Why we can change- in an instant- for better or for worse
“I am a house of many rooms”

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Published on HUFFPOST, May 03, 2016:

Isn’t it strange how even real close people keep surprising us with unexpected behaviour? Have you ever been wondering about yourself, when a challenging situation took you by surprise and triggered a response you never thought you were capable of?

The human soul remains a mystery - it is part of its beauty, and part of its scare. If we have been anguished by the unpredictability of a loved one, we’ll often be scarred for life. A single disconcerting experience between two people can suffice to annihilate long-standing trust.

As long as we are haunted by the big “Why?” we’ll remain alert, hyper-vigilant and unable to relax. Our world has become more dangerous.

Being able to make sense of the painful experience is key to healing and rebuilding trust; it’s the best prevention against sadness, bitterness and sarcasm.

I have been trying to connect the dots between the familiar and the shocking in one and the same person. Starting with my own self, I continued searching in my work as a counsellor and coach, where I witnessed so many people asking the desperate “Why?” question. What is the common core of these apparently contradicting behaviours? Is there any at all? Or are we really left subjected to the randomness of our moods – sometimes lucky, sometimes not? This is scary, deeply unsettling stuff.

I finally did get my Aha-moment. It has cleared my view on the human condition significantly and has proven to be a great tool to for helping others to understand and heal.

Nairobi, back in 2007. I am stuck in traffic at a busy roundabout. I become aware of all those people in their cars sharing my fate. Each face representing a “world” in its own right, each person a unique story to tell. It suddenly struck me, how we could “hear” each other’s stories, relate to so many different facets of being. And there is was – the full picture:

Imagine…every human being is like A House of Many Rooms.

Countless doors in all possible colours, shapes and styles are leading into different spaces – love-room, hate-room, happy-room, sad-room, you name it. From the saint-room to the killer-room – they are all there, in every single one of us.

We all have them all.

Our individual circumstances will determine which chamber we are born into. It will be filled with first memories and early connections - be it happy or sad. This is our starting point - well, hopefully… 

Knowledge always comes with responsibility. Waking up to the reality that “I am more than that” requires a brave and adventurous spirit. Compared to the mega-task of dealing with a whole house, the limited room-sized horizon has something seductively simplifying, allowing me to fight “out there” what I refuse to face within myself.

The difference between the “bad guy” and myself might only lie in the frequency of exposure to disastrous circumstances. We need to be careful judging others from our privileged lodges! A couple of trials later we could find ourselves drawn into “rooms” we never dared to imagine as being part of our inner medley! Or worse even: our own children might take us there.

This metaphor portrays in a succinct way the simultaneous presence of all that we can be. It acts as an antidote, an empowering reminder contradicting debilitating states of mind. We’d still need to work our way out of there, but it won’t be so dark anymore.

An impressive example to illustrate the healing application of “the house of many rooms” is Isaac, a 15year old boy who I worked with in a Nairobi slum after the days of post-election violence.

Politicians had created a rift of mistrust between the main tribes in the country, which lead to fierce clashes. Isaac witnessed the shocking transformation in his cherished neighbours, who happened to be of “the other tribe”. He saw them killing his father and taking over their little house, rendering Isaac, his mother and 4 siblings homeless. A highly disturbing experience for this young man, who was suffering from severe fits of rage ever since. “From friends to enemies – just like that? Who are they?!? How should I ever trust anybody again?” his desperate questions were.

We started our work together. I drew the house with a roof and many doors that Isaac had the freedom to label. “Pain room, hatred-room, rage-room, death-room, fear-room...”, he started, finally arriving at “home-room, love-room, family-room, father-room, peace-room.”

I confirmed that we all have them all – from the saint-room to the killer-room.

“Do you have the killer room too?” he asked hesitantly.

“Yes, I do! If I would see anybody trying to harm my children, I might end up moving instinctively into my killer room in an effort to protect them. And this is what happened to your neighbours. Shocking violence all around – one tribe against the other...”

Isaac sat in silence for a while. His restless eyes and facial expression clearly communicated the intensity of his processing.

“What can we do not to move into the killer room?”

“What do you think?” I threw the ball back to him.

After another long pause Isaac looked at me and came up with an impressive answer: “I guess we need to have a well equipped love-room then, to be strong enough to refrain from retaliating.”

And so Isaac started to make sense of his traumatic experience, which was a crucial step towards healing.

A year after finishing our process, I ran into Isaac again. He looked happy and up beat. “I know it’s true – the house of many rooms!” he confirmed, “No matter how I’m feeling, I am the whole house, always!” and with a big smile on his face he turned around and joined his peers.

“He clearly got the message.” I reckoned, after catching my breath.

“I am the whole house, always!”

Thanks for the reminder, Isaac!