Oh trouble can’t you see
You’re eating my heart away
And there’s nothing much left of me
-Cat Stevens, Trouble
I was driving home from the post office. The car ahead of me pulls weirdly over to the shoulder. I pass it, then look up in my rearview mirror to see a police cruiser racing toward me, lightbar flashing. The screaming siren reaches my ears. I yank my Jetta to the right as the cruiser speeds past.
My heart is pounding. My legs feel like sandbags. An unwelcome sob leaps out of my mouth and falls onto my lap. A few tears spill down my cheek.
It’s a common enough experience, perhaps. Flashing lights and sirens can startle anyone. And nobody wants to be stopped by the cops.
But my sobs, though elicited by the proximate trigger, were not about that trigger. My sobs arose from the sudden and striking realization that my pounding heart and terrified muscles were so familiar. Indeed, the suite of feelings touched upon by that passing cruiser are perhaps the most abiding experience of my life.
I call those feelings “I’m in trouble.” That’s the thought that comes to mind when I try to examine them. That’s the association with past experience. My seemingly inborn story is that I’ve done something wrong, and that I’m going to be caught, and that when I’m caught, something terrible will happen to me. And the feelings are so strong that the “terrible thing” must be something on the order of annihilation.
It’s not that being stopped by the police would be an inconvenience or an annoyance. It’s not that I would get a ticket, or have to pay a fine. It’s that I would be found out. Exposed for the imperfect being that I am. Embarrassed. Found wanting. It’s that I would be thrust into a situation in which I would not know how to respond or what to do. And thus exposed and found wanting, I would die.
It’s easy enough to speak of this in terms of ego structures and reactivity and trauma, to look at this suite of feelings as a bit of additional programming installed by experience into my original operating system. I can look back at my life, at my upbringing, at my formative relationships, and point to any number of factors that would have left me with this abiding fear of annihilation. My mother, raising four boys, was often tired and irritable and angry. That, alone, could serve as explanation enough.
But I think the reality is much more complex. These feelings are so old in me, so abiding, so familiar, that I’m prompted to think that they’ve always been a part of me, that I came here with them, that they came here with me. Call it wiring, perhaps. An Aspie thing, if you wish. The expected consequence of self-awareness. Exquisitely attuned, highly sensitive, wide open and wildly wondering, I think I’ve been forever aware of the inherent vulnerability of my own human existence. As the great poet David Whyte says, “we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile.”
And so perhaps it’s that which gets touched when the cruiser pulls up behind me. It’s the same thing that gets touched when Sally looks at me. It’s the same thing that gets touched when I find myself in a social situation surrounded by unpredictable human beings. I might be found out. Exposed. “Caught red-handed showing feelings of an almost human nature.” The sentence: exile. Or annihilation.
It’s as if what I truly am is more akin to a flame or a spark or a whirlpool than a heavy human body and controlling brain. As if this is not really my home. As if I’ve always known that my hold here is tenuous, ephemeral, and out of my control. As if I understand that I am not this body, this ego, this collection of thoughts and ideas and habits of “looking good,” and that the game here is to hide that vulnerable spark or be forced to leave.
Which must mean that I really want to be here right now.
David Whyte says that it’s in our realization of exile that we can find our way to belonging and home, and that to find and sustain a life of belonging is a great human achievement. I think I know this. I think I know that the more I expose my vulnerable self to Sally, the more I belong with her. And I think I have experienced the same thing in some well-structured groups of fellow travelers.
It’s possible to survive once the wall has been torn down. Not only survive, but belong.
So again, we come to all of the above. There’s inherent sensitivity and wiring and an ability to sense this exile. And there’s the wounding and reactivity that arise from experience. Police cars race by and I’m in trouble and old reactions get triggered and my abiding sense of things gets activated. And then I write about it, or talk to Sally. And in speaking it, I find that I’m okay. Exposed, but still here. Found out, but not in trouble.
And maybe even a little closer to home because of it.