Shields Up

What if the shields we use to protect ourselves from pain get stuck in the upright position? What happens then? Can we get them unstuck? Is lowering our shields even a good idea?

In the popular TV and movie series, Star Trek, from the 1960s to today, one of the consistent features in the starships used to travel the vastness of space is that they have invisible shields. When a starship is under attack, the captain orders, “Shields up!” to protect both ship and crew. The shields are not perfect protection, however, and part of the drama in the stories is a when a crew member calls out percentages for how much shielding remains if an attack is prolonged or intensified. Shields at 70%, 50% and less. Sometimes shields fail altogether. It makes for good drama and hopefully a decent metaphor.

A true-life example from me: A phone call awakens me from sleep. My father has been transported to the big-city hospital and he may not survive the night. Up, dressed, and in my car, I drive through the night getting periodic updates by phone. Shields are definitely up as I need to stay alert and drive safely despite fatigue and fear. I arrive safely at the hospital somewhere around dawn.

Thank goodness for shields. When a crisis occurs and we need to focus and function, we really need them.

The problem with shields—you knew this was coming, didn’t you—is that while they are remarkably useful for coping in the short-term, they are lousy for coping in the long-term. We need them for a crisis, but we need to be able to lower them when the crisis is over. If we don’t or we can’t, we shield ourselves not just from pain but from desirable emotions, other people, and even other parts of ourselves. Chronic shielding exacts a high price. Too high a price.

In the pediatric cancer world where I once worked, a doctor would explain to families that chemotherapy was medicines to kill cancer but it wasn’t very smart. While it worked to kill cancer cells, it would sometime hurt or kill good cells, too, like those that grow hair. The challenge was using enough chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells while protecting the good cells as much as possible so the body would survive and return to health.

Our shields are like that, too. They’re not very smart. While they protect us from stressful feelings like pain and worry, they also can numb us to feelings of connection, love, and joy. We do need them in a crisis, but we also need to avoid having them stuck in the up position.

When a crisis is over, we need to let our shields down so all the feelings and thoughts we’ve kept at bay can eventually filter through our hearts and minds. This needed filtering happens by reflecting and processing. But it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it’s one crisis after another with little opportunity to lower our shields in between. Other times it feels like the crisis never ends so the perceived need for “shields up” doesn’t end. And then we can have so many feelings and thoughts needing to be filtered that we fear that if we let down our shields we will be overwhelmed and washed away.

With all these challenges, we can be tempted to believe that the safest thing is to live our lives “shields up” at maximum strength 24/7. That is a sneaky trap, however, as permanent “shields up” can imprison us with anxiety and loneliness as cellmates. Hafiz, a Persian mystic and poet, put it this way, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you living in better conditions.” We need better living conditions than chronic “shields up” allows.

How do we live in a pain-filled world without keeping “shields up” at all times? We practice. We practice putting “shields down” when a crisis relents. We practice putting shields down for just a little while and then a little while longer. We practice putting shields down only part of the way and putting them up at less than 100% whenever we can. We pay attention not only to the threats and losses in our lives but also to comforts. Not just to fear but to compassion and delight. We remind ourselves over and over that while there is pain in the world, there is also generosity and love.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh knew about pain as her son was kidnapped and murdered. She had this to say about shields:

Courage is a first step, but simply to bear the blow bravely is not enough. Stoicism is courageous, but it is only a halfway house on the long road. It is a shield, permissible for a short time only. In the end, one has to discard shields and remain open and vulnerable. Otherwise, scar tissue will seal off the wound and no growth will follow. To grow, to be reborn, one must remain vulnerable-- open to love but also hideously open to the possibility of more suffering.

Thankfully, suffering is not the only path to growth. Peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of other ways when he says, “Eighty-four thousand doors open to the truth of interbeing, and suffering is one of them. But there are also other doors, including joy and lovingkindness.”

If a call comes tonight with news of a crisis, shields will go up as we focus our minds and strengths to cope, and for that we can be glad. We can also be grateful that those who help in a crisis have shields to help them focus their skills and interventions. At the same time, we can see shields for what they are: only temporarily helpful and not what we want or need living between us and the fullness of life and those we love.

Greg Adams2019.jpg

Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, FT
Program Coordinator
Center for Good Mourning
[email protected]

Other Voices 

Love doesn’t die,
People do.

From When I Die, a poem by Merrit Malloy. 
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Lisa-Jo Baker wrote a book for celebrating mothers and motherhood. In this excerpt, she writes a letter to her deceased mom—a gift for motherless mothers and motherless daughters. “Because you can be sad and you can be well at the same time.”  Read More

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For Your Library

When We Die: Extraordinary Experiences at Life’s End by Kenneth J. Doka PhD, Llewellyn Publications, 2020.

It is a common question in grief support groups and in grief counseling. At some point, a question is asked that goes something like this: “Since the person died, have you had any unusual experiences connected to that person?” A common response is “yes.” Grieving people report dreams of the person, feeling their presence while awake, occurrences in nature that are experienced as a message, hearing their voice, and experiencing a smell connected to the person who died. Before someone dies, when death occurs, and after death, there are varieties of “extraordinary experiences” that often defy scientific explanation and provide meaning to the person with the experience.

In When We Die: Extraordinary Experiences at Life’s End, Dr. Ken Doka examines and describes these experiences with a respectful perspective for those helping and supporting the dying, those who care for them, and those who grieve their deaths. Through chapters covering topics including near death experiences, premonitions, terminal lucidity, experiences of the deceased, mediums, and ghosts, Doka gives many examples from both history and clinical practice. Acknowledging the mystery present in these experiences, he repeatedly asks what we can make of reports of these experiences and considers the clinical indications for each subject. Doka generally takes an agnostic stance—trying neither to prove or disprove these experiences. As a good clinician, his focus is on understanding the role of each experience in the adjustment and meaning-making for clients.

Extraordinary experiences as described appear to occur to many more people and much more frequently than is generally understood. Grieving family members and friends are often reluctant to tell others for fear of judgment and stigma. These experiences, however, can be profoundly moving and meaningful. And as Doka notes, for a minority of grievers, they can also be disturbing. Whether comforting or distressful, these experiences are typically significant and deserve to be heard and explored. When We Die is a great resource for building awareness and understanding of extraordinary experiences for those committed to helping those facing death and dealing with its consequences.

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Taking Questions

How can we be a good friend to someone thinking of suicide? 

Imagine you’re driving down the road and you see a car wrecked in the ditch. You get out and find a friend hurt and lying on the ground. Of special concern is his leg which is bent in ways legs are not supposed to be bent. You’re a smart, caring person, but you’re not a doctor or trained to fix broken legs. So, you can comfort him by taking his hand, but with your other hand, dial 911 on your cell phone and get him to a place where they are good at fixing legs. That’s what a good friend does.

Or, perhaps you have a friend who gets cancer. You’re a smart, caring person and you want to help her. You can visit her, call her, text her, send her cards, bring her food (when she has an appetite), hang out, pray for her (if that’s your thing), and even take her to the doctor. What she doesn’t need you to do is come over with some chemotherapy that you made in your kitchen from a recipe that you found on the internet. That’s not your expertise and not your thing. She needs you to be her friend not her cancer doctor.

And if you have a friend who is depressed and thinking of suicide, solving that problem is not something that belongs on your to-do list. Your friend needs you to be a good friend, and in this case, that means supporting them in getting the care they need from people whose training and job it is to give treatment to people with depression and thoughts of suicide. Your friend needs you to be a friend and do the things friends do like talk, listen, do things together, keep in touch, and connect them to professional help when they are in a crisis. Your friend does not need you to be their therapist or to take responsibility for their lives—even good therapists don’t do that. Your friend needs you to be their friend.


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