In Northern Europe, hundreds of children in refugee families facing deportation have withdrawn from the world. Literally. On Nauru, a tiny Pacific Island off Australia's coast, children held in detention camps are insulating themselves from life. The kids won't react to anything, not pain, touch, not kindness. No visible emotion. They won't eat nor drink. They suffer from a mystifying, life-threatening condition requiring high-level medical care and labeled resignation syndrome.
National Geographic pictured one of the children a while back and it broke a piece of my heart. I began this post to be with it. Most of us haven't had to suffer anything similar to what these kids go through. We aren't the doctors with them. But we can get it, the why of the withdrawal, right? The pain. A deep truth at the core of who we are. When safety is no longer a possibility, when hope has flown from your soul, when we have no patch of earth to call home, we retreat, desensitize, disconnect. We seek to get away from any further hurt at all costs. Without any sense of belonging, vulnerable kids withdraw into the one place that they can still recognize as their own: An inner cocoon.
The tendency to resign is in all of us. We filter sensations when external stimuli become too much. We numb out. We choose indifference to keep pain at bay, and violence to avoid feeling despair. We put in earbuds to deny the presence of crowds. Another shooting in the news, wildfires, plastic in the oceans, war? We tune out. Bullying, toxic workplaces, estranged relationships? We disengage. Resignation happens in so many ways.
The children stay in their syndrome for years. Born healthy, once full of dreams, they die before they die. But we are not like the children. We are not helpless. We live in free countries, with places we call home. And so I wonder, might it help the kids and us if we learn to remain engaged, at least a little bit more? Might our skill spur a positive for the world, even though we are not saving these kids directly?
I think so. We do have choice. We can unlearn automatic withdrawal. We can choose to lean into our fears and observe how we screen out life. We can respond capably to this harsh world. It is possible to stay present without overwhelm. We can open our hearts without breaking, trusting that we are far more capable than we think we are. And we can discover that this is actually quite a cool practice. Showing up, again and again, takes tremendous courage and wisdom, but it is good stuff. The Zen priest Hogen Bays writes: "If there is pain, I choose to feel. Whom I encounter, I choose to meet."
And I think it begins with cultivating curiosity. What if I can take interest in what is, just as it is? What if I can stick around a little longer, intentional, attentional. Just this. Just this. (Note to self when discomfort arises: Observe arms across heart, clenching of jaws, anxiety capturing breath, sleepiness. Second note to self: Lean in: Try softening chest, relaxing face, breathing slowly, kindness.) What if I open my heart wider, because I am strong enough to bear witness? What if in remaining connected I come home?
In The Forest Unseen, biologist David Haskell writes about one single square meter of old forest growth, visiting it almost daily for one year through the seasons. The scientific subtleties that begin to reveal themselves captivate in an awesome beauty. In a process of intensely concentrated curiosity - one square meter! - he manages to see the whole living planet. The opposite of resignation. Delight. As he connects ever more deeply with the aliveness of his square of earth, a spiritual wisdom, an earth-connected intelligence and an irresistible love seem to surface. That is belonging.
Here is something else. Most of us are super well-meaning and busy in changing the world for the better. But perhaps it is only when we belong fully with what is, intensely curious and accepting, that we can can make things better. It's only then that we understand what "making better" actually means. Tender presence, compassionate initiative, the absence of reactivity. “Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y'all one and it beats like your heart," says one of the characters in Jesmyn Ward's haunting novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. But the earth isn’t always a loving place - in her novel, in life. Home is also about love and the pain of losing love.
It will take more than a few of us to curb the tides that displace our children, but eventually the effects of our own capacity to remain connected will ripple out. Eventually, one child, two children, more, won't have to experience the intensity of bewildering pain, unbearable when you are that small. I long to delight in the beauty of this world, the whole awful awesome mess and mystery of it. To know my home ever more deeply so I can go out in the world ever more effectively. It's a start.
Thank you for reading this!
NOTE: Love it if you share this with your network. Thank you in advance! And if you are interested in an open, honest conversation (Or know someone else) to explore impact, belonging, effectiveness, please email me.