Healing from Trauma

A mural of a man's face on a building, battered by time, like we are battered by suffering and trauma

The Trauma of Coronavirus

We live in a time of worldwide trauma. Not that this is new. After all, for as long as we have written down our histories, and perhaps before that, when all we had was an oral tradition filled with myths and violent gods, we humans have violated and terrorized one another. The coronavirus has merely made this more visible, at least to those of us whose lives are simple and orderly and safe.

Now we are all in danger. An invisible virus is sickening and killing us. Our economies are falling apart. Stuck at home, lonely, bored, our tempers frayed, it seems our lives are unraveling. Many of us feel vulnerable, helpless, and afraid. Others feel angry and abused. We point fingers and justify our fears. We are traumatized.

One day, though, the crisis will ease. Then we will be left to clean up the mess. How will we respond?

Some voices speak of fixing what is broken, as in making health care available to all, or repairing communities, as in providing subsidized childcare for working families, or making whole the earth we have abused, as in driving less and leaving open space where wild creatures can wander. Other voices proclaim the virtue of rugged individualism, of a fierce nationalism, of freedom without limits, at least for them and their families. They demand the right to possess what they see, to hoard what they want, to protect themselves with weapons, and to deny these rights to those who are not part of their tribe.

A Response Born of Trauma

People who make such proclamations and demands, whose hearts are filled with hatred and resentment, tend who have been deeply traumatized.

Now, everyone experiences some trauma. Perhaps a car accident or natural disaster shattered our sense of security, or we were robbed or raped, or a heart attack destroyed our illusion of invincibility. Some of these incidents disturb us more than others, and not all of us feel horrified by them, nor by the coronavirus. We respond to tragedy and threat in many ways.

Yet when I speak of trauma, I am speaking of an event that overwhelms our capacity to cope and protect ourselves. Traumas threaten our personal integrity, our safety, our lives. A violation or desecration seizes us, a power greater than we are whirls us around and throws us away. This is trauma. No matter who we are, the experience will leave us gasping and horrified. We will not be able to see our way forward. As theologian Shelly Rambo writes, when this happens, “[m]eaning is dead. Hope is dead. Love is dead.” [1]

Even so, we don’t all respond to terrible experiences or years of abuse by hurting others. Some of us grow more compassionate with suffering, not less. What makes the difference?

Traumas that Break Us

Some people, while they may have lived through horrific childhoods or war traumas, have loving and supportive families and communities. Compassionate friends witness to their pain, hold their anguish. Thus, they are more resilient. They can find peace.

Others traumas are so big that, no matter how much love we receive, peace eludes us. The idea of normalcy no longer makes sense. Genocide, slavery, hurricanes, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, childhood trauma can do this to us. We cannot return to the selves we knew. With time, we can create meaning, make sense of the tragedy. If we receive enough love and guidance, we can transform our suffering into kindness, beauty, compassion, but we will not be who we once were. We will be someone new.

Yet other people who endure such tragedies remain stunted and angry for the rest of their lives. Healing is never guaranteed.

Today I witnessed the suffering of a woman who could not get past her self-loathing. Her mother told her she was ugly, especially when she laughed, and her father told her she was worthless. When she cried, her husband taunted her. Even her children made fun of her. She had God, and she believed God loved her, but she couldn’t claim that love. For her, the voices of her family members were too strong. She could not let them go; she could not heal the trauma of being verbally beaten and scorned.

A mural of a man's face on a building, battered by time, like we are battered by suffering and trauma

Those Who Deny Their Pain

Yet at least she could acknowledge her suffering. She knew she was in pain, and she knew the voices of her past were lies. Though the journey toward healing is long and arduous, this woman had taken a few steps.

Every once in a while, though, I meet with someone who cannot bear to face his pain. Often these people speak of their achievements, their goodness, their specialness. They have no faults; they make no mistakes. All is well in their world. It seems they need me less to comfort their hurts and more to affirm their greatness.

It would not be so bad if these people were harmless. After all, so they need to pat themselves on their backs. So what?

Unfortunately, they traumatize others. Doubtless, they were themselves traumatized. Certainly, they are suffering. Yet they cannot acknowledge their suffering. They insist they are fine, even better than fine. Wonderful. Indeed, they have much to teach me. I should feel honored to hear their story.

If I thought that listening would mend something within them, I would not mind. Yet my presence and my witness rarely helps. They cannot hear any question I might raise or tolerate any hint of disagreement. That’s because, when we minimize our painful past, and when we deny our suffering, we must create myths to sustain us. We tell ourselves we are invincible, brilliant, perfect because we dare not be anything else, and we lash out at anyone or anything that threatens those myths.

Of course, if we attack others, if we fight back, we create more trauma for ourselves and others. Yet we don’t care. All that matters is that we sustain our story of happiness and perfection.

The Pain of Denial

To convince ourselves that we were never traumatized, that whatever survived made us stronger and better, we must forget. One way or another, we numb ourselves. When traumatic memories stir, we feel scared and angry, but we don’t think the emotions come from within us. We blame other people and outside events. Those who tell me about deceitful neighbors or ungrateful children, who label unbelievers “evil,” and who rant about everyone who has been unfair to them, have almost all been traumatized.

Apparently, we can be born without the ability to feel empathy, yet most of us who act with selfishness or cruelty are simply wounded. Then, because we refuse to acknowledge our shame and suffering, we project those feelings onto others. That’s what makes it is easy to be cruel. We destroy whatever challenges the myths we created to make ourselves feel better.

Yet we don’t really feel better. We aren’t happy. Those of us who boast and blame are often the most miserable. It takes enormous energy to hide our suffering from ourselves, for memories keep knocking at our minds, so we dissociate, cutting off entire parts of ourselves. We deny our sensations and pretend our thoughts don’t belong to us, or we numb ourselves with addictions to substances, gambling, violence. Unable to face see the evil in our own hearts, we become hateful toward others. But not even that makes the pain go away.

If only we had the strength to look into our hearts, to explore our fears, to unravel our myths. Then we might become free.

Finding a Way to Heal

One barrier to becoming free is that we cannot do it by ourselves. If we can’t acknowledge our vulnerability or admit that we are fallible, we are unlikely to reach out to others to help us. Sometimes a shock, a reversal, or another trauma will shake us up enough that we can no longer deny our suffering. Then we might be willing to do the hard work of facing our past. We might be willing to seek help.

All of us need a wise and loving guide to do the work of recovery, to heal. We need someone to listen without judgment. As humans, we are meant to be in relationship. We were never meant to return from hell by ourselves. Even Jesus was revived by God.

So where do we go to find that help?

Some of us find guidance from a teacher, a counselor, a parent, a coach. Others seek support in a self-help books, poems, songs, and sunsets. We find healing in the love of a god, a faith that holds us and keeps us and accepts us no matter what old voices linger in our heads or how much we have been abused, scorned, or violated. Meditations, such as lovingkindness meditation or Tonglen, can bring us peace and help us face the hard work of revising the story of our past.

Claiming Joy

During our Earth Day sharing circle, one of our members paraphrased a lay minister of hers, saying, “Every time I refuse to drink, I deflect the evil that was done to me in the past.”

When we deflect the evil done to us, we declare that our past does not define us. We remake it. We no longer allow it to control us. By choosing to stop numbing ourselves and to heal, we say “yes” to life. We reclaim our personal integrity. Our abuser no longer has power over us.

Regardless of the specific tools and strategies we use to heal, before we can start the journey, we must surrender to the truth of our suffering. We must acknowledge we have been traumatized, that we are shattered, that we are imperfect, and that in spite of this, we deserve healing. So we must make a commitment to stop harming ourselves with numbness and addictions, self-sabotage and hurtful self-talk. We must choose life.

We Remain

Rambo says, “The study of trauma is the study of what remains.” [2] This is true. Our traumas do not go away completely, no matter how much we have healed. At the same time, in spite of what has happened to us, and regardless of what we have done, we remain. We are still here. Suffering, abuse, trauma do not have the final word. There’s a reason we tell myths of rising from the dead, because that’s what we do, over and over again.

To recover from our past hurts is not unlike descending into hell. It requires a kind of surrender, a letting go of control, of illusions, of hate. We must die to our lies, let go of the stories that make us suffer. In the process, we start to tell new stories, ones that speak not of brokenness and violation, but of health, wonder, and beauty.

Of course, no matter how much work we do on ourselves, no matter how much we heal, there will always be something more for us to look at. The pain of our past never entirely goes away. But it doesn’t have to. It just has to recede enough.

Enough is enough. We can be honest enough, look deeply enough, heal our hurts enough. Then, we will find freedom, vitality, and joy.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Rambo, Shelly, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 73.
  2. Ibid 15.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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