Tuesday, August 30, 2022

From Traumatic Event to a Work of Art

CC Jean Stimmell

Northern white cedar trees flourish in challenging conditions where other more muscular and faster-growing trees cannot compete. The cedar in this photo started life with a view that any yuppie would envy on a cliff overlooking Great Bay. But, over time, climate change exacted a fearsome toll: A rising ocean and battering storms have, like an evil magic trick, cut all the soil from beneath her body.

Yet the tree survives – more than that, she thrives – with uncanny resiliency by sprouting strong side roots back to solid ground. One might think that being so twisted and deformed would turn her into a cripple, a pitiful victim. But instead, her trauma has transformed her into a tree of striking beauty, a work of art.

It's not uncommon to see positive growth in those who have survived challenging circumstances and trauma. I've watched it happen to some of my patients. Of course, they, along with the cedar tree, would never choose this path, opting, if they could, to grow trauma-free, straight and tall in perfect soil. But who among us gets to decide what kind of a high tide we might face?

There is one catch: to achieve this creative growth, survivors have to resist the natural urge to avoid the agonizing emotions and thoughts that surround the traumatic event. As Scott Berry Kaufman points out in Scientific American: "it's only through shedding our natural defense mechanisms and approaching the discomfort head on, viewing everything as fodder for growth, that we can start to embrace the inevitable paradoxes of life.”⁠1

Kaufman lists seven growth areas that can sprout from adversity, one of which is a fount of new-found creativity. As an example, he cites a study showing how even severe physical issues didn't curb the careers of a number of prominent painters. On the contrary, their calamities unlatched "new possibilities for their art by breaking old habits, provoking disequilibrium, and forcing the artists to generate alternative strategies to reach their creative goals.⁠2

To promote recovery after trauma, Kaufman has become a big believer in art therapy and expressive writing. My cedar tree stands ready to do her part by being a model for anyone wishing to sketch or write about what she represents to them – and why her example gives them inspiration and hope.



1 https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/post-traumatic-growth-finding-meaning-and-creativity-in-adversity/

2 Ibid

Monday, August 22, 2022

Finding Contentment in a Restless Culture

Life choices can seem like a maze without an exit
CC Jean Stimmell: Lands End, SF: 12/28/16

Why are so many privileged, high-achieving students  giving up: Rather than being motivated by having so many choices, they become exhausted by the countless decisions they will have to soldier through to get there. A recent book, Why we are Restless, seeks to shed light on this state of affairs. 

It certainly spoke to me.

I guess I am a canary in the coal mine because that’s how I felt over fifty years ago, striving for excellence in order to get to the promised land – but sadly, a place I couldn’t define. I remember at St Paul’s during their summer session envying the groundskeepers outside for their stress-free, uncomplicated lifestyle. Stopping for lunch in Boston as my parents drove me to Columbia to start college, I envied the dock workers outside the restaurant unloading fish.

I felt a flash of recognition in this quote by a hypothetical student from the book: “It’s as though a life that rejects striving altogether is the only alternative she can imagine to a life of striving without purpose.” That was me! Without a mentor to guide me, I choose to reject striving by dropping out of Columbia in my third semester to do on-the-job training on the rivers of Vietnam.

After the military and finishing college at UNH, I found a mentor of sorts in author and longshoreman Eric Hoffer. To an extent, I emulated his lifestyle, building dry-laid stonewalls while haphazardly writing columns for the Monitor along with infrequent freelance pieces elsewhere.

Lifting rocks all day can be exhausting – so can sending out query letters that routinely get rejected. I compensated by scratching another itch working for peace and social justice on the side. Finally, health issues forced me to change professions. I decided to attend graduate school at Antioch to become a counselor which would enlarge my ability to help others, along with the added benefit of finally getting a decent paycheck and good health insurance.

It also made my life easier in the short run by squashing my desire to write because of what might seem like an exaggerated fear that I might write something about a patient. But that fear is well-grounded. The patient/therapist relationship, which is sacred to me, is built upon trust.

Now that I am retired, I finally have the means and space to write. In addition, I’m gaining insight into my prior life choices, thanks to the book I’ve already mentioned, Why We Are Restless by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Storey. The authors believe that contentment is not to be found in self-help books. Instead, the root problem is in what we are trying to achieve.⁠1

To find the answer, they write, we must return to premodern times. The American national character has long had a peculiar trait as Alexis de Tocqueville discovered when he toured American in 1831, “the most free and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition in the world” were not content with what they had—that they were “restless in the midst of their well-being.”⁠2

While our educational system has long excelled at helping students take the next step, it does not give them adequate assistance to understand the nature of the choices they make and the final ends toward which they lead. “Those who discover that they have such final ends, and learn to assess them, see their way to the exit from the fun house of arbitrary decisions in which the young so often find themselves trapped.”⁠3

I agree with the authors that the number of final ends is not large. Aquinas usefully suggests that the ultimate objects of human longing can be sorted into eight enduring categories.⁠4 If we want to know where we are headed, we should ask ourselves these questions:

“Am I interested in this opportunity because it leads to wealth? Or am I aiming at praise and admiration? Do I want enduring glory? Or power — to “make an impact”? Is my goal to maximize my pleasures? Do I seek health? Do I seek some “good of the soul,” such as knowledge or virtue? Or is my ultimate longing to come face-to-face with the divine?”⁠5

I suspect that my fellow Monitor readers who consult this list – particularly those of a certain age – might also have an “aha” moment: an instant recognition that some of these categories speak directly to what we find most important in life– and now regret not being enlightened about when we were young and could do something about it.



1 Storey, Benjamin; Storey, Jenna Silber. Why We Are Restless (New Forum Books) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. (p. xi).

3 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/15/opinion/college-students-happiness-liberal-arts.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20220816&instance_id=69415&nl=todaysheadlines®i_id=30753738&segment_id=101495&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Re-entangling our Lives


Fungi along the Coontoocook River
CC Jean Stimmell: 8/24/17

I had an unusual introduction to fungi 30 years ago by way of French philosophy and family therapy. Now I am learning the rest of the story from a terrific book entitled “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake.

Fungi “make up one of life’s kingdoms as broad and busy as that of “animals” or “plants.”  They range from microscopic yeasts to some of the largest organisms in the world, like the honey fungi that can weigh hundreds of tons, spread out over an area of more than six square miles, and  live to be eight thousand years old.⁠1 

The root-like structure of a fungus, spreading out in what seems like an endless maze of branching, is called mycelium. Amazingly, there are “hundreds or thousands of meters of fungal mycelium in just a teaspoon of healthy soil” and “more bacteria, protists, insects, and arthropods than the number of humans who have ever lived on Earth.⁠2

Sheldrake admits his investigations have blown away his preconceptions about “[e]volution, ecosystems, individuality, intelligence, life—none are quite what I thought they were. My hope is that this book loosens some of your certainties, as fungi have loosened mine.⁠3

One preconception flying out the window is how we define intelligence which we tend to associate only with big-brained animals. But, as biology professor Nicholas Money has written: recent “experiments have shown that fungi operate as individuals, engage in decision-making, are capable of learning, and possess short-term memory.” These findings make clear that what we call the mind may well span the entire natural world.⁠4

One of the most striking examples of this is exhibited by what is called “zombie fungi.” One particular fungus in this class organizes its life around the carpenter ant, which it transforms into a willing slave by injecting it with a drug similar to LSD. The highjacked ant is now programmed to climb a particular plant it would never normally climb to a certain optimal height and bite into a major vein in the plant stem, which it would never normally do because the plant is poisonous. After the ant dies, the fungus digests the ant’s body while simultaneously spouting a fungal stalk out of its head that releases a cloud of spores which infects the ants passing by on the ground below, thus completing the fungi’s life cycle.⁠5

Sheldrake’s study of fungi and microbes also demolishes the notion that we are distinct individuals. Instead, we are each an ecosystem, a community of microbes: “every surface, passage, and cavity you possess teem with bacteria and fungi. You carry around more microbes than your “own” cells. There are more bacteria in your gut than stars in our galaxy.”⁠6 

Sheldrake confesses that learning about fungi has caused him to “reexamine much of what he thought he knew.” It’s done the same for me, making me ponder, in particular. the nature of free will. If a fungus can take over the mind of an ant, why can’t it do the same to us.

It sounds like science fiction, but it happens: We know, for instance, that fungal molecules like LSD and psilocybin can profoundly affect our behavior. Scientists now say that our gut, filled with microbes, acts like our second brain. How do these microbes influence our behavior? A new field called neuromicrobiology has arisen to study this.

In another sense, fungi have influenced me since attending graduate school many years ago, when I was introduced to Lynn Hoffman’s theories. She was a visionary family therapist who rejected the conventional metaphor that family therapy was a top-down hierarchy like the structure of a tree; she also spurned the notion that the family was a formally constructed interrelated system. She wanted a more collaborative model.

She found what she was looking for from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who proposed a metaphor based on the complex branching stem of fungi we now call mycelium. Because  mycelium have no center or hierarchy, they are neither a rigid system derived from technology or a tree that grows from top to bottom by predictable branching. 

Instead, mycelium are unpredictable shapeshifters, able to put out an underground root, grow an aerial shoot, or even sprout up in an entirely new location. They provided Hoffman with the perfect metaphor for family therapy: Like mycelia, each session is unique – not knowable in advance – only understandable by observing it in real-time as it unfolds.

Fungi might be our next new frontier. Sheldrake tells us that ninety-five percent of our universe is “dark matter.’ That means we don’t know anything about it. We have the same situation with biology, knowing nothing about ninety-four percent of microbes and fungi that populate our bodies and make up our world.⁠7

I am indebted to Professor Stephan Harding for writing, in a different context, the perfect conclusion to this essay: “After reading Sheldrake’s masterpiece, I am more convinced than ever that we will never solve the grave problems of our times unless we deeply re-entangle our lives ‘fungus-style’ into the living fabric of our lustrous planet.”⁠8



1 Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. pp. 3-4

2 Sheldrake pp. 161-162

3 Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.          p/26

4 https://psyche.co/ideas/the-fungal-mind-on-the-evidence-for-mushroom-intelligence

5 Sheldrake. pp 107-108

6 Ibid. p. 19

7 Sheldrake, p.19

8 Sheldrake, from introduction

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Reality or Myth

Myth or Reality at Cannon Beach Oregon
CC Jean Stimmell: 2013

Ben  Okra, an award-winning novelist and playwright, pronounced at a recent summit: “Realism is not only a diminishment but in some ways an outrage against the possibility of the human spirit.”⁠1  Worse yet, realism hasn’t worked to solve our greatest problems. What we need is something more.

Okra claimed only spirituality can inspire us to believe in something bigger than ourselves, something our ancestors understood: that’s “why they had forests as gods. They gave rivers names. It was a way of getting us to appreciate the fact that these are forces to be respected in the highest sense. It didn’t occur to them to pollute. Why would you pollute a river that you’ve raised to the level of myth?⁠2

Joseph Campbell, the legendary  mythologist, taught us how myth is central to who we are. In his book “Transformations of Myth Through Time,” he tells us that every culture has myths by which it lives. However, as society changes, those myths become steadily more dysfunctional. Eventually, that culture will collapse unless a paradigm shift occurs, ushering in more harmonious myths. “Getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there ,” according to Campbell, “is the principal function of mythology.”⁠3

We, like in all societies before us, are unaware we live in a myth, just like a fish doesn’t know it is swimming in water. Unfortunately, those myths that once allowed us to prosper are now threatening our survival: One is our certainty, passed down from the Bible, that we have total dominion over nature; another is our addiction to unlimited growth based on our free market economic system.

Yet, despite that, we go blissfully on our merry way, oblivious to the dangers ahead from existential threats like climate change. Still, another great mythologist, Michael Meade, finds reason for hope: “Although decidedly frail, perpetually foolish, and seemingly about to destroy the whole thing, humans are blessed with an imagination equal to the world and essential to its way of continuing.⁠4”  

That’s the key!

Imagination is our greatest gift, the only source capable of birthing new myths to fit our present circumstances. What we need is not new advertising slogans or clever computer algorithms but new metaphors. As Michael Polanyi has persuasively written, metaphor was – and still is – our original, pre-verbal language, establishing how we think and act.  

In her insightful new book, "Deep Knowing,"⁠5 Kim Hermanson tells us metaphor is not something we can understand through a rational thinking process… [its strength] is to open spaces that in a logical world do not exist. Whereas an image gives you something to look at and analyze, a metaphor gives you an experience. It takes you  somewhere.”⁠6

The right metaphor makes all the difference. For instance, in "Metaphors We Live By,” George Lakoff shows how now the war metaphor permeates our everyday speech, shaping how we think and act. He challenges us to “imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground.” For example:

“Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.”⁠7 

Hopefully, a more amicable metaphor will soon arise to replace our current hostile one, thanks to the efforts of change-makers of all persuasions, including artists and poets.

Meanwhile, another supportive metaphor is staging a comeback. Over the last 500 years, nature has been subjected to Western property-based ownership, giving owners the absolute right to  do what they want to the land, modifying natural  features or destroying them at will.

Just in time, an ancient myth is reemerging – what I call back-to-the-future -– that recognizes nature “as a subject with personhood deserving of protection and respect, rather than looking at it as a merchandise or commodity⁠8.” That’s a qualitative difference, as a Bangladesh activist noted: Now, “the river is considered as our mother,"  and violators can be tried and convicted as if they had harmed his mother.

 Ecuador, Bolivia, Uganda, and New Zealand have passed national rights of nature laws — and local laws now exist in the United States and Brazil. Courts in Colombia, Bangladesh, and India have recognized that rivers and other ecosystems possess legal rights. 

Remember the Gaia Hypothesis, proposed by the chemist James Lovelock in the 1970s, which stated that the earth is a living, breathing, self-regulating organism. He named his theory after the primordial goddess who personified the Earth in Greek mythology.

Rather than more deadening realism, I vote for argument becoming dance and our globe becoming Gaia.



1 https://tricycle.org/magazine/existential-creativity-crisis/

2 https://tricycle.org/magazine/existential-creativity-crisis/

3 “Transformations of Myth Through Time” by Joseph Campbell. 1990. Harper & Row. pp 1-2

4 “The World Behind the World” by Michael Mead. 2008. Greenfire Press.   P. 64.

5 Hermanson, Kim. Deep Knowing: Entering the Realm of Non-Ordinary Intelligence . Rawberry Books. Kindle Edition. Location 128.

6 Ibid.  p. 58

7 Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980).  Selections from chapters 1, 2, 3, and part of 4

8 https://www.npr.org/2019/08/03/740604142/should-rivers-have-same-legal-rights-as-humans-a-growing-number-of-voices-say-ye

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

An Ode to Diversity

“Diversity” ©Victoria Elbroch

As a former therapist, I learned long ago that no one is perfect: we’re all good at some things and bad at others. Gregarious individuals who are masterful at handling people might be terrible at detail work. In contrast, introverted and obsessive individuals might excel at precision tasks but shrink into wallflowers at a cocktail party. The only normal thing is that we all are a diverse mix of strengths and weaknesses. The key to happiness and success is complementing each other by working together.

The anthropologist Roy Grinker has written a treatise on this subject called “Nobody’s Normal.”⁠1 He explains how “normal” is not a fact of nature but varies from culture to culture and over time. Normal, rather than embedded in our DNA, is whatever a society values as good, whether that is being a cannibal in New Guinea or a vegetarian in San Franciso.

Mental illness is never something you either have or you don’t. Instead Grinker says everyone has some. That’s because all our attributes exist on a spectrum from a little bit to a lot. Take anxiety for example: some dare devil types who enjoy taking risks have little anxiety, while other folks have so much they become paralyzed with fear, afraid to even venture out of their homes.

It’s the same with serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia: they too can exhibit a wide range of symptoms and symptom severity: “some people with schizophrenia require residential placements while others, like the writer Elyn Saks, a dean and professor at the University of Southern California Gould Law School, are highly functional.”⁠2

People who have such a functional impairment are subjected to a “double illness:” Not only do they suffer from the symptoms of their mental illness, but they are also stigmatized for being different, which often means treated by society as “flawed and incompetent.” Often the resulting stigma becomes more debilitating than the impairment. Worse yet, crippling stigmas extend far beyond mental illnesses. 

Societies can harshly stigmatize other aspects of our identity, like our skin color, sexual preference, or place of origin. I grew up in the aftermath of WWII in what has been called The Age of Conformity, a time when "normal" was severely restricted, applying fully only to non-disabled, white, heterosexual men of European ancestry with a good job.

It was a stultifying time of overt discrimination against blacks, minorities, and uppity women; witch hunts were mounted against communists and homosexuals; and the mentally ill were locked up, often for life, in institutions like the NH State Hospital and Laconia State School. Grinker calls this a time of national neurosis because of America's inability to accommodate change and diversity. 

Repressive laws and stifling stigma during that period smothered individual differences, creativity, and innovation.  What a world of difference between then and now! Today we are entering what could be an exciting new world of possibility, “a time when many mental illnesses and diverse ways of being are less stigmatizing than at any point in our history.“⁠3 

While forward-looking people are celebrating our enlarged palate of expression, conservative Republicans are attempting to turn back history. On the state level, a good example is NH's "divisive concepts" law. It's so vaguely worded that a teacher can be accused of violating this law for merely pointing out policies that might be considered “inherently” racist or sexist. Worse yet, the law will be enforced by encouraging any resident to file a complaint against teachers they think may have broken the law – who, in a draconian reprisal, will have their teaching credentials revoked if convicted. 

This retrograde Republican affliction has metastasized since Donald Trump first ran for president, promising to "Make America Great Again." These are code words to turn the clock back to the 1950s, a time "defined by a desire to follow traditional patterns of social life—including the division of labor between the female homemaker and the male breadwinner."⁠4 A time when women knew their place, homosexual and trans people were considered abnormal and abhorrent, and black and brown folks were deemed inferior.

To avoid returning to those days of stifling discrimination and oppression, we need to wholeheartedly support the life-affirming diversity blossoming all around us today, whether it is promoting gender, sexual, and racial liberation or gaining freedom from the stigma of a mental illness diagnosis.

Full-fledged diversity is more than the spice of life: It is mother nature's proven recipe sauce for success: only rich, diverse ecosystems can thrive in a rapidly changing world. The community that flourishes is the one that permits all members to contribute their unique talents – whether they are trees or human beings. 



1 Grinker, Roy R. . Nobody's Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid.  p. 323

3 Ibid. pp. xxiv-xxv

4 Ibid. pp 125-126