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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

We’ve all been there: Naming trauma

June 3, 2020 by The Presbyterian Outlook

As pastors and church leaders, we travel in and out of airports, train stations, even the local bus depots going to meetings, presbytery committees and retreats. If there is an empty seat beside us, perhaps our anxiety rises. Sometimes our stomachs drop when we hear these words after some small talk: “Oh! You’re a pastor?” It can be for many reasons. Maybe we were accosted by someone who was hurt by the church who wanted to hold us personally responsible for their pain as we headed to the funeral of a colleague. Or it could have been someone who just had to tell us why women should never be ordained at a point when we have owned a season of struggle in our ministry. It could even be a well-meaning tirade on what the church really needs while we are headed out to a conference exhausted by our called vocation. There are many stories and possibilities that zip through our heads as the empty seat is filled. When leaving the Atlanta airport on a trip this past year, I was looking at the empty seat beside me. The woman who came to sit there looked friendly enough and I thought I was in the clear. I asked her a few questions. She answered kindly, but I noticed a recalcitrant tone. I wondered – and then was sure – that she was clergy of some kind. It was the same hesitance that I have had on trips, and after a few more questions I realized we were, in fact, going to the same conference. I chose my next words carefully. “So, what is it that you do exactly with your day-to-day?” I saw a slight panic cross her face as she knew there was finally no escape. “I’m a pastor.” Her eyes held a secret pleading that hoped this stranger in the seat next to her for the next few hours wouldn’t be a total weirdo, and sadly that plea was unanswered. I inhaled and in my most excited, yet still plane-acceptable, volume I said, “Oh really?!” She picked up on the level of enthusiasm. There was a faint cringe. This guy is way too eager. She knew there had to be an agenda. Now she was doomed. What polemic was she about to endure? What diatribe about female pastors, or the “real” issue with God would be forthcoming? I chatted with her for a few minutes, but relented. “I’m just being terrible. I’m a pastor as well and I am pretty sure we are going to the same conference.” After she throttled me with her eyes for a bit, we descended into laughter and apologies on my part and became fast friends. “Little-t” traumas My deviousness aside, this situation is perhaps a little familiar to us. What we might not recognize is that this fear, this anxiety that pulls us away from the current moment into nervousness or leans up against our comfort zones and crosses our boundaries — this is trauma. Perhaps not “big-T” trauma that we expect, but “little-t” trauma and valid none the less. Perhaps these kinds of experiences seem too trite to consider that their root is trauma, but that is the truth of it; not owning it does no favors to our ministries or ourselves. If we want to get serious about dealing with and healing through our traumatic places in life or be truly useful to others who have had these experiences, one of the first things we can do is alter our understanding to know that trauma is not an event that might happen in tragedy, but is an inevitability that will happen to varying degrees throughout our lives. Keeping the moniker at bay or reserving it for cataclysms does not help and, in fact, leaves us unprepared for the spectrum of trauma and trauma-related actions that we see in church and in the world every day. It isn’t a matter of if but when and how deeply we will experience trauma: in church members who dig in their heels on the color of the sanctuary carpet; colleagues we count as friends voting opposite of us at presbytery; sudden and surprising infighting or anger at session meetings; students who disappear after an intense and seemingly awesome worship experience; the loss of miscarriage; having our safety stolen from our learning environment in a fight or bullying; being confronted with hate within the walls of the church; being raised in a family that teaches you to hide the “bad” parts of you, moralizing your right to exist; moving through the process of divorce or a messy break-up; or not being able to find our own boundaries and being respected while traveling. Our reactions to all of these are informed by our prior traumatic experiences or are created by these big-T and little-t traumatic events. We don’t have to live through a war zone to begin the journey of dealing with trauma in a healthy way that values the life that God has created in us. Every person’s traumatic events can be wildly different. Our experiences of trauma are dependent on the life we have led to that point, which no two people can say that they share completely, and are affected by our inherited biology. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and surgeon general of California, has written about the pervasive nature through which trauma can express itself in our bodies. Those who have experienced deep trauma statistically have a lifespan cut short by as many as 20 years. Exposure to childhood trauma increases our risks for heart disease and can even change the way our genes move into the next generation, propagating the trauma experiences to our children from their birth. Our traumas are being passed on to our kids or have been passed on to us. Addressing trauma with youth I have found that adults are callous, reluctant or even hostile to the idea of altering their language and presentation in order to not continue harmful patterns. I struggle sometimes to find loving and creative ways to encourage these folks to live into the opening lines from Psalm 41, which reminds us that we are blessed and righteous when we honor those experiencing weakness. In prior ministry contexts, I worked mainly with students and their stories were often similar. Across affluence and upbringing, across geographies and generations, students hit the same markers of shame in the midst of not knowing the things they “should” know in order to perform a successful life, while at the same time having no resources or language to describe their experiences as trauma. These experiences are prevalent. From school shootings all the way down to hazing in a locker room, students often absorb the brunt of the world through trauma without the benefit of adults who have studied trauma in order to aid them in negotiating those waters. More than a decade ago the CDC ran a study nationally using the ACE tests. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur before age 17. The study found that almost two-thirds of participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. With increases in school violence and armed conflicts, that number is expected to be far greater today. The numbers are worse for children in developmentally at-risk areas, which are found all over the country. A study in the last decade looked at underserved neighborhoods in San Francisco, and the results were staggering. Possibly most sobering were the results of the adults in this community. Sixty-seven percent of folks had one ACE marker and one in eight had four or more ACE events in their lives. T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison are the founders of the health nonprofit GirlTrek. Their movement challenges the pattern of black women dying from obesity-related diseases faster and at higher rates than their light-skinned counterparts. They have said that the trauma these women experience in childhood is literally held in their “bellies and bones,” making trauma traceably responsible for their health and following deaths. Talking about trauma The tendrils of trauma can be insidious and have far-reaching ramifications, yet this narrative often isn’t talked about or preached about. It remains unheard and unknown. Yet it is a real matter of life and death for the people of God. Traumas can manifest so that we are returned, in a very real way, to the moment of trauma. We can relive those moments again and again until we fold underneath the emotion that is created or seek alternative methods of coping. Helplessness can wash over us and create in us a “fight, flight or freeze” response. The chemical cascade trades physiological changes for stress damage to our bodies. The real causes of these triggers are still largely a mystery to medical communities. We don’t know what causes them, but we know that without treatment, memories of traumas can be activated — and we know the destructive force this has on our lives. Questions arise for church care professionals: What can we do? What books do we read? What lectures do we attend? How do we wrap our very Presbyterian brains (which perhaps naturally desire data and methodology) around this so that we can nurture change in the lives of the congregations we love? Pastors and faith leaders have a responsibility to this “invisible wound” that haunts our churches. We must (read “shall”!) be part of the team that takes the lead — bearing witness to the trauma of our own lives. How can we hope to hear the people in our communities if we refuse to seek counsel or explore the risks and events of our own lives? Our first step, then, is to seek help. This isn’t work we can research our way out of or self-analyze, though that may be a way to start. We need counseling from professionals trained and practiced in this. Next, we seek our own training. There are more and more trauma-informed workshops in our cities. Seek them out. Hunt them down. Find the people who are educated in trauma-and-resilience-informed practices that aim to aid professionals who serve at-promise youth, families and adults in their communities. This is the work of healing our world needs and we are called to participate in it through our training and certification with the same urgency that we bring to the study of Scripture. If you are looking for a social marker revealing how prevalent this has become, consider the show “Steven Universe.” It is an incredibly fun narrative to help wrap your head around this. If you have older children (through teenagers) who are trying to parse out their own experiences, I recommend you check it out alongside them. This program, the brainchild of cartoonist and producer Rebecca Sugar, openly deals with trauma, some of the steps taken in healing from it and the mistakes we might make along the way. One of the main characters is raised in an emotionally traumatizing family and suffers until making a breakthrough. More recently, the titular movie of the series has an even more succinct and powerful message toward those dealing with trauma: Growth comes from choosing to confront our traumatic experiences in spite of hardships and can be founded in self-acceptance and healthy relationships that are built on empathy and our mutual support. First steps for helping those dealing with trauma First and foremost, let someone who is dealing with trauma know you believe what they are experiencing. Right now, so many leaders and authority figures (usually because of their own discomforts, hurt and or ignorance) recommend that others just “get over it” or “move on,” which is destructive and direly unhelpful. The most important thing we can do for one another is to keep in mind that social support networks, open acceptance and genuine empathy are key to recovery. Traumatic events are things that happen to us, and unwinding the blame and shame that is inseparably present for the reactions that we experience is a big step in moving into health and a better relationship with our church family and our God. In our capacity as church leadership, we are often the frontline for people expressing their own experiences, or a person who is processing after receiving someone’s unhealthy traumatic reaction. Knowing how to help our church family and community navigate a path through their experience is an incredibly meaningful way to bring Good News to our ministry context. With knowledge, training and our openness to deal with our own personal traumatic experiences, we might even be able to face ministry – even traveling – with fearless strength.

This piece was originally published in the Presbyterian Outlook

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