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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Some Words on Wordlessness: A Sermon

A sermon offered in Preaching class last week…


“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” ~ Romans 8:25-27

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

***

It was sophomore year of college and my friend Alex had just sent me this text message: “I need to talk to someone. Can we meet up? Soon please.”

I knew he had been having a hard time. Several weeks prior, a classmate of ours had passed away from suicide, and Alex had been thrown into an ocean of grief, guilt, and even questions about death and the afterlife.

But that evening when I met Alex on campus he couldn’t articulate any of that. He had wanted to talk to someone…but couldn’t get the words out. We sat there for ten minutes in almost total silence.

Until eventually I said quietly, “Use your words, Alex. Just one word. Or a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

He said just a little. And I remember a lot. Not a lot of words. But a lot of Holy Spirit hovering somewhere around our lack of words.

***

When I think of this passage from Romans 8 that we’re looking at today, there’s a number of images that come to my mind.

For instance, I joked with a friend once that maybe these “sighs,” also sometimes translated as “groanings,” too deep for words are like the character Dory in the movie Finding Nemo trying to speak “whale” language. In several scenes, Dory intones her voice in all kinds of exaggerated ways. All the while, she harbors this seemingly naïve faith that the whales will understand her…and lo and behold, they do. The metaphor kind of works.

On a more serious note, I’ve heard it said on occasion that these sighs or groans represent praying in tongues or “praying in the Spirit,” understood differently by different people.

But, when I really think about this text, I see much more than “whale” language, more even than a prayer language, and more about what happens when we don’t have the language for what we’re experiencing.

Have you ever been there? Maybe sitting on your couch watching a tragedy unfold on the news – like even what’s happened in Las Vegas today – or sitting with a grieving person during your Field Ed or CPE or in your own personal life. I can’t believe it, you say, there are no words, ironically using words to describe your feeling of wordlessness because that’s simply the best that our human limitations can muster.

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

I wonder, psychologically, what kinds of conditions can render us speechless in this way? What life circumstances have the power to take away our words and reduce usually articulate, even verbose people like the apostle Paul into sighs and groans?

I see at least three ways to consider the experience of speechlessness.

We can be stunned speechless, standing in awe of God or God’s creation, of sunsets or oceans or acts of kindness. We smile and let out a sigh too deep for words.

We can also be depressed into speechlessness; after all, decreased social connectivity – including communication with friends, family, and I would say God – is among the chief symptoms of clinical depression. We hide away and maybe cry and let out a sigh too deep for words.

Finally, and related to being depressed, people can be oppressed into speechlessness. Deeply, daily, this is one big sigh too deep for words.

It’s this last condition – oppression – that I’d like to focus on the most today.

***

Dr. Christie Cozad Neuger, a scholar of pastoral care and counseling, spends a great deal of time in her book Counseling Women describing the cultural phenomenon of “women’s loss of voice” and emphasizing the role of pastors, counselors, and hopefully all of us in “helping women come to voice.” To be sure, the struggle of voicelessness and the process of coming to voice is experienced not only by women but by all manner of minority persons whether ethnic, racial, sexual, socioeconomic, or otherwise. Neuger describes the frequency with which minorities have no voice for making narrative, cohesive sense of some of their experiences as well as the frequency with which minorities are not heard even when they do speak up and not believed even when they are heard.

In the example of a sexual assault survivor, for instance, she would statistically be very likely to experience a sense of shock, shame, or intimidation that locks her into silence during and after the initial impact – a silence around this topic lasting for hours, days, months, or even years. Difficulty identifying someone willing and able to listen. Difficulty being believed by friends, family, media, and the legal system who say that she’s exaggerating, seeking attention, or “was asking for it.”

There’s a reason that trauma studies have often used the language of “saying the unsayable” or “bearing the unbearable.”

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.        

***

This, my friends, is precisely where the Holy Spirit comes in.

The Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. In our sighs and groans. In the speechlessness of sublime joy, of deep depression, or of systemic oppression. And, yes, also in the wordless writer’s block of the divinity student writing theology midterms.

How exactly does the Holy Spirit help us in these times?

Well, twice just in these few verses from Romans 8, Paul repeats that the Spirit intercedes.

And what does that mean? According to Merriam Webster, to intercede means to go between, coming straight from the Latin roots “inter” meaning between and “cede” meaning go. The Holy Spirit goes between us and God. This means that the Spirit understands us and, with that understanding, speaks to God or you might even say advocates to God on our behalf. The Spirit connects me to God, you to God, us to God. The Spirit runs through our veins like a telephone wire telling God who we are, what we feel, what we think, what we need – even or perhaps especially when we can’t quite find the words to understand it or say it ourselves.

What does this mean for the oppressed? For the trauma survivor that I spoke of earlier? This means that God, through the Holy Spirit, understands her story, her personhood, her cries and sighs.

This means that God longs for us who are survivors to come to voice – not just on our own in our wordless weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

This means, too, that God longs for us who are not ourselves oppressed to come to voice on behalf of the oppressed – again not just in our wordless, shrugging, “what can I do?” kind of weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

***

I think of my friend Alex back in college and what I told him at the time: “Use your words. Just a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

For me and Alex, with our human limitations, that was true. We need language – at least in some form and to some extent – to understand one another.

But God?

God is not limited to language in the way that we are. God’s ways are “higher than our ways.”

So, with Romans 8 in mind, I imagine God saying to Alex – and to us: “Don’t worry about your words – or lack thereof. I welcome your silence. When you’re ready, I’ll welcome your words. Wherever you’re at, I welcome you. By the Holy Spirit, I know you and know how to help you.”

***

I used to think this passage in Romans was an excuse to stop trying when praying is kinda hard. As though it says with a shrug, “Don’t know how to pray? That’s OK. Just take it easy. Sigh. Groan. Whatever.”

But now, even in preparing for today’s sermon, I’ve realized this passage is an invitation not to stop trying but to stop trying so hard on my own, leaning on my own strength, when praying is kinda hard.

On our own? Sometimes there’s no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

But with the Spirit? Those sighs can start to shift from voices being depressed or oppressed in this world toward voices being expressed in the Spirit. May we take up this invitation and join in this liberation.

Amen.

Religious Trauma and the Binding of Isaac

1200px-sacrifice_of_isaac-caravaggio_28uffizi29“Deceived, tied up, and held at knife-point — all by his own father? Because God said so? Talk about traumatic!” an older lady exclaimed.

I was sitting in a lectionary Bible study this morning, discussing the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) as many lectionary users may have done today. And let’s just say the conversation wasn’t easy. The bunch of us, perhaps especially those who are parents, appeared aghast at a God who would lead Abraham to the point of so nearly killing his son Isaac.

What stood out to me was the group’s conception of the event as traumatic.

This summer, I’ve been doing some particularly focused reading on the topic of religious trauma, starting with the work of trauma therapist and contemplative activist Teresa Pasquale and moving next into the pastoral perspective of PCUSA minister and writer Carol Howard Merritt.

According to Pasquale, “trauma in a religious context can be seen as any painful experience perpetrated by family, friends, community members, or institutions inside of a religion” (Sacred Wounds, 22). Some of the more difficult yet all-too-real case examples that Pasquale cites include sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders and ostracism of LGBTQ persons initiated by religious leaders. She goes into great detail regarding types of trauma, types of trauma responses, symptoms and treatment of PTSD, and more.

In my seminary studies this past year, I learned that one of the lenses through which I might conduct Bible study (and through which, it turns out, I enjoy conducting Bible study!) is through the lens of trauma theory. This simply means reading biblical narratives with an awareness of the psychological experiences occurring within and among the characters.

What psychological experiences might be occurring within Abraham, for example? Fear. Dread. An anxious hope that indeed, as promised, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” thus sparing Isaac from death (Gen. 22:8).

And Isaac? Shock. Anger. Betrayal. An anxious, adrenaline-filled relief that, in the very last second, indeed “Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13).

Two truths are evident:

  1. The binding of Isaac qualifies as a traumatic event — an instance of religious trauma to be exact. I can imagine Isaac triggered for years to come, sweating or hyperventilating or experiencing other panic symptoms at the sight of normally neutral or even good things such as firewood, knives, an altar, or his own father. I can imagine Isaac as a teenager reminding his father of the event during times of familial conflict. (“You almost killed me that one time! What kind of loving father does that?”)
  2. God provides. The keyword “provide” occurs at least three times in the story, in verses 8 and 14. What’s more, in two of those occurrences (verse 14), Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Naming of people and places was a significant act in the ancient world, which suggests God’s provision as a significant theme of this story.

Importantly, Truth #2 does not negate Truth #1 — lest we try to become entirely saccharine about what’s happening here. God’s provision in the end does not give us permission to ignore a person’s painful process leading up to the end. A story that only looks at the end is no good story at all.

And, on the flip side, Truth #1 does not negate Truth #2 — lest we try to become entirely cynical about what’s happening here. A painful process does not give us permission to ignore God’s provision in the end. A story that neglects to look at the end is no good story at all.

What does this have to say to survivors of religious trauma?

First, religious trauma is real. As Pasquale wrote:

“I want to validate your hurt. If you have been negatively impacted by others’ actions or the experiences you have had inside a religious or spiritual context, I am so sorry. I am terribly sorry the places, spaces, and faces who were supposed to show you the ultimate expression of love showed you something negating” (Sacred Wounds, 21).

Isaac, I want to validate your hurt. I am so sorry.

Second, survivors of religious trauma can have hope. God provides in the end. Or if you prefer to think of it this way: life provides. Life keeps going and life can provide family, friends, helping professionals, and/or communities (whether religious or not) that have some goodness in them if we’re willing to see and receive it. Life provides breath and body and beauty, exemplified in the “healing exercises” Pasquale offers centered around breathing, grounding, and forms of art therapy. In short, life provides.

Isaac, I want to share in your hope. I am so thankful.

It’s hard for the hurt and the hope to coexist. But I think that’s what the story of the binding of Isaac, and the story of any religious trauma, has to tell. It’s not an easy story. But it’s a good one.

Anniversary Reactions

I’m currently walking through a couple days that constitute a mild “anniversary reaction” for me. Basically, something somewhat traumatic happened one year ago, inciting temporary shock and sadness. Though that shock and sadness wore off over time, it’s trying to come back one year later. The National Center for PTSD, among other websites, describe the whole phenomenon in a much more thorough, evidence-based manner than I can.

What I can describe is some things that are helping in dealing with this.

Be proactive. Just by keeping an eye on the calendar, I saw this reaction coming. I’ve been journaling and praying about it for a little while. I called a friend a few nights ago, went out for frozen yogurt then focused on some work last night as the anniversary reaction was beginning, and approached a trusted co-worker today when the reaction was picking up.

Don’t be alone. Notice most of those things in the above “be proactive” section involve people. Most of the time I spent with those people, we weren’t actually talking about the traumatic experience that was on my mind (though we did some). We just talked about our lives, jobs, where we grew up, where we went to college. We were just together.

The National Center for PTSD also includes people in many of its recommended coping strategies, such as visiting a grave together, donating to charity, helping others, or spending the day with family/friends.

Read poetry. Or listen to spoken word. These have an incredible power to tell the reader/listener: “I understand. You’re not alone.”

Fortuitously, I stumbled across these gems in the last couple days:

From Jane Hirshfield’s “The Envoy“:
“For a year I watched
as something — terror? happiness? grief? —
entered and then left my body.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.”

From Donald Finkel’s “Sonic Boom“:
“Nothing has happened, nothing has been broken,
everything is still in place, including yourself;
even now the juice of alarm begins to settle”

Talk kindly to yourself: “Nothing has happened, nothing has been broken, everything is still in place, including yourself.”

Yes, at some point a year or two years or many years ago something did happen, something was broken, everything was not in place, including yourself. But now? Now you’re here, safe, loved.

Now you’re here…

safe…

loved.