closer to me, or I to them, and soon I would hear their voices. They would say to me that none of this was my fault, that none of this was right, that things were not supposed to be this way. They told me they loved me. Had they not told me all of this, I would have died. I’ve often wondered how I knew to go to the stars for strength, but I do not even have the beginnings of an answer. I think we all know but most of us forget to go find these places, and I think we forget even that they are there.
My childhood, while dramatic, wasn’t unusual. We’ve all seen the numbers. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, just within this country a half million children are killed or seriously injured by their parents or guardians each year. Studies show that nearly one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by the time they’re eighteen.
I often spent afternoons by myself in the irrigation ditch that ran behind our house. I’d catch crawdads and garter snakes, or climb up the banks to lie on my belly and watch the comings and goings of ants in their hills. I got to know and love the songs of meadowlarks and robins, and the song of the water in the ditch, its sighs and whispers and gloops as it slid around branches and across reeds. Sometimes I came with friends, sometimes with siblings. I never brought my father here, nor did he ever come with me.
There are those who pass on to others the violence they fell victim to—I know many people like this, as I’m sure you do—but there are those also who do not.
Despite the seeming impossibility of survival, there are children—and adults—who do not accept, wear, and pass on this mantle given to them by those who would initiate them into this lineage of violence. In fact it happens all the time. I’ve come to know many people who’ve survived the unsurvivable, and whose lives are now full of joy. Indeed, because many of them have struggled so hard to find, allow, and realize love and peace in their lives, their appreciation of these is far more profound, layered, and textured than it might be for many who have never been forced to feel the dreadful and grinding ache of terror deep in the marrow of their bones. When and if those formed in such a crucible do achieve some form of hardwon emotional connectedness—with other humans, nonhumans, the natural world, music, art, writing, or even with every breath they take—they often find themselves then able to feel passion more acutely, and to savor those connections with a strength as unfathomable to those who never had to struggle to feel in the first place—as are the original traumas themselves.
Given the near-ubiquity of violence within our culture—and I’m talking not only about the deformations of child abuse, but of coercive schooling; the wage economy requiring people to waste lives working jobs they’d rather not do, the trauma of living in a world being destroyed before our eyes—the question becomes, what helps some people to open out after having been subject to violence, and what causes others to shut down? In other words, what causes or allows resilience?
I often walk through the forests where I live. Walk might not be the best word, because the forests are so thick I crawl along game trails, snaking my way between branches and beneath clinging vines. The forest rewards me. Last week I saw a red legged frog the size of a small dinnerplate, and this week the biggest pile of bearshit I’ve ever seen, darkblue and signaling a diet of berries. Once, I stumbled across a spot where the bear beds down, and saw tufts of black hair twining with grasses flattened outward beneath a big downed log. I was far from any roads and lost beyond all hope. This is where she sleeps, I thought. This is her place of refuge.
All things need places where they are allowed to be who they are, places where they can—like the roots of the chestnut trees—derive sustenance and strength from their surroundings. Terror and exploitation do not engender growth, and it is especially true that those normally subject to these need refuges where they can regenerate in peace.
I knew all of this as a child. Everyone does. Thus my relationship to the stars. Thus my relationship to the creatures in the irrigation ditch. Thus—and this may seem odd, but I’d wager this is true for many others thus violated—my relationship to places within my own body that remained safe, places my father could not touch.
It is possible to look back on one’s history, no matter how horrible, and find places of relative safety, where fear was never allowed to enter. Those places can teach us, if we let them, that as well as knowing fear we can know—as I learned from the ditch, from the stars—safety and peace. We can know what it feels like to not have our guard up, to experience a world where the strong do not exploit the weak, where dogs do not eat dogs. This allows us not only to breathe, but to learn that openness feels different from defendedness, that relationships can be pleasing and beneficial.
The key, then, to resilience, is to find or remember those places of refuge and build out from there. Because I knew, somehow, that peace exists, and because I experienced the difference between peace and violence, I was able to migrate, slowly, toward openness, at first only toward the creatures in the ditch, and toward the stars, and then toward others equally nonthreatening, and then toward other people.
Perhaps even more important than providing me a template, those places provided me with the understanding that the pain I suffered was neither natural nor inevitable, that there are other ways to be. This understanding is crucial to resilience, to hope, and in fact to the continuation of life, because if all of life consisted of violence and exploitation, what would be the use in going on?
We are living in the time of industrial capitalism’s greatest ascendancy. One can buy a Big Mac and a Coke ("the real thing") in nearly every nation of the world. There are few places anymore (inside or out) safe from civilization’s reach. In the north, polar bear fat is contaminated with dioxin, and their fate is sealed by global warming: wild populations will probably be gone within another couple of generations. In the south, ice caps melt quickly enough to make the most stolid of scientists who study them weep. Trawlers capable of "handling" three hundred and forty-four tons of fish per day spread their nets more than a mile long, scraping the sea floor, destroying all life—fish, birds, other animals—in their paths, tossing much of it—called by-catch—back overboard, dead. With the merest touch of a presidential finger boms can be sent to kill humans and nonhumans the world over. Coral reefs will soon be dead. Mt. Everest is littered with tons of trash. Ninety-seven percent of North America’s native forests have been cut. Human languages disappear as quickly as so many dreams, as culture after culture is consumed by our voracious way of living. Where is safety?
Hope resides in these places of refuge, these places of freedom, small as the inside of our hearts and minds and bodies, and big as the deepest bottom of the oceans where trawlers’ nets cannot reach. Without freedom, without these places that are free of terror and exploitation where we can develop comfortable and nurturing relationships—to streams, to ponds, to pieces of ground, to stars, to human beings, to art, to pets, to music, to ourselves—there can be no resilience. For resilience is relationship, to other and to self, and grows naturally where relationships are allowed to flourish. Salmon in cold streams free of sediment grow to recolonize other streams. Port Orford Cedars free of the disease grow as well to recolonize their former territories. People nourished by others grow to nourish others themselves—remembering, in those places untainted by terror, what it means to be human.
Originally published in the May/June 2002 issue of Hope
Republished in the Summer 2002 issue of Green Living as “Safe Haven”
Reprinted in the Fall Run/2004 issue of The Steelhead Special.