I once heard a Rabbi tell the story of how lobsters shed their shells. He explained how the crustacean finds a place under a rock and discards its outer protection. The old shell no longer fits, but in order for the lobster to understand that a change is required, it first needs to begin to feel uncomfortable.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s parable of the uncomfortable lobster helps us to understand how true personal growth often follows adversity. Just like lobsters, the price of this growth is a willingness to experience a certain level of discomfort and periods of vulnerability. For a lobster — which is constantly growing — to ignore its own discomfort could eventually prove fatal, lest it become trapped in its shell.
Recently I helped to co-found a mental health initiative in the United Kingdom called Safely Held Spaces, and we created a roadmap to help people navigate the terrain when the call to grow, and to transform, arrives in the guise of a mental health crisis.
The roadmap guides us through five stages: everyday life, testing times, the threshold, really extreme times, and finally to an opportunity to either return or emerge from the crisis. If we return, our journeys become circular, passing by things we’ve already encountered; lessons we haven’t yet fully understood. But if we emerge, we transform and begin to experience an entirely different way of being. We shed our shells and adopt new ones, so to speak.
Our journeys from a constricted and defended way of being to a more expansive state are by no means easy, and for many of us, we move backwards and forwards between the five stages before we begin to experience personal transformation. The process of emerging can also be an agonising one, where we can feel racked with fear and shame; unsure about stepping out into the world in our new skin.
In the case of the aforementioned lobster, it’s the discomfort it feels that heralds a time of transition, a call to emerge and to inhabit a new space. Our own mental and emotional pain serves a similar purpose. But what stops us from leaning into the discomfort and bringing about change?
A key factor in determining whether we muster the will to emerge — or not — is the degree to which we’re prepared to acknowledge and act on what our pain is trying to communicate to us. Many unwittingly dismiss their pain as unimportant. They compare their suffering to that of others and convince themselves that what they’re experiencing is not that bad.
In fact, such is this natural tendency to move away from pain, that often we blindly put ourselves through myriad contortions in order to avoid facing what is really there — the truth of how we’ve been impacted by the events in our life. The deeper the pain, the more ossified these contorted and false versions of ourself become.
In the UK, we pride ourselves on maintaining a stiff upper lip, but that determination to get on with things at all costs, does, in fact, cost us dearly. We become convinced that our mind’s adaptations — originally designed to shield us from pain we’re not ready for— are an immutable part ourself.
These adaptations, or survival mechanisms — designed to help us respond to life’s difficulties — are in fact like shells that we’ve outgrown. Whilst once they were there to protect us, eventually we reach a point where we must be prepared to relinquish the armour and attend to the wound.
A mental health journey is not unlike any other adventure in life, with its twists and turns, uphill battles, and easier downhill moments. No matter the path invariably there comes a time where we all find ourselves standing perplexed at the perennial fork in the road.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The poet Robert Frost elucidates how if we’re able to find the courage to walk down the less trodden pathways in life, all manner of possibilities begin to unfold.
In Matthew 7:13–14, Jesus tells us to, “enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
While the 20th Century’s doyen of mythology, Joseph Campbell, observes in his magnum opus The Hero With A Thousand Faces , the dangers of refusing what he labels the call, and thus missing the opportunity to participate in everything life has in store for us.
It’s just like in the scene in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception — itself a film which points to the complex layers that comprise our subconscious — where a Parisian dreamscape lurches upwards and back in upon itself. It’s an apt visual metaphor for Campbell’s treatise; the crushing psychological weight of the unlived life.
So what exactly is this call to the road less travelled? What is its purpose and where does it lead? And crucially, how do we ensure that we don’t miss the turn off when life brings us to a critical juncture?
Often the summons that draws us away from everyday life and into extraordinary times begins with a crisis: an unexpected event, an accident, the loss of a job, a global health pandemic — the hallmark of the call is that for better or worse, life is irrevocably altered. These moments are sometimes painful, as often we find ourselves pining for a return to the way things once were.
The denial of our pain is the principal obstacle in the road. It’s what stops us from accepting the call to transform, halting us dead in our tracks or leading us to retreat back to the comfort of the familiar — even when that familiarity is precisely what’s causing us to suffer in the first place.
Joseph Campbell says:
Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Walled in boredom, hard work, or culture, the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved…his flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless.
There are important similarities between a crisis that happens inside somebody’s mind, and the crises that take place in the real world — as within, so without. The entire world is in the midst of experiencing it now as we each grapple with the new daily realities foisted upon us by the novel coronavirus.
In a report published by Rethinking Poverty, Cambridge University social scientist Barry Knight says the world is moving into liminal times. Knight draws on the work of the early 20th century French anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, who coined the term limen — derived from the Latin word for threshold
Barry Knight writes:
The limen denotes an ambiguous zone of change in which time feels elongated and all outcomes are unpredictable. The limen destroys our frameworks, causing feelings of panic, fear, loss and confusion; it is scary because it threatens our identity, our living patterns and the social order. We fear total collapse of everything we know and hold dear, and we just want to go back to the security of the way it was. Yet, the limen has an upside. It is the source of all radical change.
Liminal times leave us full of fear and unknowing. Yet it’s only in these fluid and malleable liminal states that something different to what was there before can begin to emerge: a changed society, a changed perspective, a changed life; the gateway to healing inevitably passes through liminal territory. We fall apart, and then we fall into place.
Imagine putting all of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together in the wrong way. We know it’s wrong, we can see that the pieces don’t fit, that they’ve been forced together to form a distorted version of the picture. We may even find that we’re thousands of pieces into the puzzle by the time we realise our mistake. But in order to fix it, and whether we like it or not, things are going to need to come apart.
What stops us from emerging — at least in the West — is that we have been endowed with an almost pathological need to stop things in our lives from falling apart, to stop ourselves from ‘failing’, to fix things instead of taking the time needed to really heal. Often we insist on leaving the picture of our life in place, opining that to take it apart would be too difficult, even when the image staring back at us is jumbled.
Western psychiatry in particular has historically struggled to allow people to fall to pieces. The mess of a mental health crisis, the jigsaw pieces of the mind sprawled incoherently across the floor, elicits a discomfort in some mental health professionals that they are unable to abide.
It is therefore critically important that mental health professionals look at their own ‘jigsaw puzzles’ first in training, before attempting to reconfigure somebody else’s. Worryingly, not all mental health professionals have taken these important journeys of self introspection.
Whilst psychiatry is slowly moving towards an approach that values this truth, too much emphasis is still placed on lessening people’s experiences of mental and emotional distress — and at times this attempt to stop pain is also what prevents people from facing it.
A better mental health service could help us to find the nutrition in our discomfort. When people do fall apart, a significant number later say that it was the best thing that ever happened to them.
Just as a mental breakthrough must first be preceded by an initial breakdown — a psychological state which continues to be incorrectly pathologised as an illness, as opposed to an important human process — so too must our societies experience periods of collapse and transformation. As things crack, the light streams in, and we begin to see hitherto hidden truths
In 2020, right across the world, we are now witnessing a profound process of reckoning taking place, as the mistruths and lies of the past are laid bare for all to see. For the first time we are beginning to deeply comprehend how the collective trauma of the Euro-American slave trade has cascaded down from generation to generation; from plantations to prisons, the thin veneer of legitimacy plastered over the atrocities of Empire has now well and truly come unstuck.
Statues of white national heroes responsible for crimes that the abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “would disgrace a nation of savages”, have been torn down as slowly we attempt to reconstruct the historical jigsaw puzzle; so long distorted and presented as the true picture.
Recently in an exchange on Black Lives Matter on social media someone commented that, “the transformation of Australia from a small penal colony to the country it is today in just over 200 years was a pretty bloody impressive example of development.” Never mind that these beautiful modern cities were preceded by the systematic murder of the oldest continuous living culture on earth — the indigenous Australians [50,000 years of unbroken history].
To emerge from this false version of history is to accept that the vestiges of mass murder and slavery live on in each and every one of us. To return to the lie is to resort to banal aphorisms like “all lives matter”, an obfuscation of the glaring elephant in the room that prevents this from being the case: unresolved institutional racism. Not everybody is able to face the truth that they carry the ancestral trauma of racism inside them.
Extinction Rebellion’s first demand was Act as if the Truth is Real. In other words, stop denying the pain of what we’re all facing as a species and instead turn to confront it head on. What we’re dealing with is not merely global warming, it’s not even climate change — it’s a climate emergency — the full magnitude of which most of us are simply unable to comprehend.
When so many of us are unable or unwilling to face the truth of what’s really taking place, those who dare to speak truth attract a particular form of ire. Many would prefer to return to the trauma of business as usual, even when it risks destroying everything we’ve created.
We can witness this playing out in the diatribes meted out against climate activists, like Greta Thunberg — who despite drawing on decades of incontrovertible global climate science — has been summarily dismissed by critics as ‘mentally ill’ — an irony noted by the renowned Canadian author, Dr. Gabor Mate, who said:
The people on both sides of the Atlantic who have dismissed her as mentally unstable have done so in the service of denying climate change, a stupendous dissociation from reality that will never be inscribed in the diagnostic compendium of mental illnesses, despite the fact that it threatens to destroy human habitats and much of the natural world.
David Attenborough’s award-winning Blue Planet series captured the incredible underwater scenes of spider crabs shedding their shells. Unlike the solitary lobster, spider crabs gather together in the hundreds on the underwater sea plains to form a protective community.
The shedding process exposes their tender backs to predators and their legs become so weak they take days to strengthen. But the crabs whose shells are yet to harden are protected by those on top who have already been able to emerge and transform themselves; the strong supporting the weak.
Our individual journeys of growth and healing result in painful ruptures — with ourself and with one another — but these ruptures are needed in order for us to advance as a species. And like spider crabs — in order to emerge anew and grow — we must learn to rely on one another for safety and protection. It’s only by forming these protective communities — where being weak and vulnerable for a period is understood to be an inherent part of a deep process of change — that we’re able to cast off our defences and do what we need to do.
But if we can’t see what’s stopping us; unhealed trauma and old ways of being that no longer serve us as individuals and societies, then we’re going to find we remain painfully stuck in old shells.
James Scurry is a Core Process Psychotherapist accrediting with the UK Council of Psychotherapists, practising in London, England. He has worked as a television news producer for Sky News UK for the past decade and is Co-Founder of the mental health initiative SafelyHeldSpaces.org