Exile: From the Old French essillier, to banish, expel or drive off, cousin to the Greek alaomaiTo wander or stray. Stories of people leaving their homes to seek out new realities are plentiful in wisdom literature. Siddhartha leaving the royal fortress; Shams, the eventual teacher of Rumi, leaves his family to travel in search of the object his divine longing; Jesus wrestling 40 days and nights in that bloody desert; Mirabai rejects the traditions of her family to travel northern India, compose song and poetry, and dance in honor of her beloved Lord Krishna. There are many things to be left behind in order to find the truth within. This requires a departure from the past and a breaking of any bonds that no longer serve.
This self-induced exile of choosing distant places and other peoples, is an invitation to oneself and a preference. But the exile that appears in the territory of loss is Not this choosing … it is a forced expulsion from the familiar into a land unbidden and unwanted.
Scotty, a friend of mine, lost his home. He also lost all his belongings to the fire. I visited him again a few weeks later, with odds and ends to fill the new apartment. I asked him about this possible new beginning and I won’t ever forget the look on his face—one of disbelief that I had suggested anything positive about this experience. “I’ve got to start all over again. I’ve lost my photos, my music, clothes … everything. You can’t imagine how dislocated I feel.” Clearly, I couldn’t, and in my naiveté, I had only exacerbated his pain at being dumped into a desert not of his choosing. The walk to comfort, home, would be mostly a lonely one. We could bring him things, but only he can create home within. This would take more time than the 14 days I gave him.
What do you need to know when exile is forced?
In the years after my first divorce, walking the streets of Boston with that scarlet D on my chest, I experienced exile from my peer group. I walked the streets, worked the exact same job, bought tea in the same cafes, and hung out with the exact same friends. But I felt alienated and displaced. I felt like an immigrant arriving without papers and not understanding the language. For months I felt sick. I felt sick to the stomach and in my heart. It was almost as if my heart was failing and there wasn’t enough blood flow to keep me alive. Walking seemed difficult, running was a brave act of courage. Nothing worked.
Here is Brené Brown on this need to fit in, to know one’s place, to belong to another: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. Our biological, cognitive, physical, and spiritual wires are wired to love, be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We fall apart. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
When fire consumes the structure of our lives, when outcast from work or love or the familiar we don’t do well and we often feel alone in the not doing well. No one can really understand our experience. This is the penumbra or exile. We feel cut off from any sustaining connection when we are forced to live in solitude. We long to belong, but we don’t.
Our new home … the one we might uncover if we keep our eyes and our hearts open … exists with those similarly banished.
For months after my brother’s death, the only folk I felt truly connected to or safe with were those who had lost a sibling. With them, I felt a kinship and an “okayness” not present for me anywhere else. Parents of children who have been through extended medical treatment would be wise to seek out other children and teens who are experiencing the same issues. With those like-wounded others, children find comradeship and sense of not being quite so “other.”
Elizabeth McCracken, in her work A Replica of a Figment in My ImaginationThe letter was written by a woman who lost her first child to stillbirth. It describes her search for her people among those who were also forced to have a child from an unborn baby. “All I can say is, it’s a sort of kinship, as though there is a family tree of grief. This branch contains the children who have died, as well as the parents who committed suicide. On the other side are the loved siblings of the mentally ill. When something terrible happens, you discover all of a sudden that you have a new set of relatives, people with whom you can speak in the shorthand of cousins.”
It might have been wiser to have shown up to Scotty’s apartment with new towels and the number of one other person whose life had also been torched by fire. Although they may not have drawn the same meaning from the fire, or found the exact same way back to their lives’ architecture, they would have shared a few lessons that would have helped them find their way back to wholeness.
Maria teaches two WBI courses starting in March, Masterful Self-Care and Teaching for Transformation.
This post is excerpted from Maria’s book A Short Course in Happiness after Loss.