Beautiful Trauma?

6cfc20f443acd94a531377ce11fc0b31-1000x1000x1P!nk’s hit song “Beautiful Trauma” hit the airwaves in fall 2017, right as I was taking a graduate course on trauma, including theoretical, clinical, and pastoral perspectives on trauma and recovery.

Intrigued by the pop song’s title, I’ve wondered ever since its release: Can trauma be beautiful? If so, how?

To which my initial response is a quick and clear no

I love the paradox and possibility of the title “Beautiful Trauma.” But as I’ve listened, I’ve been disappointed. Trauma is physically and psychologically painful in myriad ways. It is likely ugly, haunting, maybe bloody or smelly. To posit otherwise, to paint a picture of fun, flamboyant “trauma” as I see and hear in P!nk’s song, may be a disservice to persons living with the realities of trauma and its aftermath.

I hear the lyrics of this song nowadays and I think of some of the psychiatric inpatients I’ve met with, perhaps especially those on an alcohol and drug detox unit. Some of them could include the song’s chorus in their autobiographies:

“Cause I’ve been on the run so long they can’t find me
You’re waking up to remember I’m pretty
And when the chemicals leave my body
Yeah, they’re gonna find me in a hotel lobby”

Women on the ward have told me about literally being found “in a hotel lobby,” arrested for displaying public intoxication or expressing suicidal ideation, and “dropped off at this hell of a hospital to rot forever alone” (to quote one weeping woman). Muscular men have whispered to me that they’ve literally “been on the run so long they can’t find me,” leading them to lose track of all their family members and come to a place where they’re confessing to a chaplain that they’re alone and afraid and don’t want any of the other men to know.

Trauma is not beautiful…that is, if “beautiful” looks like the brightly colored, fast-paced, upbeat, 1950s swing-dancing scene that P!nk (and her production team of course) created in this song’s music video

If, however, “beautiful” looks like gentle, fearful, tearful, go-at-your-own-pace, intentional hope…then maybe we’re getting somewhere.

There is, after all, the entire concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG), a theory asserting “that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.”

The key, I think, is that the post-traumatic growth doesn’t happen immediately. Very rarely does someone experience a sudden accident, assault, or other life-changing and/or life-threatening event and decide the very same day to perform a song and dance about it or start an awareness and fundraising campaign for it. Rather, studies of PTG describe a process of experiencing, identifying, expressing, and processing post-traumatic stress before (or at least alongside) seeing any significant post-traumatic growth.

So, in short: trauma itself is not beautiful. Though, what we do with it may be.

It may be beautiful when my inpatients want to pray with me (and occasionally pray for me!), discuss poems, laugh while we play games, or color mandalas while we discuss perfectionism and anxiety and patience and hope.

It is not beautiful what happened to them. It may be not be beautiful what happened to you. Not at all.

But it may be beautiful — even just somewhat, sometimes — what they do with it. What you and and we do with with the trauma we’ve held. How we use it, transform it, are transformed by it. How we see it and see through it and keep seeing after it.

How do you see trauma? I hope we feel free to face the feelings trauma has created. And I hope we feel free — but not pressured or hurried — to consider the beauty that we may yet create.

 

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Door of Hope: A Photo Essay

From last week’s lectionary readings:

“Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor* a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”
~ Hosea 2:14-15

*Achor = trouble, struggle. So, yes, you might say God will “make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope.”

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St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM)

They say “when God closes a door, He opens another one.” Or maybe this: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”

But, I’ve started to think of it this way: “When God closes a door, She opens a paint bucket and builds some beauty.” God makes beauty out of boring, color out of chaos, veritable art out of valleys of Achor.

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Church of the Incarnation (Dallas, TX)

A little late afternoon light reaching through a darkened door, making possible a stained glass window prayer? Telling us where in the world we are? Door of hope.

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Duke University Chapel (Durham, NC)

A wash of morning light moving slowly over a threshold, marking the passage of time? Telling us when in the day we are? Door of hope.

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Church of the Holy Family (Chapel Hill, NC)

A church door red as the blood of the lamb that was slain, as though all who dwell there might be marked by mercy and life while sin and death pass by? Telling us who and whose we are? Yes. What a door of hope.

 

The Spiritual Discipline of Instagram Use

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” – Sherry Turkle

This Fall, I’m taking a course on “Intro to Christian Spirituality” with Dr. Lauren Winner, in which we are tasked with completing the following assignment:

  1. Technology Fast: For one week this semester, fast from cell phones and Internet-based communications technologies (e.g., email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, messaging clients including text messaging).
    OR
  2. Art-Staring Practice: Over the course of the semester, engage in the practice of art staring for three three-hour sessions, as described in this article.

One of the main points of these exercises, it seems, is to set aside distraction to bolster a sense of sustained presence with and appreciation of the life going on around us.

After technology-fasting or art-staring, we students are to write an essay about the experience. I may also write a blog about the experience.

But for right now? For now, I’m not thinking or writing much about the spiritual discipline of fasting from technology to appreciate the beauty of life so much as the spiritual discipline of using technology to appreciate the beauty of life.

2016_instagram_logoI’m thinking in particular of Instagram.

Throughout its first several years of rising popularity, I resisted Instagram both because I’m habitually a late-adopter when it comes to technology and because I suspected it could become something of an addiction.

Confession: It has become something of an addiction. It can at times become a source of distraction, narcissism, and social comparison. (Forgive me, for I have sinned. No joke.)

But, I have become convinced that, when used with prudence, Instagram can also become something of an inspiration.

I am convinced that Instagram can display far more than the user’s dinners or dogs (although those things are fine in moderation). Rather, these images can be thoughtful photographs, the captions poetry, the hashtags prophecy, and the post as a whole a profound piece of art.

Over the course of this year 2016, I have noticed 2 things: my Instagram use increased and my awareness of beauty in my surroundings increased. As with the chicken and the egg riddle, I’m not sure which came first — the Instagram use or the awareness of beauty. But, for the sake of my emotional, spiritual, and creative health, I would like to maintain both as a spiritual discipline.

When I’m on vacation and taking numerous pictures, I would like to discipline myself to select only one sight to represent and remember the day’s adventures.

When I’m waist-deep in work and taking zero pictures, I would like to discipline myself to still select at least one sight to remind myself that, even in that difficult day, there somehow exists an abundance of adventures if I only pay attention.   

I would like to discipline myself to use technology intentionally as “the architect of our intimacies,” as Turkle put it, which I understand as a guiding lens through which I can see my self and my surroundings. If I ever seem to use Instagram in excess, bear with me. But, as long as I’m posting once every few days as I tend to these days, I hope it can be a useful bit of beauty to bless you and me both.

“Trade These Ashes In For Beauty”

I happened to hear the song “At the Foot of the Cross” among a mix of other songs today. Even though I’ve heard this song countless times at church and campus ministry gatherings, one line struck me this time — probably because today is Ash Wednesday.

“Now I can trade these ashes in for beauty”

I’ve always thought the line was just a metaphor — trading death for life, ugliness for beauty. That’s powerful stuff. But, what’s more, when we celebrate Lent, we live the metaphor.

We literally, physically have ashes today. Churches are somber, changing the colors on display and omitting the “alleluias.” But, in the coming season we “can trade these ashes in for beauty.”

First, we trade the ashes in by acknowledging “ashy” things in our lives (i.e. sin), repenting of them, and aiming to replace them with more beautiful, life-giving things.

And, in 40 days, we’ll trade the ashes in by celebrating that Christ himself traded in the ashes of the grave for the beauty of resurrection.

Stop and See the Skyscrapers

*a class assignment to write about something that brings us joy

One clear Sunday afternoon in August 2010, my parents and I went out for lunch at my favorite Colombian café, nestled in uptown Dallas, and then for a drive past the famous city skyline. When the skyscrapers were close enough to be seen well but were far enough to fit into my camera lens, I lifted my digital point-and-shoot, previously reserved for making Myspace photos, to my back right window. Soon I saw the shot in my view finder: building after building nestled against a bed of baby blue, like metalwork meeting watercolor, busyness meeting beauty, man meeting nature. And with the click of a button, a hobby was formed.

Since that summer day I’ve captured the cities of Austin, Fort Worth, Richmond, and Philadelphia, with some failed attempts at Baltimore and Washington along the way. Each time, I’ve tried not only to capture the city’s image but the city’s essence. In Fort Worth, for instance, I stood atop a wooden footbridge in the Stockyards district in order to get a shot that balanced yellow-tinted barns in the foreground with blue-gray buildings in the background, bringing together the 19th-century Old West with the 21st-century high-rise. To represent Richmond, I stood on the shore of Belle Isle, which served as a prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War, snapped a shot, and immediately converted it into black-and-white, alluding to the city’s history of slave ownership and Civil War activity. In Philadelphia, I was reduced to frantically snapping a cell phone shot from the backseat of a car while crossing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. But this too was fitting of Philly culture, and the picture that resulted depicts a slightly blurry spread of skyscrapers set against a purpling evening sky, with a bold orange billboard that reads in all caps “ENJOY MORE MADNESS” popping out in the mid-ground. It’s unclear what the billboard was advertising, so I like to think that it was advertising the madness of the city itself.

Capturing skylines like this gives me the goal of hunting down more and more skylines, hoping and planning to someday add to my collection New York City, Chicago, Seattle, London, Paris, and wherever else life takes me.

What’s more, it gives me a goal on the way to my goals, a journey on the way to my destinations. If I didn’t pay attention to skylines on the way to an airport or a museum, I would probably make small talk with passengers, complaining away about the weather or traffic. On a road trip, I would listen to the radio or play mad libs in an effort to tune out. But what if I want to tune in? Henry David Thoreau once quipped: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity!” So, by capturing skylines, I try not to kill time but rather redeem it; I try not to injure eternity but rather make a moment eternal. I look beyond the confines of a car, of a day-to-day routine, and find the car’s surroundings far more aesthetic and important than even the coolest in-car gadget.

***


Many people report that they “see God in nature.” Whether Christian, Hindu, Unitarian-Universalist, agnostic, atheist, you name it, people have long associated spirituality with the natural world. There’s just something about reaching the top of a mountain or watching the sunrise over the Atlantic that makes us stand in awe of the jaw-dropping view and maybe even of that view’s Creator.

But I see God in cities.

Because God is said to have made humans “in His image” and cities are veritably teeming with humans, I see cities teeming with little images of God. And these little images, like their Creator, have had the vision and industriousness to build skylines. Architects and engineers have envisioned structures like the High Five, reunion tower, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, created them, looked upon them, and said, “It is good.” They have made ordered intersections out of chaotic crossroads. They have made taller, stronger, and sleeker structures out of seemingly small, weak, and bleak-looking materials.

Even if a city is a “lost cause” with graffiti on the walls, trash in the streets, and rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment that are even higher than the city’s tallest buildings, I believe the city and each of its citizens bear the image of God.

The city of Camden, NJ, for instance, was rated America’s “most violent city” in 2008. It’s full to bursting with the graffiti, trash, and saddening statistics. Yet one Monday afternoon, in a small gym in South Camden I saw hope literally dancing before my eyes in this “hopeless place.” Fifty children had scampered inside that day for a snack, a game, and some homework help at the after-school program I was volunteering with. Once the kids had all departed it was up to me and three high school students to clean up. At first, they were sweeping the floor just like anyone would. But, in a matter of minutes, sweeping turned to dancing – anything from laughter-filled imitations of Gene Kelly to skilled break dancing. A sixteen-year-old girl turned on the radio and a seventeen-year-old boy turned off the lights and switched on a strobe light, tucked away in the corner of the room. Heads bobbing, fists pumping, these high schoolers sang along with Rihanna’s hit song: “We found love in a hopeless place.” We did. We found love in a “hopeless place.”

Walt Whitman, who spent the last years of his life in Camden, also identified love in that “hopeless place,” penning these words:

“I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
Whole rest of the earth;
I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest,
It was seen in every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.”

The line “in a dream, I saw a city invincible” now stands inscribed on the façade of Camden’s city hall, a testament to the citizens’ pride in their city’s rich history and “robust love.”

In Camden, I witnessed “robust love” take a broom and dance in a dirty room.

And whatever city I am in, I think love can take a camera and make beauty out of buildings.  


***

Highways are my mountains, buildings my pine trees. When such structures surround me, I believe I’m surrounded by people who God made and cares about, people who can live and dance and struggle side by side. So, instead of seeking solace by another Walden Pond, I pursue pleasure in cities. Instead of “stop and smell the roses,” I would recommend stopping to see the skyscrapers.