Loyal Soldiers

June 10, 2014

This past January, Hiroo Onoda died at the age of 91 in Tokyo. As a Japanese intelligence officer in World War II, Onoda had been assigned to a remote island in the Philippines to gather intelligence on Allied forces. When his other comrades were killed or captured, Onoda withdrew into isolated jungles on the island of Lubang. And there he hid and continued to wait for word of victory from the Japanese war authority for 30 years, foraging for food in the jungle and in small villages. He finally emerged in 1974, and dutifully handed over his sword in acknowledgement of Japan’s defeat in the war.

I’ve heard several stories like Onoda’s throughout the years, perhaps because the war in the Pacific was conducted on such remote terrain and scattered across so many thousands of miles in that vast ocean that some enclaves of soldiers just literally never got word that the war was over.

In psychology the phrase often employed to describe that kind of persistent fighting even after the war has ended is “loyal soldier.” It’s used essentially to depict those pieces of ourselves that keep us hyper-vigilant in order to avoid the kind of wounds we’ve encountered before—be they mental, spiritual, emotional, or physical. Those loyal soldiers can manifest themselves in many ways, whether through aggressive behavior, withdrawal, or approval-seeking. But the root of them all is a bone-deep fear of having the pain or humiliation or abandonment of the past repeated in any way.

This week, I had the great privilege of speaking with Mandy Downing, one of the amazing caregivers who participate in the Jonah’s Journey program. She told me many stories about her years of learning to disarm the loyal soldiers of the child she and her husband now have custody of in order to gain his trust.

She said that the first time she and her husband took their child on an overnight trip to a hotel, he became very upset when informed they would not be sleeping at home. It took her a long time to calm him down. When he was finally able to explain what he was feeling, he looked up at her and said, “I don’t want to have to sleep on the floor with the dead bugs again.” Because that was his only previous experience with sleeping in a hotel, and that’s what he assumed they’d all be like.

She also told a story about some other girls in the Jonah’s Journey program who used to steal food from their caregiver’s pantry and hide it tucked away underneath pillows and stuffed animals in their bedroom. Noticing this behavior and wisely discerning that the root of this behavior was a past full of uncertainty about where their next meal would be coming from and if they would be fed at all, their caregiver didn’t chide them about stealing the food or try to convince them that they should just take it on faith that another meal would always be waiting for them.

Instead she chose the approach of what Purvis, Cross, and Sunshine describe as “felt safety” in their book, The Connected Child. She gave each girl a clear Rubbermaid container and invited them to come to the pantry and allowed them to choose any item they wanted to keep in their containers. They filled their boxes with granola bars, crackers, and fruit snacks. Then they proceeded to make a sort of ceremony of decorating the clear boxes with paint pens. They wrote their names and drew pictures all over them. Mandy said that the girls carried around the boxes for weeks, and then finally, one day, they just stopped needing the boxes, because they had experienced the safety of being able to anticipate and expect that their adoptive parents would always feed them in a predictable pattern every day. And they gave up hoarding their meals in their rooms.

In The Connected Child, Purvis, Cross, and Sunshine write of felt safety: “You can take an important step toward eliminating tantrums and misbehaviors—and enabling learning and positive family relationships—by providing an atmosphere where your children feel and experience safety for themselves…Until your child experiences safety for himself or herself, trust can’t develop, and healing and learning won’t progress.”

The older I get, the more I’m becoming convinced that so many of our negative behaviors, however safe or unsafe our pasts have been, are motivated by a fear of scarcity. We worry that when faced with any unknown, we will either not be up to the challenge or that we will not be given what we need. But for so many children all over the world, that fear is not merely abstract but very much grounded in the devastations of their past experience.

One way the Japanese found to welcome back those soldiers who had continued to fight long after surrenders had been signed to which they weren’t a party was to hold celebrations for those men who’d given so much of their lives to their country. They welcomed them back, thanking them for all the hard work they’d done. And so in that context the soldiers were disarmed and they found a way to employ their dedication towards more productive ends.

I know that so many wounds take lifetimes to heal and some never do heal, but by providing a sense of felt safety for our children and for ourselves, and by thanking the loyal soldiers in our lives for their faithful service and encouraging them to exercise that energy in more helpful ways, I think we could go a long way toward living out the kind of perfect love that banishes fear or at least towards living the kind of stories where fear doesn’t get the final word.