-Here Be Dragons
Trauma, traditionally conceptualized as a mythical, fire-breathing dragon, can either completely destroy us or be slain and cut up into useful pieces that can help rebuild our world.
When I was a small child, I was fascinated by dragons. I collected small dragon figurines and drew them in my notebooks during class when I should have been paying attention to my history teacher. The more fearsome the image I created, the more pleased I was with it.
What was up with that? Why would I, as a twelve-year-old, be so interested in the image of human’s ancient mythical predator?
It’s not like I was the only one. Cultures from long ago all over the world had their own conceptions of monsters similar to the dragon. On the edges of some old maps, to make unknown territory that had never been explored, the cartographers would simply write, “here be dragons,” because dragons represented the domain of the chaotic unknown.
In the most ancient of myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh from some 4,000 years ago, we meet a hero venturing into the forest to slay the ultimate creature of darkness: Humbaba. This mythical character is a fusion of a lion, a bird of prey, and a fire-breathing snake. So, a dragon, more or less. In my adolescence, I hoped that the omnipresence of this creature meant that there actually was a living, breathing monster that I might get to see in a zoo or museum one day.
While we don’t have fossil evidence that perfectly matches the description of the mythological dragon, they do indeed exist as we briefly explored in the previous lesson. The dragon can either be the chaos that can destroy you, or that obstacle you can fight and create your world from its pieces.
Let me talk to the nerds for a second. Did you ever play Skyrim? That’s rhetorical, of course you did. In that game, every time you kill a dragon, you consume its life force, learn new words, and those words contain power that you could do with what you willed within the confines of the game. In order to go on that adventure, though, you had to learn that dragons were real. That happened in the opening scene of the game when the town of Helgen was burned to the ground before your eyes by the first appearance of a dragon in the game.
That is a moral injury and without that experience, there would be no adventure.
The rest of the game involves many fights with dragons and you begin to consume more and more of their life force, gaining more and more of their words of power. That’s life. The first dragon is the worst, but then you become more adept at fighting them and become, well, whatever type of hero or heroine you want.
If the storyline didn’t reflect the truth of how we live our lives, the game wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is.
Okay, okay, but how can we actually slice something chaotic to pieces to create our world, and what does any of this have to do with trauma? Aren’t dragons and monsters for DreamWorks, Bethesda, and Pixar?
Well, not only are dragons subject matter for the world’s most well-known storytellers, they are also the subject of a delightful children’s book called “There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon.” You can gather your family around for this one and sit back for three and a half minutes of storytime delight.
“I think the dragon just wanted to be noticed,” said Billy…
The word “demonstrate” means “de-monster.” In French, the word “to show” is “monter,” which has its root in the word for monster. It’s also a derivation of the word “monere,” which means to remind or to bring to one’s recollection. To deconstruct a monster is to cut it into pieces by precise recollection (truth speaking) and then solve problems with the collection of those pieces. Trauma that is re-experienced in the mind and stuck in only one portion of our memories is a surviving monster. We all have a chaos monster in us that must be recollected with speech in order to create the world. We do this by noticing it through words. The dragon never goes away but as Billy and the Bixbees learn, a small dragon you can fit in your lap isn’t so bad.
How do we identify the dragon within us? The dragon is what happens when the ego (or the nature of the flesh, to use a Biblical term) is the dominant force in our life and begins to consume things that it shouldn’t, leaving our spiritual selves starving.
Billy only got one pancake from the whole batch because the dragon ate the rest!
It’s when carnal desires rule. When these desires take over, it’s subtle, and we often don’t have words to describe when those moments happen. We also, especially when we are young and naive, don’t understand the extent to which our ego-driven actions can cause serious harm. You might say it’s unexplored territory in the subconscious that needs exploring.
Those flesh-based desires in and of themselves are not wrong or bad, but when they get to call the shots, that’s when the dragon starts to breathe its fire and consume human health and community. You’ve probably heard of the idea to “kill your ego.” It means to put your immediate fleshly desires in subordination to your higher self. That’s the same thing as slaying the dragon and using its pieces to generate your world. It’s also the same thing as making a sacrifice, giving up something now (what the flesh wants) for something better later (what feeds the spirit).
The dragon fully formed is addiction, codependency, betrayal, verbal and physical abuse, neglect, unnecessary violence, or anything else that threatens human communities. But the dragon slain is what stands between you and the gold it’s sitting on top of.
In The Hobbit, the dragon’s name is Smaug. “Smog” for all intents and purposes. What’s in a name? Well, dragons reside in places that are difficult to find and it’s often hard to find your way through. Unexplored territory. It’s as if it’s covered in a layer of smog. When dragons stay in the smog for too long, they grow. Smaug was enormous because no one had for many, many years ventured into the place they most feared.
But where your fear is, there is your task.
For Bilbo to defeat Smaug, he had to integrate his own dark side by becoming a sneak thief and actually using this ability in service to his group. That’s killing your ego and integrating the pieces of the dragon. Bilbo conquered Smaug by realizing he had a dark side (the potential for the ego to take over) but subordinating that side of himself and leveraging it in service to his dwarf friends.
We slay the dragon with our speech, which is symbolically represented by a sword, saying no to pride and yes to sacrifice.
In the teachings of Matthew, Christ is quoted as having said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But there are no stories of Christ himself wielding that weapon, so what does that mean? Well, what does a sword do? It cuts things into pieces. How do we do that? In the Book of Revelation, there’s an image of a double-edged sword coming out of his mouth.
We defeat our monsters through the power of recollection. The monster scatters and the logos – the tangible form of truthful speech – re-collects things together. The Greek origin of the word “logos” has “leg” as its prefix, which was commonly used for the act of gathering words to create meaning.
In the Book of Genesis, the Earth was created through speech, and the final result was considered “good.” To create a good world, we must speak the whole truth. The trouble is, an evil force or spirit is present, and it’s trying to break down what would otherwise be a good world. To combat this spirit we need to “recall” the symbolic benevolent king who can restore balance and allow our society to sustain and grow. This opposed spirit is personified as the tyrannical or blind father or king figure.
War, in all its various forms, is the conflict between the spirit of the deteriorating state, and the force that revitalizes that state. Determining precisely where the line between the creative “state” and the destructive “state” is, on the scale of national conflict, is debatable. Obviously, each side of a conflict will bring their own conclusions to the battle. But for a start, we need to accept this troubling, but freeing, truth; a truth that often emerges from the darkest depths of the human experience. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book about the horrid prison and labor camp system in the Communist Soviet Union, he writes:
“So let the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now. If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The conflict between the state of deterioration and the state of creation starts within every one of us; national conflict is a symptom of its individuals. This is liberating because when we realize this, we no longer need to dread things we can do nothing about. We’re not products of the state but vice versa. The old hero myths tell the story of the individual saving the world. That individual is you and that world is your particular sphere of influence. By “saving” that, the greater state is saved, too. Vision is returned to the deteriorating father when the offspring take personal responsibility for that conflict. It only took one courageous author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to bring the horrors of the Gulag to the awareness of the West.
Love covers a multitude of sins and the sovereign individual is able to spread that creative spirit by first taking control of the destructive spirit within themselves. This is really the same as sacrificing a piece of our own heart. It’s the same as slaying our own dragon.
If you’ve seen Pinocchio, you already understand how this works, but maybe you just don’t know it yet. In the climax of the movie, Pinocchio’s father, Geppetto, finds himself in the belly of a fire-breathing whale at the bottom of the sea. Geppetto is clearly not paying attention to what he’s doing there as he doesn’t even recognize his son when he first shows up, mistaking him for a tuna. The father lost his vision. It’s up to the boy to save him. The father deteriorates, as culture deteriorates. The deteriorated spirit becomes Monstro, the name of the whale Geppetto is in. The movie never gives an explicit explanation for what on earth Geppetto is doing down there, but the audience doesn’t seem to care. The son, who is a representative of the logos, must revitalize that spirit by diving into the underworld, doing a voluntary sacrifice, and defeating the dragon.
Pinocchio becomes a “real boy” the moment he dies to save his father and is born again on the beach. That is the fight that keeps the tyrannical king at bay and gives the benevolent king sight. It is a cycle we’re still a part of.
This is why humans make sacrifices, to give new life to the dying ancestral spirit (culture) that brought us here in the first place. Without the right sacrifices, the tyrant will win and that has been the nature of humanity at least since Gilgamesh and up until Marvel’s Thor. (Note that Thor’s dad, Odin, was missing an eye.)
In the Christian tradition, the figure of Christ is the ultimate sacrificial son. The gospel of John begins with, “In the beginning was the logos” and Christ’s physical existence is emphasized frequently in the New Testament. The reason for this is that most ancient Near-Eastern traditions stopped at the level of divine incarnation to the point of God becoming equal to man. Caesar was thought of to be a son of God, lifted up above all other humans. Marduk, in the Mesopotamian myths, was the figure that defeated a multi-headed dragon, had four all-perceiving eyes, representing vision, and could speak magic words, representing logos. The human leader of the Mesopotamian world was thought of as a type of Marduk, or an expression of the ideal spirit that produces vision and life.
But Christ, as the Christian belief goes, is the fullest, most tangible expression of all these other ancient stories and the only way the Father can be reconciled with the deteriorated creation. The person of Christ also goes by the name “Faithful and True” or “the faithful and true witness.” He is that figure that has vision (faith is hope in things you can’t see, or hope in one’s potential) and speech (the power of spoken truth is the world’s creative power).
Alright, let’s take a break from Middle Earth, Disney movies, and ancient Near-Eastern narratives for a moment and see what this looks like through the modern, scientific lens.
Neuroscience has been able to identify the parts of the brain that get “stuck” in trauma. While that is a much more complex topic, in a nutshell, it’s like this:
The initial experience of trauma is like overexposure to the image sensor in a camera. The emotional center and memory structures of the brain are overwhelmed as the stimuli – when checked against our moral map – can’t be reconciled. That moral injury fragments the memory structures. Our moral structure can’t support the moral load of the trauma and something shatters to pieces. Without a healthy process of gathering the pieces together through logos, the first monster of moral injury transforms into PTS. For those with this recurrent upsetting memory, the brain’s memory structures actually shrink while the emotional center grows. The memory can’t be consolidated, re-collected, and continues to replay as if it were still happening.
When brain mechanics change in this way, chronic disease is around the corner.
To undo such damage, we have to speak truth to what happened, to honestly evaluate the nature of our hearts, of the world, and our place in it. Yes, it takes practice, and can take years of intense work, but the process is this:
Describe carefully, accurately, and completely what happened and how you can continue to go on living with that new conception of the world. Do this both alone through writing and with other people through storytelling. This action is the coming together of logos and vision.
More to the point, rewrite your story through truthful, complete, repeated tellings.
This process is the base of meditation, journaling, and any other practice that helps sort out and demonstrate our chaotic thoughts in written or spoken form, and the process should become a habit. By becoming familiar with our pain (a subject we’ll go deeper into in the next lesson), we gather together the pieces shattered by trauma and mend them back together to form our own story. So, we can rearrange the structure of the brain itself; the stories that repeat over and over in our minds actually change the physical shape of the brain. Rewriting that story by becoming familiar with it, but “putting it to the sword,” also changes the shape of the brain. Indeed, meditation has been proven to shrink the emotional center and strengthen the memory structures in the brain.
Or, to put it in the words of Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, neuroscientists at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, “a single word has the power to influence the expressions of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”
We can say that exposing trauma to solid truth reshapes our brain because the past monster has been deconstructed through speech—the dragon shrinks when you give it your regard—and when we’ve been reconciled to that truth, it tells us how we can relate to the world and understand our place in it. This is the timeless story of reconciliation between the father and son. It’s the process of remembering (to take separated “members” and bringing them back together) who you are and that you are part of a story that’s much bigger than yourself.
To be able to “re-member” ourselves, we must cultivate courage, because speaking the truth to trauma is an adventure filled with grief, sorrow, tragedy, and immense sadness. But it is the best chance we have at becoming a new creation after having gone through such a transformative experience. But this is exactly how new creation is generated.
Because this road is full of danger, we need a shield for the journey.
The shield is primarily a defensive weapon, but it’s also extremely dynamic. It can be protective on its own, but when interlocked with a group of other shields, they protect everyone on all sides.
That shield is built out of faith. This isn’t necessarily faith in the strictly religious sense or some idea of “blind faith.” Faith is worthless if you don’t trust the thing you’re putting your faith in. You need good reasons to believe that what you place your faith in is actually worthy of your faith. Or else, you’re slipping back into unhealthy naivety.
If you have a loved one whom you trust because they’ve shown faithfulness in the past, you place faith in them that they will, say, care for your house while you’re away. No one is asking you to place faith in something that doesn’t have a track record of faithfulness.
Now, in this context, what are we putting our faith in, exactly? It is the force that informs us that life is worth living despite those subterranean monsters that exist in every human heart. It’s the idea that making sacrifices, and replacing quick and easy strategies for difficult but meaningful ones, is a good and worthy trade. It’s faith that says we can bargain with the future and that our future selves are worth taking care of by doing difficult things today. To reach the potential you on the other side of the sacrifice that you’re doing right now.
In The Life of Pi, our main character, who had been lost at sea for months, finally washes ashore on a floating island. But this is no ordinary island. This island provides food and provision during the day, but at night becomes carnivorous. It was a stop on Pi’s journey home, but it was not a place he could stay. If he stayed there, he would be consumed by it. Pi had to sacrifice what was good for a short period for something he trusted was better for the long haul – coming home – even if he couldn’t see his destination at the moment.
Sacrifice requires knowing that something that provides temporary enjoyment doesn’t represent the whole truth. Seeking the whole truth by leaving the island with its short-time relief was an act of faith. His faith was in the journey home rather than temporary support. He knew that if his faith was in that island, he’d eventually get eaten alive.
The Opposing Force
We all occasionally have voices inside us that seem to want to break us down. It’s the voice of the negative spirit of ancient archetypes. There’s the voice that demands compliance with an oppressive ruler, like Scar from The Lion King. And there’s the voice of pure chaos and disorder, like the character of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. These voices, these spirits, are alive in each of us. We must stand against them with our sword and shield.
In one sense, mental illness—which we all have a piece of, or a potential for—is a condition where doubt consumes faith and we become blind to the possibility that there is a shore called “home” that we are destined for, if only we would leave the floating island and get back on the damn life raft. From the narrative perspective, the negative voices are the voices that blind and mute the father (recall the examples from the kings in Braveheart). It doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong if we have doubts, but it does mean that without a shield of faith, self-destructive doubt consumes our minds and prevents us from healing from moral injury, or like Mostro, consumes the vision of our father.
Every human heart at some point experiences a moment of brokenness and shattering of its pieces, where it feels like everything is lost. The force that breaks hearts has been thought of as a monster or dragon that emerges from the seas by every culture that’s ever existed.
The antidote to these chaotic creatures has always been the ability to sacrifice, speak the truth, and have faith that our world is not purely something composed of monsters, but a place where monsters can be slain and whose parts can generate new life.
The remedy is to become your own true and faithful witness that has the creative power to rewrite your story and honor your dragons, creating a reformed emotional center in your brain.
The next lesson will go deeper into this idea of bridging the gap, metaphorically and physically, that moral injury opens up.
- Do you have a memory that seems to exist “outside” the rest of your mind? What is it and how could you use your sword and shield to integrate it with the rest of you?
- How would you describe faith?
- What do you think your faith is in?
- Bonus: Watch The Lion King and see if you can identify the hero tropes and archetypes we went through in this lesson.
Today’s essential movement is the plank. This movement may be familiar to you, and you may be wincing from the memories of fitness trainers insisting you keep the position until the time is up, despite the protests from your abdomen. But they had good reason to include the plank – in all its various forms – in a well-rounded exercise routine.
This video shows some progressions of the plank. Accumulate two minutes of total plank hold time. If you’ve mastered the movement, and are able to hold front and side planks for a minute each without dropping down, you can check out this video for some variations.