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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Encouragement

It’s funny what power encouragement can have when we let it. At least for me, encouragement has the potential to light a spark that keeps my fire (of faith and of creativity) going for quite a while.

I don’t usually stop and meditate on the topic of encouragement, but Kate Rademacher, author of the memoir Following the Red Bird: First Steps Into a Life of Faith and a member of my church, recently graciously invited me to be the first guest blogger on her new blog, launching a sort of series on the topic of encouragement. You can read that blog post in full here.

I’ve received a lot of encouragement over the years (maybe from you, reader!), perhaps especially in recent years as I’ve grown in confidence studying at intersections of faith and mental health. For that I am grateful.

This past semester I found myself encouraged by professors, peers, and the very process of writing as I wound up eagerly crafting pastoral theology papers for each of my seminary classes, addressing the following:

  • “Belonging in the Body: A Pastoral Theology of Lay Eucharistic Visitation and the Care of Persons with Dementia”
  • “‘Enlarge Our Territory:’ The Spiritual and Social Power of Women’s Prayer Groups”
  • “Permission to Grieve: Reading Psalms Through the Lens of Foster Youth and the Experience of Disenfranchised Grief”
  • “Self-Emptying and Self-Care: Exploring a Kenotic Valuation of Self in Philippians 2:1-13”

This summer, I will be doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a structured program of pastoral care training that’s required for ordination in my denomination and many others. While CPE is all about hospital chaplaincy, I’ll be learning mental health chaplaincy in particular, based primarily at a psychiatric hospital and secondarily at a homeless shelter in order to see a spectrum of mental health needs and care structures (or perhaps lack of care structures at times).

Howard Thurman has been famously quoted as saying: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

To be clear, I’ve long taken some issue with this quotation, especially its first sentence; we should absolutely, I think, ask what the world needs. I could say more on the dynamics of Thurman’s and Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted quips on vocation, but I’m saving that for another day.

For now I’ll say: the world needs to see God’s presence in spaces of mental illness, and that, my friends, is something that makes me come alive. I’m no hero, no expert, not ordained or licensed yet. But somehow I am alive as I work, study, read, write, listen, and speak on these things.

Encouraged by the Spirit of God, the words of others, and the vitality (and necessity!) of this work, I hope to keep writing on faith and mental health both here on this blog and elsewhere. You might expect reflections on my time in mental health chaplaincy. You might expect reviews of relevant books, songs, movies, or shows (e.g. Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”). Regardless, I hope you can expect some encouragement.

Podcasts: Top 10

I never thought I’d say this, but I love podcasts. In recent months and years, there seems to have been an accelerating boom of podcasts, including numerous that align with my interests — and the purposes of this blog — centering around faith and/or mental health.

Here’s my current favorites, in alphabetical order because I can never bring myself to rank things:

  1. CXMH (short for “Christianity & Mental Health”) hosted by Robert Vore. Main topics: religion and mental health, featuring conversations mainly with mental health professionals.
  2. Exvangelical hosted by Blake Chastain. Main topics: religion and culture, featuring conversations mainly with “recovering evangelicals.”
  3. On Being hosted by Krista Tippett. Main topics: religion, culture, & creativity.
  4. Personality Hacker hosted by Joel Mark Witt and Antonia Dodge. Main topics: personality psychology, including MBTI and Enneagram.
  5. Queerology hosted by Matthias Roberts. Main topics: religion, sexuality, & gender, featuring conversations mainly with Christian LGBTQ advocates.
  6. The Airing of Grief hosted by Derek Webb, Kevin MacDougall, and Jamie Lee Finch. Main topics: religion, culture, & lament.
  7. The Liturgists hosted by Michael Gungor, Mike “Science Mike” McHargue, Hilary McBride, and William Matthews. Main topics: religion, culture, & science.
  8. The Social Work Podcast hosted by Dr. Jonathan Singer, LCSW. Main topics: mental health and social advocacy, featuring conversations mainly with social work professionals.
  9. Typology hosted by Ian Morgan Cron. Main topics: the Enneagram.
  10. “Where Should We Begin?” hosted by Esther Perel. Main topics: mental health and relationships, featuring live recordings of couples therapy sessions.

Note: My enjoyment of these podcasts does not imply my endorsement of the entirety of their views, content, and guest speakers.

What podcasts would you want to add to this list?!