Recently a young man in a neighbouring seaside village went missing. He went out for a bit of fun riding the waves with his boogie board and never came home, but his board did wash up and upon confirmation; a precautionary warning was issued to any bathers, paddlers or surfers utilising this portion of the coastline: potential Great White Shark Attack.
Instantly, like some magician in the sky clicked their fingers, the incident became coloured by own personal experience. I was drawn into the memory of my Dad going missing when I was just the tender age of 14. Once again, I was that vulnerable teenage girl and the experience this family were now living made me feel it belonged to me. As I do every morning, I walked the beach with my rescue dog Willow, but this time it was different. This time I walked the beach looking for the missing young man. I wanted so badly to find him, that I could provide the closure this family was desperately going to need, or did I want to find him so that I could provide the closer I desperately wanted; even after thirty-five years? I told my husband with tears cascading down my cheeks: “I remember what it was to be that fourteen-year-old little girl with a stupid daydream of having dolphins rescue my dad and bring him back safely to me.”
I specifically used the word stupid because as an adult woman I was embarrassed to admit this out loud. I remember reading so many stories of how dolphins had rescued divers, bathers and the like when my dad first went missing that I convinced myself - this could happen for him as well. I was further justified in my belief because everyone told us that dolphins had often been spotted swimming close to the shoreline, as had some rather large whales. My imaginings did not end there though because when his body was not recovered, it went even wilder. I imagined him washing up on a stretch of beach that no one knew about, he had hit his head on the rocks as he was swimming for his life; so of course he had amnesia and he didn’t know that he had to come back to us.
Why does this happen, and I feel the question really has two parts to it:
1. Why does our mind take to flights of imagination, and
2. Why do we see what it happening in front of us to other people and take it on as our own?
I believe that is why I have ended up where I am today, because on some level I have always been asking myself these questions. I have been utterly absorbed by them that I have just continued to dig and dig deeper looking for the answer to the proverbial "why". While I may not have the ultimate "one size fits all" answer, here is what I have discovered for myself:
1. When we are engaged in the trauma of the event that is unfolding before us, it is excruciatingly painful. Everything around us falls apart, food tastes bland; laughing just does not seem right because he is not there to share the experience with us and we lose the sense of who we are, because that person helped define it for us. And so, we escape. We escape to a world we can construct within us, that helps us make this moment more bearable.
2. Our event (which we happily take ownership of) literally clouds our judgement and because we can only ever experience the world from within us, we see theirs through the lens of ours. Let me attempt to explain that with a bit more clarity. When plasma tv screens first came out, if you left a static image on the screen for too long by pausing the movie, the panel became damaged by what is called “burn-in”. What this looked like, was the image you had paused on became part of the tv, so you would see the next scene through that burnt-in image. Your experience is “burnt-in” to your mind and through this “image” is how you see every other experience that happens from that moment on.
This is neither good nor bad, it just is. Being aware that this is how the mind functions, when something happens that causes you to respond emotionally to it, you can then say to yourself: “Oh, I am being reminded that this is the filter I am currently looking through. I don’t have to. I can choose to look at it with a beginners mind.”
The last question I would like to look at (very briefly), is:
3. Why does the current event remind me so deeply of my previous experience?
My answer, so we can have the compassion, empathy and understanding for that person and hold the space for them as they navigate their way through their trauma. Because we know what it is to feel that excruciating depth of pain.