Healing Trauma

A Sunday Gathering Message from New Unity

Let there be love in our hearts
Let there be love amongst us
Let love radiate forth from this place
And its healing power warm the world
As only light can chase away the darkness
Only love can vanquish hate


Up, by Margaret Atwood

You wake up filled with dread.There seems no reason for it.Morning light sifts through the window,there is birdsong,you can't get out of bed.

It's something about the crumpled sheets hanging over the edge like jungle foliage, the terry slippers gaping their dark pink mouths for your feet,the unseen breakfast--some of it in the refrigerator you do not dare to open--you do not dare to eat.

What prevents you? The future. The future tense,immense as outer space.You could get lost there.No. Nothing so simple. The past, its destiny and drowned events pressing you down,like sea water, like gelatin filling your lungs instead of air.

Forget that and let's get up.Try moving your arm.Try moving your head.Pretend the house is on fire and you must run or burn.No, that one's useless.It's never worked before.

Where is it coming from, this echo,this huge No that surrounds you,silent as the folds of the yellow curtains, mute as the cheerful

Mexican bowl with its cargo of mummified flowers?(You chose the colours of the sun,not the dried neutrals of shadow. God knows you've tried.)

Now here's a good one:You're lying on your deathbed.You have one hour to live.Who is it, exactly, you have needed all these years to forgive

'Trauma and Recovery’, by Judith Lewis Herman

“Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community. Those who have survived learn that their sense of self, of worth, of humanity, depends upon a feeling of connection with others. The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group exalts her. Trauma dehumanizes the victim; the group restores her humanity.

Repeatedly in the testimony of survivors there comes a moment when a sense of connection is restored by another person’s unaffected display of generosity. Something in herself that the victim believes to be irretrievably destroyed---faith, decency, courage---is reawakened by an example of common altruism. Mirrored in the actions of others, the survivor recognizes and reclaims a lost part of herself. At that moment, the survivor begins to rejoin the human commonality...” ?

Message, by Andy Pakula

This past Thursday was Yom Hashoah. Shoah is the Hebrew word for holocaust. In English, Yom Hashoah is called Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the one day each year set aside to remember the cold-blooded extermination of many millions of people by Nazi Germany.

The largest number of the murdered were Jews. Six million Jews were murdered for being Jews. Two thirds of all the Jews who had lived in Europe were killed.

The killing was not limited to Jews, however. Several million Soviet prisoners of war were killed. Nearly two million ethnic poles, half a million Serbs, a quarter million disabled people, one to two hundred thousand Roma people and Freemasons were murdered. As many as fifteen thousand LGBT people will killed.

But the Nazis held a special hatred for the Jews, upon whom they laid all the anger for the hardships they themselves had suffered in the interwar period.

For German Jews and others who had lived side-by-side with their German neighbours before the rise of the Nazis, the holocaust was a trauma beyond imagining. Dehumanisation. Persecution. Terror. People were spoken of and then exterminated like vermin.

We can only begin to imagine what it was like to be a Jew living in territory controlled by the Nazis. If you had not been arrested yet, every moment, every sound, every car that passed or voice in the street was a reason for terror. And to be arrested was to be sent to the concentration camps. Some - those not thought to be valuable for work - were killed immediately.

The rest were worked to death, tortured, or made the subject of grotesque and inhumane medical experiments. It was an extended period of deliberate, industrial-scale persecution and extermination of an entire people.

The Holocaust ended in 1945, more than 71 years ago. The tormentors are nearly all dead and the survivors are becoming a rarity now.

There is a tendency now to ask “Can’t we just put this behind us?” It is natural to wonder if holding onto the memory of this horrible episode in human history isn’t part of the problems we face today. Some suspect the Jews are exploiting the experience of the holocaust - using it to gain advantage and special consideration today.

Similar questions are raised about other victims of terrible historic trauma. Can’t the Native Americans, the residents of the Belgian Congo, the children of African slaves, the Armenians who survived genocide by the Ottoman Empire, the indigenous peoples of Australia and all the others just forgive and forget?

It happens to individuals too. Those who have suffered terribly - especially at the hands of people who should have been trusted caretakers - are often looked upon with some disdain and suspicion.

We know that holding onto anger harms us - it means greater pain on top of the pain we’ve already suffered. We know that forgiveness lightens our load and helps to restore relationship.

Wise sayings remind us of this fact:

“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

“Holding onto anger is Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

“Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.”

So, can’t we just put this behind us?

It’s not that simple. As those who have suffered serious, sustained, trauma know, it’s not nearly that simple.

People who have suffered sustained trauma can be changed by the experience. Many may develop a constellation of symptoms that persists. It may affect their thinking, their emotions, and even their physical health. In extreme cases, it may last a lifetime.

The effects of trauma can last beyond one lifetime. It is not surprise that child-abusers so often turn out to have been abused themselves.

It is well-established now that the impact of trauma can be transmitted from one generation to the next. In the 1960s, psychological professionals noticed that large numbers of the children of holocaust survivors were seeking mental health treatment. Even amongst the grandchildren of survivors, the rate of trauma-associated symptoms appeared to be much higher than average.

It’s called transgenerational trauma, and it probably isn’t that surprising. A parent who has experienced extreme trauma will carry some of the effects of that trauma into their parenting. We can understand that - without effective support - victims of trauma will transmit the effects of that trauma to their children.

In fact, transgenerational trauma seems to be even more persistent and insidious. Consider this:

Experimental animals were trained to fear the scent of cherry blossoms. An untrained animal would have no response to the smell, but the trained animals visibly reacted when it was present.

When the trained animals reproduced, their offspring - conceived after the training - also responded fearfully to the scent of cherry blossoms. These offspring responded this way even though they had never observed their fearful mother’s response. Trauma can be transmitted, not only by behaviour, but biologically. There is now evidence that human gene expression can be altered by trauma and that these changes can be transmitted to children.

The impact of past trauma is with us today and impacts the world we live in.

Some Jews who carry the echo of trauma with them have become oppressive themselves in the state of Israel’s treatment of Palistinians. This is more than a personal trauma, but a cultural one - an impact so severe that it has become a central story of a people.

The same kinds of inherited impacts carry on into other conflicts and shape responses today.
Our second reading today was from Judith Lewis Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery - the work that began serious consideration of the effects of complex and persistent trauma.
Herman tells us of one of the most corrosive effects of trauma - one that can simultaneously wound and block the path to healing:

“Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community.”

Trauma can leave its victims deeply fearful and guarded. It robs them of the possibility of being open and honest and vulnerable with other human beings - the essential requirements for creating deep, sustaining, healing relationships.

And, there is a hopeful side to Herman’s understanding of this process. She goes on to say that those who survive and recover from trauma have learned the absolute necessity of connection with others. She writes: “The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group exalts her. Trauma dehumanizes the victim; the group restores her humanity.”

The magic moment for many trauma survivors - the epiphany - comes in an experience of unexpected generosity from another human being - the pure example that shows that decency, care, tenderness, and goodness are not gone from the world. Such a generous act can rekindle the survivor’s own courage and faith.

As we make our way in the world, it is essential to remember that many of the people we encounter may be carrying the effects of severe and sustained trauma. They may appear withdrawn. They may seem angry and hostile. They will probably seem to rebuff our sincere attempts to connect. They have learned not to trust and their own bodies and minds have tried to make them safe in the only ways they know how. Remember that when someone seems unlovable, love is exactly what they need.

What is true for individuals can also be true for peoples and for nations. A bruised and traumatised people will not be brought toward compassion with guns or missiles or embargos. It is responding from fear and a need for self-protection that arises from past trauma. A people that hardens in response to pressure may warm in the face of acts of care and kindness.

The nation that continues to fight tormentors past, may - like any of us - find their heart open when address with love.

And let us remember that a trauma we inflict or allow to happen today will be with us for generations. Each bullet creates the angry wounded of two or three generations. Each bomb creates many more.

We are creating the world of tomorrow today. We are shaping the reactions of people one two or more generations in the future.

We must know that, although it seems expedient, violence does not end violence. Killing does not end killing. Oppression does not end oppression.

At some point, humankind must learn that we can only create a better world with compassion and warmth and generosity. We must learn to love.