Alchemizing Suffering into Gold

Alchemizing Suffering into Gold

written by: Dr. Jodie Skillicorn
by: Dr. Jodie Skillicorn
Cracks of gold 2 Cracks of gold 2

I might have missed the gold filled cracks on the floor in the lobby of the Akron Art museum if I had not been looking for them, and if a gleam of sunlight had not made them glitter. How often do we mindlessly miss the beauty around us, or worse, judge perceived flaws and cracks as mere imperfections failing to notice the potential mystery and beauty? As I walked my dog later that day I noticed for the first time the many oddly placed cracks on the sidewalks in our neighborhood and wondered what confluence of stressors led to their appearance in these particular spots. The artist, Rachel Sussman, filled the cracks in the floor of the lobby with 23.5 carat gold resin transforming the ordinary, aging and imperfect cement floor into a work of mystery, beauty and art. She has taken the 500 year old Japanese art form, Kintsukuroi, meaning "to repair with gold", literally out into the streets and the world. She has repaired some of the the cracked, aging streets of New York City with gold. Her photographs of these gold veined streets now hang in museums alchemizing the flaws and imperfections of time, damage and aging into works of fine art. In Japan there is a word, wabi-sabi, which means seeing beauty in the flawed and imperfect. Here in America we tend to judge and conceal imperfections, replacing old broken objects—and sometimes people—for shiny new ones. How we treat our used objects unfortunately parallels how we we treat the flaws and imperfections of ourselves and others. We cover outer wrinkles with layers of concealer, designer clothes, endless dieting and even surgery, while burying inner wounds with alcohol, drugs, food, distraction and busyness. I have long been fascinated with the cracks of the deep inner wounds we all experience as humans. Even as a child I voraciously read real and fictional stories of human suffering. My mom would search for the most soul-wrenching books she could find for birthday and Christmas presents. But it wasn't the suffering that interested me. It was the strength and resilience of those who transformed their suffering into gold. This I wanted to understand. Later as a photojournalist, I was drawn to these same stories of suffering and transformation. I stood in sorrow and awe beside a mother as she visited her son's grave on the anniversary of his death by gang violence. She had spent the past few years visiting her son's killer in prison so that he would know someone cared and he would not walk out of there hardened and likely to kill again. Her pain was visceral, but out of it she had found the gold nugget of purpose and grace. Now as a psychiatrist I try my best to help people navigate their way through their pain and find some kernel of hope and meaning from life's rawest experiences. This time of year with the holidays and family gatherings approaching the scabs and scars of deep childhood wounds and losses are often ripped open. Many of my patients whom I have not seen for months, even years, suddenly reappear. "My depression has returned," I am told. Yet depression is not an entity that has mysteriously appeared out of the blue, it is more often an untended, re-opened wound in need of healing. It is the critical voice of the parent or teacher berating you; the angry hand smacked across the face or belt across the rump; the bullies that teased or punched you in the schoolyard; the sad, faraway look in your mother's face when you tried to tell her something important; the unwanted touch of a teacher, neighbor, or boss; the loss of a beloved parent, grandparent or pet; the voice of a loved one telling you to shake it off and suck it up when you were feeling hurt, angry or scared; and all the other times you were unheard, unseen, invalidated and were told directly or indirectly you were not good enough. These life events leave a trail of scars. In our culture we are often taught to bury these scars, to "just get over it", to cover it up, yet when left uncared for they can become infected and putrid seeping out through the cracks in self-sabotaging or harmful ways. Although summing up the courage to seek help for these wounds of life may be the first step to healing, all too often the healers we turn to label these imperfections—and ourselves—as pathologically broken and irreparable requiring a lifetime of medications to "treat". This disempowering rebuke adds yet another scar to the tapestry. The medications offered simply cover the fracture with a band-aid leaving the deeper underneath still uncared for and untended. What if instead of pathologizing, labeling and medicating the wounded we took time to curiously and kindly understand the environment from which the cracks emerged and to honor with kindness and compassion the resilience of the being that has withstood life's battery? What gold might be distilled from these experiences? In my practice I rarely hand over a script or speak of pathology. Instead I am curious about what old stories and wounds are re—appearing in the present in the body and emotions. How we tell our stories to ourselves and others becomes our own personal mythology. These stories have the power to transform the ugly to the beautiful. We can cast ourselves as the victim, perpetrator or survivor. Which role we focus on will not only change our perception of our powerlessness or strength but more amazingly it actually changes our physiology and health. Ellen Langer, a creative, non-conventional psychologist at Harvard, has spent decades doing some amazing research on how our beliefs and perceptions influence our bodies and minds. In one study a group of chamber maids were asked if they exercised. Despite the fact that they all spent their day doing physical labor, they all denied getting exercise regularly. In a simple but ingenious experiment, Langer simply suggested to half the group that their vacuuming, scrubbing, and making beds was just as vigorous as working out at the gym. She and her colleague collected measures of fitness before and a month after the brief intervention. Although these women did nothing different from what they had been doing for years, the half that reframed their day to day work as "exercise" showed remarkable changes in their views of themselves and their physiology, including a decrease in blood pressure and weight—all in just one month. They were no longer sick, fat and weak, but fitter, thinner and stronger. In another of Langer's studies she transported a group of 70 year old men back in time to a monastery at which all the books, magazines, music and tv shows were from 1959, when they were all 22 years younger. They were instructed to speak, live and act as if it was truly 1959. After five days of re-living this earlier period, the men not only looked and acted younger, but showed astonishing improvement in their dexterity, strength, flexibility, vision, hearing, memory and cognition. The old saying "aging is a state of mind" appears to be literally true. So what do cleaning ladies, aging men and broken vessels repaired with gold have to do with depression? Our perceptions of what is worthy, acceptable, beautiful and possible influence how we see the world and ourselves, which in turn influences our body, minds and health. If we believe aging means we cannot run as far, lift as much, or remember as quickly those beliefs manifest as fissures in our body and physiology. If we believe our doctor when she tells us that we are broken and cannot heal without a lifetime of medications, it fractures our sense of ourselves and our power. When we judge ourselves as less than and focus on our flaws and imperfections while shamefully attempting to conceal them from others, it requires a tremendous amount of energy and deception. This depletes our bodies and keeps us stuck in the depressed, broken view of ourselves and the world which prevents the inner wounds from healing and worse keeps us from believing that it's even possible to heal or that we're worthy of it. On the other hand, If we can acknowledge and honor our flaws with the kindness and compassion we did not get when the wounds were first inflicted, we can begin to heal the tender underneath. We can begin to see depression not as an oppressive threat of which we are helpless to escape caused by our irreparable brokenness, but rather a call to pay attention to the wounds we've ignored and find meaning in them. The poet, Rumi, wrote, "The wound is the place where the light enters you." Shifting our perceptions and shining a light of kindness, attention and forgiveness on our our broken places has the potential to alchemize our individual and collective suffering and flaws into beauty, strength, resilience and gold. In Nikita Gill's poem, Kintsugi, she wrote, "on the days when you feel ashamed of your scars, your mind only registering how ugly you are rather than the beauty they prove of you having survived," remember the broken bowl filled with gold being made more strong and beautiful for having been broken. Resources: On Being : https://onbeing.org/programs/ellen-langer-science-mindlessness-mindfulness/ New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/magazine/09mindfulexercise.html Akron Art Museum https://akronartmuseum.org/newsroom/inews-releasei-artist-rachel-sussman-to-fill-cracks-in-akron-art-museum-floor-with-gold/12116 Rachel Sussman website http://www.rachelsussman.com/portfolio/#/sidewalk-kintsukuroi/