It has been a hard year, with hurricanes, tornadoes, school shootings, and a marathon bombing in our neighborhoods and around the country. In the wake of these events, we’ve learned that trauma is not a narrow category for a few but broadly real for many in our communities. “Trauma occurs when persons perceive themselves or their senses of well-being (including family, income, housing, and community) is threatened, and their ability to cope is overwhelmed.” The effects of this sort of overthrow can be serious and far-reaching. How do we heal – reconcile with ourselves and reconcile ourselves with the world – following trauma?
Sometimes when we call out prayers for help, the situation seems to grow worse. We get more upset, wondering: Where is God? Then after more carnage and loss, with life really out of control, God shows up. Like Job, we can rage against the God who appears to have let this tragedy unfold: “God, if only you had been here sooner, the situation wouldn’t have gotten so out of hand, with so much loss and hurt. Pick us up. Get us out of here.” We want to be rescued and healed right away, for life to be resolved and back to normal. Yet healing is a slow work, not usually quick or simple. Not neat and tidy. Not as complete and fulfilling as we’d like.
Remember Lazarus. People told Jesus that Lazarus was sick and dying. Jesus was close by and could have arrived in time, but Jesus shows up late. Much too late. Four-days-dead too late. Martha and Mary say: “If only you had been here sooner!”
Jesus says: “Open the tomb.”
“But, Lord, the stench of a four-day-old corpse!”
Jesus persists. The stone is rolled away. Mary and Martha re-encounter death, and now decay, face-first. It is there, in that revolting, terrible place, that Jesus brings life: “Lazarus, come out!”
The story of Lazarus reveals something true about the time and scope of healing after trauma. Jesus comes where and when we need him most, where the stench and grief of death overwhelm us, when hope seems lost. There, in those very places, God comes to weep with us and to shine light into the darkness.
Lazarus walks out of the tomb – amazingly alive – yet still bound. He is not ready for a party to celebrate. Lazarus shows us that a restoration of life comes with strings (or cloth) attached. Jesus gives embodied life, and not instantaneous or magical wholeness. We are created to be in relationship. Lazarus is still human, which means that he still needs help from community with God and others. “Unbind him, and let him go.” Jesus gives Lazarus life and then invites others to help. There is still much work to be done in unbinding and restoring and reconciling. Lazarus cannot unbind himself. Neither can we. For us, as for Lazarus, healing happens through others.
Kate Wiebe, Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth, shares “three keys to healing trauma. Trauma experts say that three things diminish post-traumatic stress and ameliorate PTSD symptoms: safe, trustworthy relationships; relaxation and self-regulation; and sharing life stories honestly.” Those who practice these keys “create environments that heal trauma effectively and consistently are life-giving.”
These keys help point us to concrete practices we can use to “unbind” those for whom we care. Unbinding is delicate work requiring vulnerability for those on both sides of the process. To be ready for this work, we need to cultivate safe, trustworthy relationships. Practice keeping your word, maintaining trust and confidentiality, and offering safety. Nurture trust from everyday words to big commitments. Invest in trustworthy relationships, seek to know and be known. These relationships then prove to be most valuable when in trouble. With this foundation of trust and mutual love, we can be the ones who unbind each other in times of trouble.
We can also cultivate rituals of self-care that help us restore ourselves after trauma. Trauma disrupts, disorients, and overwhelms, breaking norms and balance. Practice relaxation and self-regulation. Be active. Whatever you like to do, move: go walking, sing and dance, exercise, or get a massage. Relish and enjoy small pleasures: use a swing, fly a kite, lie in a hammock, build a sand castle, make a craft, take a bubble bath, go to a spa or relax at home. Give yourself time and creativity to rest.
What have you found to be stunningly beautiful? Revisit those gifts. Visit a botanical garden or wildlife refuge or beach. Go out and gaze at sunrise or sunset. Attend the theater or a concert. Listen to your favorite music. Walk through an art gallery or museum. Whether with one painting or one hundred, let beauty capture your heart again for a moment. Listen for what is beautiful to someone for whom you care. Send or usher them into an encounter with beauty. Whether we seek restoration from ordinary troubles or extraordinary trauma, the wonder of beauty can relax and heal us and those for whom we care.
Listening is one of the most important healing gifts we can give to ourselves and to others. Safe, trustworthy relationships best enable sharing life stories honestly. Letting ourselves, our emotions, desires, pains, and inner lives be seen and recognized by another graces us to live more fully and honestly. “This form of witnessing,” Wiebe says, “actually shifts our internal chemistry and instigates internal healing processes.” Those of us who are primary caregivers to others especially need a loving, listening presence in our lives. When sharing our life stories, it is important and freeing to be honest with ourselves. We like to edit, restrict, categorize, or deny our lives. For example, I have learned that I can have multiple emotions at once, including ones that seem at odds with each other. I can feel happy, mad, and grateful at the same time. Good listeners help me heal by attentively listening to my story with its emotional surprises, seeming contradictions, and scattered pieces. Attentive listening can help me hear how these scattered pieces come together to form me, and put me on the path toward reconciliation.
We Brothers hope to offer the Monastery and Emery House as safe places where all are invited to relax and refresh in monastic rhythms, to sleep well and eat well, to be immersed in worship and silence, to be surrounded by simple beauty, and to have the opportunity to be listened to and accompanied in the work of restoration and reconciliation. Much healing happens here. We hope that you will know that you are welcome here, to seek a safe refuge following trauma, and to discover healing practices you can continue in your own family, parish, and community.
For more on the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth with research, education, and networking for the emotional, psychological, and spiritual long-term care of congregations and communities, visit: www.ICTG.org