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  • Amy Agape

Shattered Assumptions, Grief, and Expanding World Views

The world is safe.

The world is orderly.

I am a worthy person.

You may have grown up with any or all of the above assumptions. Many of us, particularly those of us with privilege, form these beliefs early in our childhood, and they can help us interact with the world around us.

A multitude of people do not hold these presumptions. They either never formed them, because the circumstances in which they lived repeatedly sent them other messages. Or, like most of our friends at Passings, something happened at some point that led them to question these beliefs.

A lifetime spent taking care of his body only to receive a cancer diagnosis compels him to question the safety of his own body as well as the world it navigates.

Their beloved’s death in a car accident proves to them that only chaos surrounds us.

Her challenges finding work and stable relationships lead her to think that she will be unlucky, which she accepts to mean undeserving, her entire life.

Anyone who had lived until 2020 without having at least a few chinks made in their “the world is safe and orderly, and I am worthy of being in it” armor likely has begun to accumulate them in the past four months.

An invisible virus killing a multitude of people indicates to them that the world may not be as safe as they supposed.

New awareness about police brutality and systemic racism likely urges them to question how just their communities’ institutions are.

And any one of the multitude of losses -- of employment or college plans, of ways of relating to one another or ways of spending time -- can lead us to wonder just how capable we are of regulating anything about our lives.

During this season, I have been turning often to concepts presented in Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s Shattered Assumptions Theory method of working with trauma. I use it with individuals and groups, as well as in my own life. First introduced in her 1992 book Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, this approach is most frequently used with folks who are experiencing major trauma. However, it can be affective for any loss we experience, because every loss has the capacity to shatter these basic assumptions about life, leaving us feeling as though we have no ground underneath us.

Perhaps your assumptions that have been shattered are not the typical three listed above. That does not make them any less significant. We each spend lifetimes creating world views that can be demolished in mere moments.

Covid may have robbed us of beliefs such as:

My workplace is safe.

I have the capacity to navigate my surroundings in ways that keep myself and my loved ones from harm.

I have job security.

I know what is happening next week, next month, next year.

Whatever your beliefs were at the beginning of this pandemic, it is likely that many of them will have been carefully questioned, sharply tested, and perhaps abandoned altogether by the end of it.

And that can be disorienting and disruptive and may even lead to feelings of disillusionment or despair.

I have three important touchstones that I utilize when I’m working with Shattered Assumptions:

Stay with the Loss: As you are able, I invite you to feel the loss of whatever belief or assumption no longer makes sense. Allow yourself to experience whatever you are experiencing. Rage, sorrow, confusion, shock, whatever arises -- stay with it for small chunks of time without trying to distract in some way.

Stay in your body: Frequently, we abandon ourselves by forgetting to care for our physical forms during stressful periods. When we experience loss, we often find ourselves not fully inhabiting our physical forms; and when we experience a loss of significant beliefs, those forms may feel like unsafe places to be. Again, for small bits of time, I invite you to pull your awareness to your body by focusing on your breath and on your senses.

Stay together: It is essential that we find at least one person whom we trust. When our worldview falls apart, being witnessed in that shattering can bring us comfort and help hold us within a net of safety in which a new worldview can be rebuilt.

I view such disruptions to the most fundamental beliefs we hold as radical renovations to our entire beings -- our psyches, our relationships, our spirituality. As with any massive rebuilding, scaffolding is needed. We are wise to rest into the support of our experience, our bodies, and our trusted allies as we take the time necessary to update who we are and how we live.


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