Last night in our Advanced Global Trauma Recovery Institute (GTRI) course web conference, we were discussing the weight of listening to trauma stories. This conversation spawned from our delving rather deeply into the systemic torture, trauma, and loss of identity occurring in post-WWII eastern Europe (specifically in Romania). We considered the question
What should we do when we are overwhelmed with the weight of trauma stories around the world? Especially, what are we to do when we can do little to nothing about the new stories we hear every day? How do we respond to temptations to despair?
Knowing or just information?
During the web conference, Diane Langberg pointed out the common phenomenon that sometimes we hear of atrocities but do not really know about them. We hear information on the news about various tragedies (e.g., ISIS, Boko Haram, shootings, suicides, etc.) and sometimes fail to process it. One of our students reminded us of a bit of dialogue in Hotel Rwanda between the hotel manager and an American journalist,
Paul Rusesabagina: I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.
Jack: Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?
Paul Rusesabagina: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?
Jack: I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.
Not far from the truth, right? However, when someone takes the time to really listen to trauma stories, something changes in that person; they are no longer able to go about their life as the did in the past. When we choose to sit with stories of pain, we gain knowledge that changes our view of the world. For example, when we take new individuals to Rwanda, we often hear, “I remember hearing about the genocide….but I didn’t know. I knew but I didn’t know what I know now.” The same thing happens when individuals are willing to learn about racism, domestic violence, gender based sexual violence and the like.
When you see something in detail, you can’t unsee it. You will be changed.
I know…now what?
Once you know, really know, the depth of suffering of a community, you are changed. That knowing often creates deep pain, especially when we can do nearly nothing about it. So, now what? What can we do? Here are a few things that may be overlooked as insignificant
- Listen. Wait, didn’t we already do that? What good is hearing more about the story if I can’t do anything about it? No, listening is part of the solution. Individuals and communities who are enabled to tell their trauma story benefit from repeated truth-telling. They benefit from “being seen and heard.” It matters that those from outside cared enough to come and hear of the pain. Do not underestimate how such listening may empower a trauma survivor to move towards healing.
- Lament. Laments are conversations with God about the brokenness before you. Whether done in private or in public, these laments help us to communicate to God what we find intolerable, to ask God to do what is impossible, and to look closely for his response. Laments hand the problem back to God. “Do something Lord!” Laments also tell victims that their pain is real and not merely an emotional weakness on their part.
- Look for seeds of healing. If you are hearing a story of tragedy, then you are also hearing a story of survival. While being careful not to dismiss losses and pain, we can also point out signs of life, of resistance, of resilience. These seeds do not deny the damage being experienced. Jeremiah’s plaintive sigh, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed…” does not undo his previous tears, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”
- Do one thing. If you are in direct contact with the person who is suffering, you can check in with them, find out what would be helpful. If you are not in direct contact, then do any number of “one things.” You can pray daily. Ask not only for restoration and justice but also for God to direct your response. You can tell one person about what you have learned. You can look for ways to identify how the seeds of the same tragedy might be in your own environment and not just “over there.” You can give an alternative points of view when you hear someone speaking naively about the situation. Start a conversation with friends.
- Remember. Look to find God’s view of the situation. How does He feel about injustice, whether minute forms in us or the massive ones we see on television? What reason might God have for waiting to bring all things under his control?