Foxholes and tin punch lanterns

Posted on July 20, 2010


I don’t talk much about hard times. That’s a personal choice. For a long-time sufferer from bi-polar and a survivor of a couple of nervous breakdowns, hard-won cheeriness is an appreciated way of life, and it’s been long enough ago and the stresses are far enough removed that it’s like a different life. Today I’m going to revisit some briefly, just for the sake of framing a personal observation, and because I want people to understand that mental illness is not forever if your goal is truly to heal.

Recovery is a long process, full of the sort of two-steps-forward-one-step-back hard work that most consequential change comprises. In those years of rebuilding, life was still very hard. I had many children quickly, I was married to someone who suffered from several addictions, and he wasn’t very nice about it. Luckily, he was gone. A lot. Which meant that I was busy and bearing loads alone. I didn’t really know how to be real, though, in this rebuilding, so I walked on eggshells, trying to control every aspect of our lives so that nobody got upset, felt bad, or was sad or scared.

Every once in awhile that imploded under its own pressure, and I snapped at people or found myself lying across my bed sobbing or slammed a cupboard door. That isn’t meant as a confession. It’s not what I did that was so upsetting to our family, it was how much was bottled inside. My kids were gun-shy, not because of my ugly behavior, but because of what they could feel lurking underneath a gentle voice.

During that time I came to understand foxhole psychology. It’s all well and good to have standards of human behavior to which we hold one another (okay, it’s not well and good, it’s patently unkind, but we do it anyway) when things are going well. It’s quite another thing to apply those same standards to someone who is embattled. Yes, I did let fly a few words I’ve never allowed in my home. My husband did not. But then, he wasn’t in the foxhole, and he wasn’t under fire.

It’s not a justification. But it did teach me something vital about walking by someone else’s foxhole and telling them to be nice. Nice is sometimes far down the priority list when we’re fighting for our lives, and more people than we might think are doing just that.

Let’s start with my ex-husband. He is an alcoholic, cigarette-smoking, porn-addict who was abusive. Wow, that’s enough to make a person take a step back, isn’t it. He is also a hard-working guy who loves his kids, and who worked hard to keep his addictions secret and separate from them, and who doesn’t want them to suffer any of what traps him. In addition, he’s a survivor of some serious childhood abuse which was compounded by relationships of coercion and degradation as he grew to adulthood. I don’t have any desire to be anywhere close to him, but I also don’t stand in judgment of him.

During the roller coaster that was marriage to him, I developed a philosophy that I call the “tin punch lantern.” I grew to know his intelligence, that part of him that predated his soul, and I was amazed by things that his soul didn’t display. Traits like loyalty and perseverance and integrity and strength of character really were the essence of his light. His life, and his body, which included a learning disability and a chemical imbalance on top of everything else, were like a lantern with holes punched to let the light through. Some of the light of who he was showed. Most did not. His life has been a restrictive experience, though I don’t negate the level of choice he had. I just recognize that he had a hard row to hoe.

We don’t really see people, I don’t think. We see the pattern of punches in their lantern, from which the truest parts of them shines. When we die and lay aside that lantern, we will be the light, not the pattern of limitations that permits a portion of that light to be visible. I think life, as a conscious process, systematically adds more punches and lets more light shine through, if we choose to let it.

It has revolutionized the way I look at people. Sometimes I wonder what their light looks like, and what happened in their life to create the pattern of punches that I see. Sometimes I wonder what my light looks like, and what pattern of punches others see. I especially wonder about people with mental handicaps, and how their mind and emotions might work together without that solid barrier blocking that part of their light. What of people who seem average enough … what if their light is being blacked out in indistinguishable ways? I really have no way of knowing just by looking at them.

Either way, my tin punch lantern philosophy has usually kept me from placing too much emphasis on the way things appear, and that makes walking by other people’s foxholes a quieter, kinder experience. It’s likely that most of us have created some of the battles that put us in our foxholes, and we’re often dodging our own  fire, and that seems patently obvious to the person walking by our foxhole. There’s still so much that isn’t patently obvious, because we really can’t trust what we see, so commentary is probably less useful than assistance.

Wouldn’t it be great if the people walking by our foxholes were medics instead of journalists?

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