“Any fool can be happy.
It takes a man with real
heart to make beauty
out of the stuff that
makes us weep.
“Larry, you have so many wonderful qualities,” Olivia said. “You are a very honest and compassionate man. Tell me what you were like while growing up on the farm. Tell me about that little boy, your inner child.”
I reacted quickly. “I was disgusting, dirty, old ragged clothes. A weakling. I should have stopped Ben.”
I was speechless. Olivia leaned back in her chair and watched in silence. Several seconds passed as I felt ashamed. “I can’t believe I just said those things about myself.”
“Maybe you hold your inner child responsible for the abuse. That is a common reaction among abuse victims. But you were too small to stop your brother, who was six years older and much larger than you. There was nothing you could have done to stop him. Reach out and hold the hand of your inner child. Let him feel your love.” Olivia reached over and held my hand.
That exchange between Olivia and myself, which will be etched in my mind forever, occurred well into therapy. It was my first exposure to the idea of our inner child, an image I recognized but didn’t fully appreciate. There’s a belief held in the mental health community that each of us carries a child that resides deep within our bodies. The child, who represents our childhood, is as we were many years ago. If our child was the beneficiary of a wholesome childhood, then the positive influence will be experienced in our adult life. If, on the other hand, the child was abused, then the adult will take on the symptoms of an abused child: lack of trust, inability to experience intimacy, low self-esteem. Only when we heal the inner child can we expect the adult to be free of our traumatic past.
Olivia suggested that I write a letter to my inner child. After a few attempts I told her that I couldn’t come up with anything, and the subject was dropped. Months later, Olivia renewed her request and once again, I was faced with the uncomfortable task of communicating with my inner child. After much thought, I came to the conclusion that if I wrote in the third person, I would put some distance between myself and my inner child, making the effort manageable. What evolved was a story loaded with truth but camouflaged in the form of a fairy tale.
The boy with the bent neck and a dog whose tail wouldn’t wag.
It’s the story that’s best told around the campfire under stars and a full moon, and the distant sound of whip-poor-wills. The story originated, or so I’m told, when man first experienced the emotional pain of life and began the struggle to liberate himself from the misery of unhappiness. Some of the details may have changed over time but the meaning of the story remains the same.
There was a middle-aged man who, when viewed according to modern standards, lived a successful life, enjoying the material things needed to be happy. Still, relentless pain dwelled below the layer of his skin and bones. This pain was so great that he searched the countryside looking for the secret to happiness. He came upon a woman who he found unfamiliar but alluring. There was a quiet peace about her. Upon questioning, she told him that true happiness could be found at a Buddhist monastery located in a remote part of Colorado. The monastery was occupied by a group of monks led by Father Ramero, a man wise beyond his years. As an initial test of resolve, anyone seeking Father Ramero’s help had to make the twenty-five mile trip on foot over rugged terrain leading to the monastery on the mountaintop.
Without hesitation, the man who we will call Larry, took the woman’s advice. Two days and two nights into Larry’s journey, he reached a small monastery with walls of reddish sandstone that blended into the mountainside. Surrounding the buildings were gardens filled with lush vegetation, donkeys, rabbits, dogs, cows, and several men dressed in brown robes with sandals strapped to their feet.
Under a large tree sat Father Ramero, a lean man built like a long-distance runner with a freshly shaved head, who seemed to be in deep thought as his mind visited another time and place.
As Larry moved forward, Father Ramero opened his eyes and a slight smile quickly grew on his face. “Welcome, Larry. I’ve been expecting you. Come, sit, and tell me of your pain.”
Larry told Father Ramero about the sadness of his life and about a childhood squandered away by physical and sexual abuse. “Let us sit together and find the source of your pain,” Father Ramero said. “Meditate and let the secrets of your life come forward.” They sat for two-hours without speaking. Larry opened his eyes. He felt sadness but didn’t know why. He looked at Father Ramero and was shocked to see teardrops running down his face. The front of his robe was wet. Clearly upset by his experience, Father Ramero spoke, “I saw the boy with the bent neck and a dog whose tail wouldn’t wag. Larry, your child is in a great deal of pain. You have neglected his needs, and only when you learn to love him will you have true happiness. Sit with your child, learn to know him, learn to love him. You’re welcome to stay with us while you begin your journey.”
Except for the brief moments needed to eat bread and fruit, and drink some water, Larry spent all his waking time sitting or walking in meditation while his energy was focused on the child within. Silence was only interrupted by the occasional words of encouragement from Father Ramero.
It soon became obvious why Father Ramero had been so upset when they first sat together. Larry discovered his child, a little boy some seven years of age, dressed in scuffed shoes, a faded flannel shirt that hung lower on the left side because the buttons and holes were unmatched, and a cap made of brown vinyl, cracked and peeled from the summer sun. The boy’s necked pointed downward at a forty-five-degree angle. The boy had no reason to lift his head. In time, atrophy froze the muscles of his neck. No matter how hard he tried, the child could not move his neck. Leaning against the child’s leg was a grief-struck dog that continually looked up at the boy’s face. Like the boy’s neck, the dog’s tail could not move. This was a dog whose tail wouldn’t wag.
During meditation, Larry envisioned getting on the floor, looking up at the boy, and trying to make eye contact. Only after hours of struggle did they look at each other, but only as strangers. Larry went to Father Ramero and shared his disappointment and concern about the lack of any noticeable progress.
Father Ramero looked deeply into Larry’s soul. “Larry, do you love your little boy?” Silence followed.
“I’m not sure. I know that I should. But I never thought about him before. I tried to forget him. He represented everything sad and evil about my childhood. If I get too close to him, will I feel his pain? I don’t know if I could handle it.”
Father Ramero put his arms around Larry. With some hesitation, Larry put his arms around the Father. “Larry, let’s hold on to each other for a while. I want you to feel the love I have for you. There’s nothing dangerous or abusive about my feelings of love for you. I expect nothing in return. It’s my hope and expectation that you will view my feelings of love as the presence of God. Nothing else could be so wonderful.”
They embraced for a very long time. Finally, the Father asked Larry if he trusted him, and Larry responded by saying yes. “I love you.”
“And I love you,” Father Ramero answered. “Your child cannot heal without your love. Yes, you will feel his pain, but nothing of value ever comes easily. Go and be with your child.”
Larry, focused and committed, would face the demons that ruled his boy, the boy with the bent neck and a dog whose tail wouldn’t wag. The two of them, Larry and his boy, began by holding hands and becoming familiar with the touch of their skin. The similarity in appearance was unfamiliar; Larry was looking at himself, a young boy living in the past, while the boy was looking at Larry, the older man living in the present day.
For the longest time, Larry apologized to the boy for his neglectful ways. He wanted to make things right. But not until Larry asked the boy to tell him about his past, about the abuse he endured, did the boy begin to speak. The boy told of a life with an older brother who beat him, raped him, and when finished, walked away with evil in his eyes. He told of being held by his ankles, dangled out the window of the hayloft, and warned that he would be dropped if he revealed such horrors. He told of a life with a father who, because of his own misery, chose to neglect him, but did give him one week of love in the summer of 1949. He told of a father who, when he divorced his wife, kept his older son and sent Larry to live with his mother. There was a car wreck in which the hood decapitated his father and crushed the head of his brother. There was a mother who denied him of a childhood and expected him to take care of her needs, those of a divorced young woman who craved the physical love of a man. The boy’s emotional pain felt like raw flesh burning in the summer sun. That’s what his inner child said.
As the boy told his story, the tear lines running from the dog’s eyes to his nose became wet from a steady flow of tears. Moved by the story, Larry picked up the little boy and his dog, placed both on his lap and held them for hours. Tears that began flowing down Larry’s face dropped onto the little boy and his dog. Something magical happened. The boy’s neck began to move. The boy looked up at Larry and said, “I love you.”
“And I love you,” Larry said. As their faces took on a smile, the dog’s tail began to wag. Gone was the boy with the bent neck and a dog whose tail wouldn’t wag.