Just finished listening to Krista Tippett interview Bryan Doerries in her latest On Being episode. Well worth your time if you have the chance to hear it. The discussion centers on the need to speak and name suffering, especially that suffering which leads to moral distress and feelings of shame. To tell without “whitewashing” requires both teller and listener to talk about things they would rather not discuss. Honest telling and honest listening are necessary. Blinders and self-deception of both teller and listener must fall to the ground without defensive response. The telling that leads to healing is not merely voicing pain–though that can be helpful–but having the audience be impacted and to acknowledge their own action, inaction, blindness in situations that led them to feel similar feelings as the one who was narrating the story.
We begin to hope when we see we are not alone. We begin to hope when we do not need to shrink back from the ongoing pain in our lives.
Bryan is the creator of Theater of War, a production company and public health initiative that brings together Greek tragedies and town hall discussions exploring social challenges of today. He reveals how he ended up working with Greek tragedies to create space for people to talk about things they normally hide. He spoke of the death of his girlfriend,
…when she died, the thing that actually hurt the most wasn’t her loss, it was the fact that nobody wanted to talk about it. And the more I tried to talk about all these things I had observed and experienced, not just in her dying but in the months leading up to it, the more people seemed to recoil. And it took me about a hundred performances of Theater of War and some of our other projects to realize that, at a very core level, the work that I’ve been doing for the last 12 years has been about creating the conditions where people will talk about it.Quotation from On Being interview, published April 2021
One of they key learnings from my work with the trauma healing program is that when communities lament together, when they allow for specific naming of pain suffered by part or the whole of a community, something changes in that community. Bryan articulates the same in his understanding of the purpose of Greek plays,
[The purpose of Greek tragedy is] to communalize trauma, to create the conditions where — the word “amphitheater” in Greek means “the place where we go to see in both directions.” “Amphi-” — I see you, you see me; both directions. “Theatron” — the seeing place. So we go to the amphitheater in the fifth century, B.C., to see each other, to see ourselves; to see that we are not the only people to have felt this isolated or this ashamed or this betrayed — not just because it’s being enacted onstage, but because people around us in this semicircular structure are all validating and acknowledging the truth of what we’re watching.
What is it that is unnamed that needs naming? Doerries identifies the trauma of betrayal as most salient,
...betrayal is the wound that cuts the deepest. You can call it whatever you want, moral distress, moral injury, but really, it’s betrayal — feeling abandoned or betrayed, or betraying oneself and one’s sense of what’s right.
There are many kinds of betrayals. I’ve written on this site about betrayal trauma that comes with spiritual and sexual abuse and so will not discuss those now. But, one other way we betray each other is to attempt to over-simplify complex and painful experiences of others. Bryan and Krista talk about allowing frontline workers in the pandemic to name their moral distress without responding with a whitewash of hero talk. In recent months I’ve talked with individuals who have expressed guilt/shame over their treatment of sexual minorities in their religious communities. It would be easy for us to offer quick responses depending on our own belief systems. “You were doing the best you knew how, but now you know better.” Or, “You are only feeling this way because a vocal minority is shaming you.” Neither response allows the person to name their pain. And neither response acknowledges that every listener has had similar experiences that they too have not wanted to name.
Creating spaces for tragedies to be told
What can we each do to support the telling of tragedies? We may not be able to put on theater productions or start town-meetings but we can be better friends.
- We can ask questions that invite someone who seems to want to tell their tragic tale to continue speaking
- What did you feel when that happened? How did what happen change you and your perspective?
- What did you wish your friends knew or would say/do when you were going through that suffering? is there any part of the story you have always wanted to tell but were afraid to do so?
- When have you felt understood, less alone, even if only for a second?
- Without being superficial and without interrupting with your own story, notice where you have felt similar feelings. Where have you felt shame? Betrayed? Isolated? Conflicted? In moral distress? Guilty? Don’t try to erase their feelings but sit with the reality that you too know of what they speak. Don’t rush to change the feelings?
- Before your conversation is over (or in another future conversation if more appropriate), ask a couple more questions
- How have you survived? What is one trait of yours you wish others could see more clearly?
- How would you like our community/church/setting to respond to you? (Don’t look for solutions and don’t press for action)
- What if anything gives you encouragement today?
Look for signs of life. Remember that communal healing happens when those who were wounded experience healing and then begin to bring healing to broken systems. The healing of a community does not happen because the healthy do the work. It is because the sick become the healers. Isaiah 61:3b-4 reminds us that when the God heals the broken and the blind,
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.