The Remedy is the toxin

I saw a film recently that affected me profoundly. In fact, I was so moved by its message that I closed my office one afternoon and took my entire staff to see it. It presents a powerful metaphor for healing that can change our lives no matter what challenge we’re facing. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I highly recommend Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

In the story, a young man from India loses his family in a shipwreck and is left to wander the ocean for weeks in a lifeboat with only a few supplies and a vicious tiger. To avoid being eaten by the tiger, the boy constructs a makeshift raft from the ship’s debris and tethers it to the lifeboat. It is here that he spends most of his time only occasionally making brief trips back into the lifeboat to retrieve supplies, leaving before the tiger leaps from under a tarpaulin to take another swipe at him. Throughout the journey, the young man is forced to confront questions from his past through the challenge of his present situation.

We all face vicious tigers in our lives, or as I like to think of them – triggers. Whether it’s a dis-ease, divorce or some other life trauma, the reaction is often the same. We don’t think we can survive the situation, that it may kill us if we face it. So, we run away. We escape the boat (our present life) and retreat to a makeshift life raft to live a limited existence outside our true selves. Only occasionally do we risk short, quick “test” visits back to the lives we know hold promise and healing for us. Even so, we don’t stay for long because we’re certain the tigers we fear there will eat us alive. So, we’re content to collect our basic supplies and travel along as onlookers to the lives we’re supposed to be leading. We passively wait for our ship to come in and rescue us, endlessly drifting through life not realizing we are our own saviors.

Eventually, the young man’s life raft is destroyed and he’s forced to enter the boat and face the tiger hiding beneath the tarpaulin, if he is to have any chance of surviving. So often, what seems like the worst thing that could possibly happen to us turns into biggest blessing we could ever receive. In this case, the destruction of the young man’s life raft forces him to confront what he’s been avoiding for so long. Continuing to hide from the tiger would mean constantly treading water in the open ocean and certain death. So often, too, our “survival mechanisms” in life outlive their usefulness and end up destroying us if we continue to cling to them. Although it’s a dangerous choice, entering the boat and confronting the tiger at least carries some chance of survival.

Facing Fears

“Fear is the vicious tiger we all face in our lives. By having the courage to move into the driver’s seat of our own lives, we can face that tiger hiding beneath our subconscious.”

Like this young man, we, too, must risk leaving our hiding places and survival mechanisms behind and to confront the unseen tigers that hide beneath the tarpaulins of our unconscious. Through many power struggles, the boy eventually learns to navigate the tempestuous creature’s moods and to coexist with it. In time, the tiger comes to respect the boy as the captain of his ship, while the boy learns to have compassion and gratitude for the gifts the animal has brought him. At one point, the boy even allows the dying creature to rest his head in his lap recognizing the essential role the tiger has played in his spiritual growth. He understands that he could never have evolved in such a way without him.

What starts out looking like our worst adversary, often turns out to be our best ally. Throughout the film, there is a fierce amount of tension between the boy and the tiger. Although seemingly an obstacle at first, the tiger actually gives the boy purpose and a reason to survive as he continues to explore ways to get back in the boat, collect supplies and exert his authority. Without this constant and critical goal, the boy could easily have listed off into hallucinations, unconsciousness and death.

The tension between the boy and the tiger is what is responsible for the boy’s growth process. It reminds me of the principle of tensegrity. It’s a structural term used by architects that describes how separate cables or struts are stretched to their capacity without touching each other. When this happens, they can support a much larger and heavier surface area than they normally could. The tension created between the individual cables makes them collectively stronger, giving the building a greater amount of structural integrity. This is how the huge, domed roofs of Olympic stadiums are usually constructed. Understanding tensegrity, we can see how tension created in our lives through dis-ease or challenging relationships actually makes us stronger; how we’re really working with the “opposing” force to support a larger goal, mostly our return to wholeness.

When we have the courage to move back into the driver’s seat of our own lives, we can face the tigers we’ve been avoiding that hide beneath our subconscious. There will be a power struggle. There will be fear and doubt. They’ll fight us and threaten to annihilate us; but eventually, they will succumb to us and we will consciously navigate our lives once more. We will learn to honor and appreciate the tigers that bring about this change in us by realizing that they were the solution to the very problems they created. The remedy is the toxin.