Lent 3b: Not Fear but Trauma
The hardest part of recovery from trauma is learning to live.
Throughout Lent I have been preaching on fear. I took cues from friends and colleagues who helped name commonly expressed fears that lead us to act desperately and to accept violence as part of life. My first sermon was called “The Fear of Being On Our Own.” It explored various forms of alienation in our culture of individualism: we are ultimately alone, responsible to and for ourselves without support, and no one cares. My second sermon was called “Our Fear of Not Making a Difference.” It explored our desire to make a meaningful difference with our lives, and our fear that we have either failed to do so or that our efforts are ultimately futile. In his seminal study of suicide, the pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim defined these two fears as alienation and anomie. Engines of despair, they describe a lack of social connection and lack of socially shared meaning.
The third week of Lent presented me a new challenge. I had intended to take as a cue for my third sermon a comment shared with me by a friend: I am, she wrote, “afraid of cutting ties with the abuser. Afraid not to be afraid.” While the idea that we are afraid to embrace the fullness of life that God offers us seemed to be a provocative theme for a sermon, I had to set it aside. This is because what my friend describes is not a fear of life, but the fear of an abusers’ continued power, even after the abuser is gone. What she describes is not fear but trauma.
A few weeks ago my local clergy group heard a presentation from a colleague with training in trauma response. Dealing with trauma mean coming face to face with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. It is speak of the unspeakable and to admit to witnessing atrocity. This requires a political movement that can tell the truth about trauma and a community of conscience and caring that can support those who need to put their lives back together. When my colleague said “the hardest part of recovery is learning to live,” he wasn’t describing fear (or the sermon I thought I would preach) but a difficult, difficult process. How does one reestablish a normal life when normal life has been shredded through the traumas of child abuse, war, domestic or sexual violence?
My same friend asked, “What is it like to not live in fear, even if the threat is mostly gone? That’s really it for me.” Another friend working through a similar process shared with me that she is “having a really, really hard time adjusting to being happy or even normal.” A high school friend told me that she thinks “fear is a normal part of life” and that she “would like to teach [her] children how to effectively work through fear…otherwise it is paralyzing.” But, she continues, “it seems more and more in the world what we have to deal with is not normal. It is not normal to be afraid that when we send our children to school we may never see them again. I think it is causing a general feeling of fear and anxiety in society.”
I first encountered Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror,” in a seminary class on pastoral care. I’m grateful to my clergy colleague for urging me to read it again. Herman writes, “the core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based on the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.”
What God offers is a gracious relationship with the one who knows every truth about us and the world we live in, and who welcomes our every tentative grasp toward health. What the church (at it’s best) can offer is a community that can point to this reality in scripture and in our own lives.
Denise Levertov, citing the story of the woman who approached Jesus in a crowd in order to touch his garment and be healed, a woman who ultimately told Jesus “the whole truth about herself” and her suffering at the hands of many and whose faith, Jesus says, has healed her, composed a poem out of her own experience, despair and tentatively restored faith. She called it “Suspended.”
I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The “everlasting arms” my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.