What Lies Beneath

Several years ago, we had the barn that was attached to the north end of our house torn down and replaced by a more usable structure.  For the entire summer there was a trench along the east side of our house, rimmed by a mound of dirt.

After the first serious rain the newly dug trench and ridges were dotted with chunks of pottery that had been cast aside by former owners of our house.  And not just pottery, but glass shards, handwrought ironware, and even a few animal bones found their way to the top of the dirt after decades of lying undisturbed below.

Recently I’ve been feeling like I’m back in the trench discovering bits and pieces of lives lived decades ago.  But my current trench can’t be found around the foundation of the house.  Rather, it’s inside my head and heart.

Shards of childhood memories began to appear without warning  a couple of weeks ago. We were having a woodshed built near the former construction site.  As you would expect, it’s a simple structure so you would think that there would be very few design decisions to make.  And that’s mostly true.

But as I watched the structure take shape something didn’t look quite right. The corner posts were too tall.  The side pieces weren’t exactly what I had envisioned, or what I thought we had talked about.

The obvious solution would have been to go out and talk to the carpenter before he went any further.  Instead, I froze. I began to feel my gut constrict and my breathing grow shallower. I knew very well that my distress was far out of proportion to the situation, but I didn’t know why.

It was only when I caught myself blaming the carpenter for not being a mind-reader that I was able to get myself out the door to tell him what I wanted. Turns out he had no problem with making the changes.  In fact, he even agreed that they were improvements.

But as I walked back to the house, I remained trapped in an inexplicable stew of guilt, doubt, and self-criticism.

Reflecting on this the next day I realized what was happening.  Asking for what I wanted summoned several unhappy early childhood experiences – times I had been scolded for speaking up when I was given something that I didn’t want to keep.  While I had friends who could go back to the store to return items they didn’t want, that wasn’t something I was permitted to do.  The memory of being told how ungrateful I was for even suggesting such a thing endures to this day.

Fragments of memories can surface unbidden.  And they can unfairly color our experience of the present.

Before we know it we’ve unconsciously painted an old memory onto a current event, making an already unpleasant situation even worse.  Often we’re completely unaware of what’s happening.

Even more challenging is the fact that, like the bits of other people’s cookware that we found around our house, we can unwittingly carry wounds of our ancestors that didn’t originate with us. Everything from traumas to basic attitudes and preferences passed down through the years can be instilled in us.

All of this can be confusing and distressing.  It’s enough to navigate challenges in the moment without the added pressure of old emotional scars surfacing, complicating matters.

It’s taken me years to begin to understand what’s happening when I experience this flood of emotions.

What I’ve found most useful is learning to raise my level of awareness to be able to detach and observe what’s happening internally and then to look more objectively at the memories behind the emotions. It’s almost like being able to examine the bits and pieces of clay, glass, and iron that came out of our trench – no attachment, just noticing.

And equally important is treating those memories and, ultimately myself, with kindness and compassion.

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