11/16/2011 02:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

Adaptation Is Lifelong: The White Egret and You

I was on a walk the other day. The sun was out after many days of rain. The creek along which I walk so often had become almost a river. For the very first time, I noticed a white egret standing motionless by a man-made waterfall on the creek. The elegant bird looked as if she were trying to figure out how to navigate the cascade. The creek had been but a trickle all summer. But this fall had been unusually wet and stormy. And the water was high and fast.

Strangely the bird was still there in the same spot, standing like a statue, unchanged, 30 minutes later when I passed on my return trip. I raced home for my camera, sure he/she would be there when I returned. In the meantime I had an elaborate fantasy (the kind of fantasy only a psychotherapist would have!) about that poor bird. It went something like this: The bird, probably young, had adapted to the stream at its lowest ebb during the summer. Growing up beside a trickle, it was well adapted to those conditions. When the stream swelled, her/his adaptation style no longer sufficed and he/she could not figure out what to do.

The Human Dilemma

Of course, this reminded me of the essential human dilemma. We adapt as children, with brains, nimble and flexible, to the conditions of our environment: the family we are born into, the emotional surround, be it one of privation or abundance. We are veritable geniuses of adaptation. Problems arise later when our brilliant adaptation styles no long suffice. When the floods of later life come, we are often at a loss. The tools of the earlier years are more than likely useless.

You may be the child of a mentally ill parent who had to not know how ill your parent was, in order to get the best that parent had to offer. Now you are unable to see the creeping alcoholism of your spouse who is slowly deteriorating.

You may be the Holocaust survivor who starved as a child and had to scrounge for whatever food was available in order to live. Now you have trouble at the dinner table, an older adult now seated at the groaning board of American abundance: obesity and diabetes II ensue.

Or you may be the woman who has witnessed the suffering of older siblings who resisted a controlling parent only to be vilified and rejected by that parent, and you have learned submissiveness at home and failed to develop the assertiveness you need to succeed in adult life.

Snowy Egret, Part 2

I returned to the falls with my camera, maybe 15 minutes later. My egret was gone. And so was my lovely theory and elegant metaphor. Somehow the lovely bird had navigated the falls.

Maybe he was just a patient fisherman all along.

Days passed, no egret. No egret, but another lesson came my way.

We keep growing: Adaptation, a lifelong process

A week or two later, I had the good fortune to reconnect with a client I had known over many decades.

She was in her mid twenties (I in my mid thirties) when we met. We worked together for many years and then just on and off thereafter. She was in tough shape in those early years, nearly mute in our sessions for probably two years. I did the talking, guessing at her pain, her shame, her fear. She cancelled more often than not. But often I could talk her into coming. She had adapted well to an early environment in which it was dangerous to speak up, it was dangerous to be noticed at all. From a very large family, dominated by alcohol, violence, including sexual violence, she was denigrated, humiliated, unprotected. She felt insignificant, unsafe, and unworthy.

Most significantly she was separated from herself -- to survive her childhood her essential self had gone into hiding. What was left was a child hovering in fear, whatever strength there was seemingly defeated. She was the only one among 17 children who had managed to finish high school, but there was very little evidence of pride, and certainly no accolade from the family. Any sign of independence, strength, or intelligence was seen as a negative, not a positive, by her family.

Fast forward 20 years. In the interim this woman went to college, gave birth and raised a child single-handedly and successfully without a father. She bought a home, rose in her profession to a role of leadership, survived a life threatening illness through sheer grit. On and off she used therapy to help her navigate these crises. At times I was the second parent to her daughter, but for long stretches of time she did not call or come in to see me.

The one longing unfulfilled, was the inability to sustain an intimate relationship with a man.

Now in her 50's we are again back in touch and this time because she is in an intimate connection with a man, someone who sounds mature, loving, and accepting and who wants to marry her. She knows she needs a little extra support until she decides what to do.

The white egret has adapted to the falls.

A sustaining relationship with me over the years was certainly part of that critical adaptation. But the real wonder here, the awesome reality, is that she had the capacity to use that relationship and all other positives in her life: the terrific child she gave birth to, her teachers in school, friends, neighbors, a few members of the extended family that did not put her down -- whatever came her way she used to grow and change and reconnected with all that was positive in her.

She herself has described it as the child within, the one I saw cowering in the early days mute and frightened, has grown up.

This is not the only story I have of the awe-inspiring nature of our ongoing, life-long capacity for change. It's just the latest.