Tag Archives: trauma

PTSD: A New Theory? An Old Treatment


Researchers Liberzon and Abelson at the University of Michigan have published an essay articulating a new way of conceptualizing what is happening in the brains of those with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. While you can’t read their essay for free, you can read this good summary here.

What is their new theory? the neurobiological problem of PTSD is “disrupted context processing.” In simple terms, I fail to respond to the “stimulus” in its proper context when I am triggered by old experiences in a new setting. Even more simply, when I wake up on full alert in the middle of the night after smelling wood-smoke in my sleep I initially fail to recognize the context (my neighbor burns wood) and immediately think my house is on fire (as it once was). Thankfully, the alertness is less than it used to be and I don’t always get up to check on my house.

The authors suggest that 3 separate and current brain models are inadequate in their scope of understanding the brain’s activities in PTSD. From their perspective the “fear model” (Fight/flight learning), the “overactive threat detection model” and the “executive functioning model” work best when integrated into one unified theory with their new label. And, in true humble researcher fashion, they request help in testing this model to see if indeed it can carry the freight.

An Old But Essential Treatment?

It is good to have a better handle on what is happening in the brain when someone experiences PTSD. Neurobiological research is growing by leaps and bounds. It is hard, frankly, to keep up. And yet, let us not forget an old but essential part of PTSD treatment, the person of the therapist. Humans are designed to be in relationship. PTSD has a way of shattering connections with others and thus the treatment must reverse the disconnect. Being present and bearing witness to trauma will always be the first and primary intervention every therapist must learn. Our temptation is that we want to move beyond the bearing witness phase into change phases. While this is understandable (we want others to get better as fast as possible), we sometimes want this for our own reasons–to avoid the pain we experience in sitting with traumatic experiences of others.

Let us remember that we therapists (and pastors, friends, etc.) are the primary intervention when we are present with those who suffer, when we become a student of their suffering. All other treatment activities stem from this foundation. To use a different analogy, consider Dr. Diane Langberg’s meditation, “Translators for God” (Day 26 of In our Lives First). In this meditation she describes the experience of being translated in a seminar. The translator must fully understand both languages in order to accurately communicate the speaker’s words into the heart language of the hearers. Counselors are translators for God and for healing. And yet, if they do not deeply learn the heart language (pain and trauma experience) of the client, they will not be able to connect the client to healing and to the God who heals.

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Filed under christian counseling, counseling science, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd, trauma, Uncategorized

Is God eternally traumatized?


The first words of Alwyn Lau’s “Saved By Trauma” essay remind us that the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the foundation and center point for all of Christianity.§ Without the cross, there is no Christian faith.

The Christian faith is centered around the historical trauma of the suffering, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Christian theological reflection starts from and eventually relates back to the work of Christ. Indeed, for some theologians, the resurrection points back to and affirms the cross. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the Christian pronunciation is essentially “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) ontologically entrenches trauma, destabilization, and anxiety at the heart of kerygymatic [sic] proclamation. (p.273)

Sit with that last sentence a bit. Christianity is at its core or essence a faith wrapped up in trauma. Yes, there is an all-important resurrection, but a resurrection cannot happen without a traumatic story (false-blame, injustice, torture, abandonment, and death). If Christianity is ANYTHING, then it is a faith that takes seriously the impact of brokenness.

So then, Lau makes an important next point about what a Christian theology should provide:

Theology proffers a distinct vocabulary to talk about personal and interpersonal wounding and trauma; the Christian community approximates a traumatic community. (ibid)

Victims of trauma ought to find great comfort and help from Christian leaders and communities because they observe a community that really gets their experience, both by word and deed.

Are we that community?

Or, are we a bit more like Job’s friends? Consider Lau again,

 Job’s friends, in presenting all kinds of explanations for why Job suffered the tragedies he did, were attempting to obscure the trauma of the truth of evil in the world. Job’s disagreement–and God’s eventual vindication and endorsement of his views over against that of his friends–demonstrated resilience in the face of such tempting illusions of closure. Job refused to look away from the void in his pain. He refused to accept cheap solutions to the problem and “causes” of his suffering. (p. 274)

To become a safe community for victims of trauma, we must continue to highlight that God and trauma are put together (albeit willingly) for eternity in the abandonment and death of Jesus on the cross. In this God takes trauma (injustice, torture, and death) into his own being–no longer does it exist in creation.  Again in the words of Lau, we need a “theology of Holy Saturday” if we are going to show that “hope can be spoken of only within the context of injustice, negativity, and despair; the joy and the Lordship of Christ takes place in and through sickness, death, and sin.” (ibid)

“If God’s being cannot be comprehended without factoring in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ…” (p. 275) then consider this statement:

“If indeed God suffers in the cross of Jesus in reconciling the world to himself, then there must always be a cross in the experience of God as he deals with a world which exists over against him.” (quote of Paul Fiddes in Lau, p. 275)

God is defined by trauma. But he, unlike creation, is not weakened by this trauma. Rather, Lau encourages us to see that “the God self-revealed  and depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a begin who, out of love for the created order, chose the trauma of death as a central facet of God’s self-definition.” (276) In an immeasurable act of love that had been present in God from eternity past, God chooses self-sacrifice to break the power of sin and death. And since this love is not temporal, then neither is God’s character ever without the knowledge and drive to reconcile a people to himself–even through trauma.

So what? What if we really understood God’s experience of trauma?

  1. The church would follow her head in the care of the most vulnerable even at the cost of her own comfort and safety. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matt 12:20, quote of Isaiah 42:3)
  2. The church would regularly make room for lament (individual and corporate) as acts of faithful worship. Like Thomas, we need to see the wounds that remain in the risen Christ.
  3. Hope would be illustrated in her ability to equally cry out about the “not yet” part of God’s present kingdom even while she looks for the “already” present redemption and healing. There is as much hope in Psalm 88 and Lamentation 3 as there is in Revelation 21.

 

§Lau, A. (2016). Saved by trauma: A psychoanalytical reading of the atonement. Dialog, 55, 273-281.

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Gospel, trauma, Uncategorized

Abusive Marriages: Restoring the voice of God to the Sufferer


In breakout format, Darby Strickland presented on this topic today at #CCEF16. She defined emotional abuse using the word oppression instead. She defined it as a pattern of coercive controlling and punishing behaviors whereby one spouse seeks to control and dominate the other. Oppressors enslave others, but tend to self-justify behaviors.  The oppressor tends to be entitled (people are there to please them; people should sacrifice for their well-being). They tend to dominate others and threaten as a means of control. Oppressors are willing to wound to keep control (which Darby reminds us is the opposite of how Jesus wields power–he was willing to be wounded for others). On the other hand, oppressors tend to be self-deceived, lack remorse and blameshift when accused.

Sometimes abuse is misunderstood as an anger problem. But the reality is that the root is self-worship and control. The only thing that matters are their words, their rules, their emotions, and their physical and sexual needs that must be obeyed. It is “enforced worship.”

Darby then explored emotional abuse in particular. Symptoms include a chronic pattern of rejecting, neglecting, degrading, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, belittling, deceiving, blaming, ignoring, shaming, and threatening. She also talked about “gas lighting” which is the attempt to make someone think that something that did happen never happened. Within emotional abuse is also spiritual abuse. The use of Scripture, doctrinc, or position of leadership to abuse. It can be subtle but it lording power over others, demanding submission, and use Scripture to shame.

Darby pulls no punches when she describes behaviors by oppressive and abusive men (yes, women can do this as well, but this talk is focused on the experience of oppressed women). It is destructive to souls and does not reflect any part of Jesus Christ. She was equally clear on the destructive impact on victims. Eccl 4: the dead are happier than the oppressed.

What does God say about oppression?

  • Not your fault. Evil comes out of the heart of the one doing it: Mark 7. You might be a stressor by just being a person.
  • You do not deserve this. (Victims and leaders look for reasons, like Job’s friends). Heb 10:17. Your sins and lawless deeds I will not remember anymore. God is your rescuer, not your punisher
  • It is not a marriage problem. Luke 6:45 shows us that evil comes out of the evil person’s heart. It is not merely some interaction problem. Do not ask the oppressed to serve the oppressor more. It emboldens oppressors.
  • Oppression violates God’s design for marriage. It is not to be submitted to but rather brought into the light. He tells the head to reject control for self sacrifice.
  • God sees your suffering. Jesus sees and knows oppression too.
  • God cares about your safety. Do you think that God cares more about you keeping your vows than he does about your safety? 
  • God’s desire is to rescue you. I will rescue my flock and they show no longer be a prey (Ex 34:22)

Draw near to God through laments; he does not ask you to forget your suffering. Learning to lament is a process. It may not be “sanctified speech” when you first start to speak. That is okay, just begin to speak. Listen for the content, less focus on the tone. Then, you can ask God to help shape your expression. To counter the shaming words, remember who God says about you. “Remember who Jesus is because he is everything your oppressor isn’t.” He woos you, he does not demand subjection.

She closed with Proverbs 12:18: The words of the reckless pierce like swords. But the tongue of the wise brings healing.

_____

You might find it interesting that Darby chose to not take questions at the end. Her reason is that knowing that 25% of the christian world has experienced domestic abuse. Thus, she expected a number of victims in the room. She felt that taking questions might subject some, inadvertently, to further pain. (She was willing to take questions afterwards in private).

I very much appreciated her strong words to identify the pattern and indicate the primary concern for care for the victim. I know she has written and spoken on the topic of working with oppressors. This was not that talk.

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Reliving memories long after trauma. Why does it happen?


I just returned from a week’s trip to Lebanon to train participants in a Scripture-Engaged mental health-informed trauma healing program. It was a wonderful experience. I made new friends, heard important stories of hardship and God’s faithfulness. I ate good (no, great!) food, and saw some beautiful scenery. Now, as I try to get my body clock back on home time zone, I’m waking early. In those wee hours of the morning, many of these memories come without any seeming effort on my part. There are great ones–laughter, sweet times, a poignant story of pain and heartache, a story of courage–and the brief moments of terror in several taxi rides. Since we survived the taxi rides, these latter memories are no longer negative as much as they invoke a chuckle or two.

In a small way, I’m reliving and recalling memories. I can smell the smells. I can feel the tension of riding in the front seat of a taxi going 60 miles an hour on a city street or the driver’s attempt to squeeze between a barrier and a large truck at a high rate of speed with only inches to spare. I can feel it and see it. And I didn’t even try to recall either the good or the bad. They just appeared.

This is how traumatic memory works. You experience a trauma and later flashes of memory–painful, shocking, unwanted–appear after the subtlest of triggers. You do not merely remember it, you feel it. You taste it, as if it were happening again. They come in bits and pieces, flashes and images; rarely in a linear sequential fashion.

While most good and bad memories fade and are replaced by new and more salient experiences, some memories stay powerfully strong and consistently intrude into the present. Even when we tell ourselves, “We’re safe now. We are no longer in danger” or “You’re not a child anymore, you are grown up and don’t have to be afraid of being hit,” the memories and associated feelings keep coming. It is as if your logic and perceptions aren’t able to moderate the response.

Let me give you a little silly example. I once became violently ill  for 4 days after eating deli turkey. To this day I cringe and feel stomach pain when presented with deli turkey. That experience was more than 12 years ago. Yet still I react. I know that what is in front of me is not tainted but it doesn’t seem to matter to my stomach.  Sure, the reaction I have is minimal and faded compared to immediately after my illness. But it is not gone.

Why does this happen? What are the processes in play that keep us experiencing and reliving what may be old and distant–as if it were still present? What follows is brief and a relatively simplistic summary of two very complex processes. Use them to help you understand yourself or a friend and to increase your empathy for those trapped in such processes.

Memory and the Connected Self

Psychology focuses much of its work on the individual person–the self. However, the self never exists outside of social connections (or disconnections) with others. Our understanding of our self begins at birth with billions of interactions (smiles, frowns, words, touch, etc.) with others. As we develop and become aware of ourselves, we often have key experiences of success or failure that continue to shape our sense of self long into the future. Find someone with a powerful sense of failure and you will find someone who will struggle to interpret present success as indicative of who they are. Whether success or failure oriented, both outlooks form on the basis of how we perceive that others see us. It seems that shame and humiliation act as intensifiers making it hard to alter our sense of self even after corrective experiences. They turn me from “bad things happened to me” into “I am bad.”

Memory and the (dis)Connected Brain

In simplistic language, the brain is an amazingly connected and efficient organ firing constantly day and night. Memories are stored and accessed, intensified or eroded, and often altered through the firing of neurons. The efficient brain “learns” to access information quickly. Just as you no longer have to think to insert your key into a lock the right side up, you also no longer have to consciously recall a memory–it just happens. Because multiple hormones and structures in the brain are involved in memory formation, it stands to reason that ignoring a life-altering memory (and the full-bodied experience of it) is next to impossible. Structures like the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus are evaluating and communicating (or not) with high-level processing within the cortex even before you know it. Thus, a memory and its reaction is already well-underway before a person can think and critique such a memory.

So, are we doomed to be controlled by our past?

No. There is ample evidence that we can form new connections and minimize intrusive and unwanted memories. The brain is plastic. It is adaptable and changeable. And yet, we are not in the age of the MiB neuralyzer. God does not usually remove us from our histories or make them so distant they have no effect on us. Adaptation takes time and energy and rarely is so complete that the person no longer feels nothing when they recall a painful event (in fact, feeling nothing might be rather dangerous as it would be a denial of reality).

So, the next time you are beating yourself up for still struggling with the past (or are questioning why a loved one can’t move beyond a trauma), be gentle. Consider instead how you might develop a corrective response that accepts what has happened and gives opportunity for a new second response after the first automatic reaction.

 

 

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Reading the Bible as a Refugee


Because we are enculturated people, we always read Scripture from a particular vantage point. Sometimes it can be helpful to consider the lens we use and to try reading the Bible from the vantage point of others. I’d like to suggest that you take a tour of the Bible through the eyes of a refugee–a displaced person. Some 60 million people in the world today live displaced from their homes due to human and natural caused disasters. They have lost most if not all of their comforts (language, home, family, land, food, community, protection, job, etc).

Does the bible have anything to say about their experiences?

Right off, we see Adam and Eve, forcibly displaced from their lovely home, barred by an angel with a flaming sword, never to return. We often think about their culpability. It was their own sin that caused this trouble. Set aside that fact. Imagine what it was like for them to be removed from the best place ever to live for over 900 years in exile where nothing could compare to what was lost.

At the other end of the Bible we have John writing Revelation from…wait for it…exile on Patmos. In between these bookends, we have Abraham as sojourner. Israel moves to Egypt to escape a famine only to be enslaved for 400 years. Generations later David in on the run from Saul. Still later, both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms are sent off to exile with only a small remnant able to return after 70 years. Displacement doesn’t stop at the end of the Old Testament. Jesus’ first life experience is on the run from King Herod. Later, after Pentecost, Christians flee Jerusalem to avoid Jewish and Roman persecution.

But there is much more to see in the Bible than examples of displacement. Consider these biblical themes that relate to refugee experiences:Refugees from Syria

  1. God pursues displaced peoples. God chases down Adam and Eve after their sin. During the time of the Judges, God becomes impatient with Israel’s misery (10:16)
  2. God protects even within trouble. When Cain is exiled for murdering Abel, God marks Cain in order to protect him. Israel grows while enslaved. Exiles in Babylon rise to leadership.
  3. God sees our troubles and his moved by it. Notice God’s special kindness to Hagar.
  4. God wants to hear our complaints. With 1/3 of the Psalms in the form of laments, it is clear God desires our complaints and groaning.
  5. God invites us to share in his life by willingly displacing himself to share in ours. The incarnation reveals a God who willingly leaves perfection in relationship and community and lowers himself into a world of war and brokenness. His work enables us to enter in with those who have been displaced, “for such a time as this.”
  6. God prepares a place where we will one day be at home again. One day, we will all be at home in our true country with bodies that work as they were originally designed.

These truths do not remove the pain of displacement now. God’s protection in this world is not one that keeps us from all harm. In fact, our relationship with him promises that sharing in his death and resurrection we will face sorrow upon sorrow. However, knowing that God pursues us, sits with us, listening to our complaints, and provides blessings in the midst of hardship gives us hope for the day with all will be made right.

So, the next time you hear about the political and social challenges due to illegal immigration in the United States or the crisis in the Middle East and Europe, let that be a reminder to go to your Bible and read as if you are yourself displaced. Surely, we all need to work together to find solutions to these problems we face today. I suspect, however, we will be more prepared when we have the mind of Christ regarding displaced peoples. See how that perspective shapes how you live your life today and how you decide to respond to those in greater need than yourself.

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Making the Church a Safe Place for victims of abuse


This Saturday I will be attending and presenting Cairn University’s Faith in Practice conference hosted by their counseling center and department (free but you need to register). I will be speaking about how we can make the church a safer place for adult victims of abuse and trauma. If you want to peak at the slides, click here: 2016 Cairn U Presentation.

The presentation that I will do will only be one hour so that limits what I can do. What I wish I could do is also talk much more about the systemic factors that make churches less safe places for vulnerable people. While we can all grow in better understanding the nature of trauma and how to walk alongside victims, our institutions can be systematically harmful, even when the individuals within the system have no intention to hurt others. Thus we need to keep examining the ways our systems operate that can be toxic to some. While this presentation doesn’t cover these questions, it can be good to ask,

  1. How do we handle recent or older allegations of mis-handling difficult cases?
  2. How do we handle allegations of child abuse (the victims, the family, the alleged perpetrator and family, and congregation)?
  3. Are we a safe place for people who are broken and not all tidied up?
  4. Does our system allow for ongoing lament? (Corporate and individual)?

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, church and culture, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffering, trauma

Conference on Refugees and Trauma, March 15-17


If you are in the Philadelphia area, I want to give a final shout out for an important conference put on by the American Bible Society’s Mission: Trauma Healing. This will be our 5th (I think) Community of Practice conferences where trauma recovery practitioners meet to learn and encourage each other in the work of trauma healing. If you have never been before but want to hang out with folks doing trench work around the world, this is the place to be. Missionaries, mental health experts, ethnologists, linguists, pastors, humanitarians, and everything in between are the common attendees. This tends to be a rather intimate conference where you get plenty of time to talk around tables with folks doing what they talk about.

This year our conference theme is We are Sojourners: Refugees and Trauma (conference information and registration link).  What makes me excited this year is the diversity of presenters. We have well-known psychiatrist Curt Thompson presenting on attachment injuries related to trauma. We have presentations and a documentary unveiling about African Americans in the US (yes! Refugees can live in a land for generations and not be fully “home”). There will be presentations by Diane Langberg as well as presentations by experts on the current refugee crisis from the Middle East.

In addition, there will be this activity on Tuesday night which includes musician Michael O’Brien at historic Christ Church.

Those who have attended before should realize that this is now held in Center City Philadelphia at the office of the American Bible Society and not at the Mother Boniface Spirituality Center in the North East.

If you are interested in the wide world and burdened about trauma and refugees, come and meet your family!

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Filed under "phil monroe", conferences, Counselors, Diane Langberg, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Training, trauma

An open wound community? How can the church tackle racism?


Last February, BTS held a public dialogue on Temple’s campus entitled: From Protest to Process: Law Enforcement, Race, and Trauma, How Can the Church Become a Healing Community (the title tells you academics were involved in the process–but the topic was anything but just academic). During the Q and A time, there were several questions about what the church can do to help.

Any answer has to acknowledge that getting our heads and hearts wrapped around the problem and our wills engaged to be part of the solution is a monumental task–because it calls us to a place of discomfort. Take a minute and consider Dr. Shannon Mason’s initial  two minute response: Can the church become an open wound community? Or will She prefer to close the wound and pretend that what is underneath is healed? While Dr. Mason’s illustration can be difficult to stomach, it is nevertheless apt!

BTS Trauma Seminar from Temple from Biblical Seminary on Vimeo.

Soon after the dialogue, I wrote the following just published piece for the BTS faculty blog. I list two small steps that suburban, predominantly white, congregations can take towards making a difference in our even more racially charged world. Surely we can do more that what I suggest, but if we don’t start with ownership of the problems, how will we ever engage?

Finally, you might think that race in America is a hopeless case. It sure seems so. But one-by-one, if we can have an impact on one person’s life, and that person has a positive impact on one other…then everything is possible. It may not be in our life-time and that is okay. We are not called to win the battle but to run the race set out before us.

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Lessons learned in the Middle East


I traveled to Jordan in early November to do trauma recovery training/equipping work for Jordan Bible Society as a volunteer representative of the Trauma Healing Institute. Today, I posted a blog on the BTS faculty blog page on some of the lessons I learned there. I encourage you to check out those insights. The title of the post says, “5 Lessons Learned…” but in fact there are 6. Consider it your Christmas bonus (wink).

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So, you want to support trauma recovery?


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.

 

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