In recent years I have witnessed significant growth in public discussions of posttraumatic stress (PTS) and trauma. This is a good thing. We want to care well for victims of natural disasters and political and ethnic conflict. We want to care well for ex-combatants. While we work to stop the worldwide disaster of child sexual abuse and domestic violence we also want to care well for those we couldn’t protect.
What do I need to know to be able to help?
When we want to help solve a problem we look for solutions. Students in my counseling and global trauma programs see the problem (individuals and communities experiencing trauma symptoms) and come looking for solutions. They want to know which intervention strategies will be most effective in reducing or eliminating the problem of PTSD. It is a good thing to be skilled; skilled in diagnostics as well as treatment application.
However, knowledge and skills are not enough. Yes, a helper will necessarily need to know how to listen to trauma stories, how to speak and how to be silent. A helper will need to know him or herself in such a way as to recognize blind spots and other factors that may hinder the capacity to walk with a survivor. But even more importantly, the helper will need to recognize, and participate in the following trajectory of memorializing trauma while moving to recovery.¹
The trajectory of memory and recovery
- The [trauma] Event took place: One must speak.
Having experienced trauma (the Event), speaking of trauma is a necessity if recovery is to take place. How one speaks and what is spoken will differ from person to person (thus, NEVER force someone to speak beyond what they want to speak). But whatever is spoken always leads back (explicitly or implicitly) to the Event. Nothing can be spoken without the Event in view. And resolution is really not possible. How does one resolve a genocide? A sexual assault. Rather, there is before…and after. The victim, as Brown says, “does not have the privilege of such a resolution…again and again” (p. 23). We listeners cannot fully understand, but we can listen and repeat what we have heard.
- The Event defies description: One cannot speak.
When speaking, victims soon realize, “having tried to speak, they discover that attempts to speak of this Event are doomed” (p. 23). Brown notes that this places the messenger and listener into a double bind. It cannot be adequately spoken and understood. Normal language cannot do justice to what was experienced. If not, then the trauma would cease to be evil, horrific and devastating but normal and inconsequential. The double bind is this: to not speak is a betrayal of the experience and to speak is a betrayal since words will always fail to do justice to what has been experienced.
Words must minimize the event to some extent. Consider 6 million Jews slaughtered or 1 million Rwandans. It is easy to speak those facts but in doing so we must minimize what those numbers mean. We cannot imagine unless we are there.
If we are going to recover and if we are going to support that recovery, we must sit with the fact that we cannot make sense of trauma. The human attempt to do so is normal…but impossible. Helpers need to avoid all attempts to answer the question of why even as we acknowledge that is is always on our lips.
- The Event suggests an alternative: One could choose silence.
It must be recognized that victims can choose silence. In fact, silence can heighten our understanding of the unspeakableness of trauma. This is a silence that is chosen in an effort to highlight what is also being told. Consider Beethoven’s 5th symphony that has a rest just after the first four notes (dit dit dit dah [rest]). As Brown points out, the rest accentuates what has just been “spoken.”
One could (ought?) also to choose silence when descriptions of trauma will be used to critique the character of the victim. Too often when tales of trauma are told, listeners look for ways to minimize or explain away the events. “It wasn’t that bad…he didn’t mean it…it could have been worse…you’re fine now.” So, in light of these common experiences, victims and helpers have to wrestle with how and when to be silent.
But of course, silence may be the right choice for victims, it never is for observers. As Brown so starkly puts it,
Silence is no virtue; it is vice twice-compounded: indifference toward the victims, complicity with the executioners. (p. 36)
- The Event precludes silence: One must become a messenger.
…speech betrays so we must forswear speech, but silence also betrays so we must forsake silence. (p. 36)
Per Wiesel and Brown survival by itself is insufficient. Survival must include testimony to those who live. They call it being a messenger from the dead to (and for) the living. The messenger’s job is to disturb and to awaken those who would rather not see or know of the trauma. Truth must be brought to light and wrongs ought to be acknowledged without explanations or reasons given. These things happened, period.
The messenger (and the helper) do not just speak truth to the rest of humanity but also to God. Like Job, like Jeremiah, like David, we contend with God through our questions and our laments. In the Christian world we tend to try to speak for God. But what if our time was spent raising our questions and our complaints to God? Such complaints do not have to be about our anger but rather because we cannot make sense of both the senseless–God and evil in the world.
- The Event suggests a certain kind of messenger: A teller of tales.
If trauma presses the messengers (victim and helper) to speak and yet makes in next to impossible to effectively communicate what has happened, then the telling will have to be done in analogies. Brown suggests that storytelling is one way to bring victim and listener together. Consider how Nathan uses story to confront David. Such a story, per Brown, bridges two worlds and uses one (the story) to challenge or confront the other. Confrontations may be as direct as Nathan (You are that man!) but just as frequently these “confrontations” are affective and subtle. This is what happens when you find yourself crying during a movie that has tugged on your heart in ways you never expected. The story enables you to connect with feelings and experiences that may have just moments before, been distant and protected.
Why tell stories? Not just to have a feeling (Brown calls that merely an indulgence). Tell stories to change people; to call to action; to demand acknowledgement of injustice and movement to right wrongs.
A final thought: standing on sacred ground
This trajectory (struggle to voice, necessity of silence, becoming messengers and storytellers to call the world to action) does not often happen in a linear fashion. Rather, it happens in fits and starts; in quiet and rageful voices. But if you see evidences of someone attempting to speak about a trauma you are witnessing the Spirit speaking,
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:26-7)
When you see those groanings be silent. You are standing on sacred ground.
¹This trajectory of remembering trauma and becoming a messenger can be found in Robert McAfee Brown’s Elie Wiesel: Messenger to all Humanity, Rev ed. This book is a kind of commentary on Wiesel’s work and so this trajectory intersperses Wiesel’s quotes and thoughts with the authors. These five points are made by Brown on pages 20-49 in much greater clarity and artistry than I can in this space.