What’s your unopened package?
When things happen to us, we have one of two reactions. If the experience is an easy one to assimilate, to understand, then we process it then and there. But if it is difficult in some way – if we don’t have time to process it, or we can’t afford to, or it’s too much for us to understand… then we make a little package. We don’t even know we’re doing it. We move on to the next thing, but the unopened package will sit there at the back of our minds for as long as we leave it, like an unopened gift left over from Christmas.
Except that it doesn’t feel like a gift. If, for instance, we have been abused in childhood, and didn’t understand what was happening to us, then our unopened package can be like a ghost, haunting us without even telling us it is there. If a current experience gets close to the one that we tucked away, then we can react in ways that we ourselves don’t understand. Our sensitivity seems out of proportion to the current event. But it is only our mind trying to protect itself from the difficulty of having to open up the old package in order to understand, unblock, the current situation.
THE MISUNDERSTOOD STORY
Another way of understanding this is as a story we have failed to comprehend, to assimilate into our life story. We all write for ourselves an autobiography. When other talk to us about life, we recount selected events from our life as symbolic of who we are. But we choose those events we publicise: we are our own PR team, desperately struggling to offer the world a clear and coherent picture of a successful human.
Except what happens to those stories, those experiences, that happened to us, but that we couldn’t find any sense in? The unexpected death, the unfair deprivation… these stories pile up behind the scenes, in that department of our mind called ‘untold stories’. We cannot tell them properly, because we have not found in ourselves the words to encompass what went on. It is only when we have a language for it, that the ‘it’ becomes our story.
In that sense, the misunderstood story is the untold story, something that cannot be part of our autobiography, because there seems to us no sensible way of incorporating it. It is denied, put away, left unopened, neglected.
THE ROLE OF CONTEMPORARY CULTURAL LANGUAGE
One thing that can be a great healer in providing language where there is none, is contemporary language. Until there are enough words and stories in circulation, you can end up feeling alone, as though there is no way of expressing how you feel. But as soon as your experience finds a parallel in modern life, finds a way of expressing itself by saying ‘Yes! That! My experience was like that!’ – once that happens, there is a kind of relief in associating one’s own experience with general wisdom.
The person who years ago never came out as gay, can point to other coming out stories and say: ‘Yes, that’s me too.’ The person who has suffered at the hands of others, whether bullying, harrassment, or any other kind of abuse… that person can watch the film, read the book, learn the language, and then say ‘Yes, that’s what happened to me, too.’
THE ROLE OF POETRY
Some experiences, however, are too complex to be unwrapped by a single film, or a political movement, or a story. They are the experiences that are left over, making us feel isolated from the world, because it may be that no one understands us. Even if we suspect that others feel the same and have been through the same, there is no way of proving it.
Poetry is one way of offering that proof. The way the system works, is that a poet makes a new form of words that attempts to encompass an experience or set of experiences. If you like, the poet is defining a new emotion, as separate from anything anyone has defined before A new modification. In this way, the title of a poem can become iconic, as though it represents an experience set that has been somehow nailed to paper for once.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of poetry is in the communication with the listener. The listener can be the poet themselves: it’s a perfectly valid form of poetry, words from the self to the self. It can be transformative. But, in addition, there are times when a whole room, or a whole body of readers, can participate in an enhanced understanding, simply by being open and hearing a new way of putting a story, an emotion, an experience.
THE ROLE OF COUNSELLING
Some experiences have the unlucky characteristic of being unshareable, for whatever reason. It may be that they are family secrets which cannot be released more widely without repercussions. Or personal secrets, where an individual needs to share and express inner voices which their usual world wouldn’t understand.
A good counsellor understand their role in this respect. The client may have come to them as an act of trust, so that they can begin to disclose to an other things which have had to be kept under wraps. The client brings their unopened package.
TRIAL AND ERROR
Often, a client brings, at first, a small package. They are testing the therapist, seeing how well they can handle a client bringing before them something confidential, sensitive. If trust is found, then another, bigger package is shared and unopened together. Then another. Until, perhaps much later, a big package that has been clogging up the hallway is brought in for gentle dismantling and opening. It is essential that this process is safe: it can be like unwrapping an unexploded bomb. It deserves ultimate respect.
An analogy from real life is the friend to whom one brings one’s problems. You may have different friends for different problems, because you have learned that different people can and can’t handle different things. Often, in adult life, you will be drawn to friends who can hear things your parents couldn’t. You are seeking that listening ear you didn’t get back then, so that you can open the packages from childhood that you deferred opening because you didn’t understand them, couldn’t relate to them.
WHAT’S YOUR UNOPENED PACKAGE?
So, I’d ask again, I wonder what your unopened packages are. The unresolved stories you have lying around an untidy mind. The emotions that get stirred when a current experience has a weirdly profound effect on you.
You are a richer mind than you know, full of these things, waiting to be explored. How much, or little, you want to explore them, is up to you. But it can be quite a rewarding thing, quite freeing.
And to be able to help others open their unopened packages, in safety and in confidentiality, that’s a skill and an art worth developing.
We all have stories from earlier in our life that we can’t yet process, and hide away. In our adult life, we make up stories about ourselves, and collect them together into a well-practiced autobiography that we rehearse in conversations. But the untold stories never come out.
Sometimes, though, new cultures offer new languages, new stories, with which we can see our past. We watch a film or read a book, and see our own reflection for the first time. Or we write a poem, and offer a new sharing of something, a new way of opening life’s incomprehensible packages. Or we go to a counsellor, or a trusted friends, and respectfully and carefully unwrap each other’s unknowns.
It’s always a question worth asking: what have I not understood? What have I packed away without bothering to open it up? What are my unopened packages?