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Bonnie Steps Beyond Stress
A Path to Peace
The other night Bonnie had a nightmare about patrolling the jungles of Vietnam.
No. Bonnie is not a Vietnam vet. She hadn't watched a Vietnam war movie since Platoon, and that was in 1986. And memories of the nightly TV coverage of the war in Vietnam she witnessed 50 years ago have long faded.
And, after all, she's a woman. Women did not patrol the jungles of Vietnam during that war.
Still, Bonnie found herself struck by the deep fear of knowing members of the Viet Cong were silently watching her (even though she couldn't see them), as her platoon marched fan-like across a field flanked by thick jungle.
The fear of imminent death stiffened her legs so she could hardly walk. Yet, she was on the move, forcing first one leg and then the other in front of her through the tall grass. She knew she could fall with the very next step by tripping a land mine or triggering sniper fire from the flanks.
Bonnie didn't realize what this was all about until she had a chance to think about it that morning. Then, she knew.
She had walked down that same field of thick grass many times before. In some small way, maybe she had also known a tinge of what it's like to fear random reprisals amid the rigid ritual of a military operation.
But, it was not in the jungle. It was in church.
Sundays were traumatic for Bonnie when she was about 10. She dreaded going to her country church -- a very formal, fundamentalist congregation that insisted on ushering people in and out of the sanctuary, even though an attendance of 60 nearly filled the pews.
At that time, Bonnie walked with crutches and thick, cumbersome leg braces due to her spasticity. While she was relaxed and lifted by a feeling of inner confidence, she could walk unaided and override her lack of balance.
Yet, when self-consciousness gripped her, her leg muscles tightened. It was like walking with two artificial legs -- with little control, little balance -- and she would stumble and fall into a heap.
Sunday mornings Bonnie would find herself struggling to keep up with her family as the usher in front of them would sweep down the center aisle of church as if he were leading a parade.
Left behind -- even though the distance between the front and back of the church was no longer than 60 feet -- she would go through all kinds of contortions, trying to get her stiff legs moving forward and her wooden feet tracking in the right direction. The goal: to get down the aisle without falling.
Falling was no big deal when Bonnie was alone. Besides, she knew how to fall -- how to, above all, protect her head. But, that skill didn't come without some pain. She had numerous scars on the back of her head to mark the times she didn't protect it.
These "war" wounds -- and the blood that flowed from them -- gave Bonnie a healthy respect for falling. It was part of the natural order of things within her world.
But, falling in public would be embarrassing because it would draw further attention to her condition and provide members of the congregation with another excuse for pity.
Bonnie's walks down the church aisle were, she was sure, a sight to behold. She could feel people on both sides watching her, but she didn't dare look at the hurt in their eyes.
She didn't realize it at the time, but she now knows, at 74, she can make some people uncomfortable. They are uncomfortable because Bonnie's presence forces them to cope, in varying degrees, with their own insecurities about being physically vulnerable.
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” - Madeleine L’Engle
Perhaps that was the tension among the members of the congregation Bonnie felt as the ushers allowed the people in each pew to walk single file down the center aisle after each Sunday service was over. And, Bonnie, again, would have to deal with her own insecurity -- and try to reach the back of the church without falling.
Maybe that's part of the reason why she experienced such a wide range of reactions from the members of the congregation (from unabashedly cold to stoically friendly) during those reserved visits outside the sanctuary after each Sunday morning service.
Were they dreading the day when Bonnie would fall going up or down the aisle, break the congregation's pompous formality and force the members to react to her as a person?
Were they also feeling personally vulnerable -- visualizing themselves as someday not being stable on their own two feet?
Each Sunday, Bonnie could feel the anticipation, and her palms, groping her crutch handles, would become sweaty and cold.
There are two bits of good news. The pompous congregation no longer exists. And Bonnie now realizes that she had to grow up twice: from childhood to adulthood and from adulthood to elderhood.
Navigating with a mobility scooter instead of crutches, Bonnie also now knows that her childhood stress was the source of the resilience she has developed over the years for sidestepping her vulnerabilities -- and that continuing to grow with age brings less fear.
Here is Bonnie's takeaway tip from her story: Remember this sequence: Stress often builds resiliency, resiliency can reduce fear and reduced fear brings peace.
Here’s to elderhood and vulnerability!
Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF retired, author of “Opening Up” newsletter
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