Psalm 22:1-2; 23:1-4 Romans 5:3-5; 8:38-39
The Rev. Tom Herbek
October 11, 2015
The cry from the Psalmist is one that most people will utter at one time in their life or another: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
How can we deal with trauma in our lives? Someone once said: “It is the things that you cannot do anything about, and the things that you cannot do anything with, that do something to you.” And William Burroughs said it this way: “Desperation is the raw material of drastic change.” Joan Chittister wrote the following comment: “The essence of struggle is the decision to become new rather than simply to become older.” We will be changed by the trauma in our life.
In the middle of the night at a major teaching hospital in NC the size of Strong Hospital, where I was a hospital chaplain, I was called to baptize a newborn preemie in distress. His single mother, all alone, believed that if I baptized him, he would live. And over the course of that long night, I went with her to the NICU numerous times to witness his unstoppable decline. And then I prayed a quiet prayer with her at dawn when he took his last breath, and his heart beat for the last time.
And that is when she screamed at me, “You tell me why God let this happen!” And, of course, I did not and could not. Later, as this single mom recovered from the physical trauma of her c-section (this was in the mid 70’s and moms like this stayed in the hospital for quite a while), she began to consider and discard numerous possible answers to her question.
She continued to come back to my office for counseling for months after her discharge. And finally she decided on an answer for herself, an answer that changed her life. As an African-American woman of the South, she had been taught that she had no value and no future, except to be subservient to men and have their babies. But she decided that God was telling her something else.
She got her GED, and a job that was flexible enough so she could enroll at the community college. Her 4.0 average there got her into college with a full scholarship and then she got a master’s degree in social work. She began a program for inner city girls, to help them overcome all of the voices that told them that they had very few options in life.
Jim Rendon, in his new book, startled me by revealing research that showed the likelihood of something that I know happens, yet thought that it happened only rarely. The book is entitled: Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.
Having worked with Vietnam vets myself, as well as people who have been overwhelmed by tragic loss, car accidents, disease and debilitating injuries, I have seen instances where trauma changes people in ways they never expected. Yet, most of us believe- including me- that post-traumatic stress is basically negative forever, except in rare instances. Rendon describes the research done in many places on trauma. He says:
Psychologists in the U.S., China, Japan, Turkey, Iran, Italy, England, Australia, Israel, and other countries have conducted studies examining growth. They have studied cancer survivors and their spouses, prisoners of war, immigrants, survivors of natural disaster, and more. And over and over they are finding that more than half of trauma survivors grow.
Growth seems to be a widespread phenomenon – in the experience of trauma survivors everywhere.
Since researchers estimate that about 75% of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, this means that of the 160 people or so here today, 120 of us will experience a traumatic event at some time in our life. And it is clear that trauma causes change, and afterwards, we do not return to our baseline, the place we were before the trauma. We must recover, but recovery is not returning to the way we were.
Particularly in Western culture, people develop firmly held beliefs that are incompatible with traumatic experience. They believe that the world is benevolent, that the world is meaningful and just, and that we are good people. In this worldview, bad things don’t happen to good people-especially to oneself. And while people understand intellectually that terrible things can happen to anyone at any time, each of us also, quite irrationally, believes that those things are unlikely to happen to us.
And much of the psychological anguish that people confront has to do with the loss of this worldview and the identity that they carried with them their entire lives. In this way of looking at the world, asking “Why me?” is not only a legitimate question, but one that demands to be answered.
That question can be a dead end – there is no good answer to it. But for some, understanding that they cannot answer that question can set them on the path to overturning their old self. It’s a journey that can be very painful. Part of the struggle of post-traumatic stress, is derived from the inconsistency between the old self and the new reality imposed by the traumatic event. Trauma upends our entire understanding of the world we live in, how it works, and our own place in it.
Survivors must reconstruct their worldview into one that accommodates the new properties embodied by the trauma. If they don’t, they will be constantly pushing back against the memories and associations of the event and all they lost with anger and frustration.
But if they do manage to accommodate the traumatic experience by understanding that it requires a new worldview, the trauma can become part of the foundation for a new way of understanding themselves, perhaps even the starting point for a whole new and better life.
Assistant professor Tzipi Weiss, who studied growth across dozens of cultures, examined seventy-two breast cancer survivors. Some of those cancer survivors had contact with another survivor who reported growth. Weiss found that just having contact with someone who had grown was one of the biggest factors in predicting post traumatic growth. In addition, those women who knew someone who had grown reported higher levels of positive change than did other survivors.
Weiss knows firsthand just how much role models can help. In 1995 she fell ill, likely as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals. She was so sick that at times she could not leave her bed and was in severe pain. Traditional medicine offered no help. A nurse suggested that she start recording even the tiniest moments of positive feeling. She noticed how just watching her children or her husband made her happy. She read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And she found someone else who had survived a terrible illness, whose story acted as a model for her. Eventually she was diagnosed with and treated for liver toxicity and her health improved. Now, she says, she is closer to her family and friends, appreciates her life in a way she hadn’t before, and sees herself as stronger and more capable.
For her, having a role model was crucial. “It doesn’t even have to be a specific person’s story of recovery,” she says. “What is important is that you see the possibility of benefiting from suffering. Once you have that concept, you are more likely to start looking for it.”
Rendon writes that one of the most helpful activities in moving forward is a concept the psychologists call “deliberate rumination.”
Deliberate rumination is a different kind of thought process, one driven by the individual, not the trauma. It is not wallowing or obsessing. When someone is deliberately ruminating on a problem, they are actively involved in thinking about how the event has impacted them, what it means for them, and how they can live their life going forward given the challenges that the event has posed. When deliberately ruminating, the trauma survivor is actively tackling the challenges that the trauma has introduced. Deliberate rumination is the way that people begin to rebuild themselves.
Something like a leukemia diagnosis and treatment or a serious physical injury affords people long stretches of time during which they have little to do other than lie in a hospital bed and heal or undergo treatment. They may be in a lot of pain and facing severe physical and psychological struggle, but they also wind up with a lot of time on their hands. That can help them begin that deliberate ruminative process.
Deliberate rumination is at the heart of growth. It’s an important process that allows trauma survivors to find new narratives for their lives, new ways of understanding their strengths and possibilities, and more meaningful ways to live.
It appears that support from others is crucial in order for us to get through the trauma in a way that leads to growth.
But not just any kind of support will do. The most effective support comes from those who are willing to allow the trauma survivor to dictate their needs. The friend or family member shouldn’t push to talk about things the person is not ready for, nor should they avoid potentially painful topics. “It is a really nuanced thing that depends on the needs of the individual person.” Support should help to build up the person’s sense of autonomy. The kind of support that emphasizes dependence, that tells the survivor what to do instead of enabling them to choose their own path, can be counterproductive. Instead, friends and family members need to allow the survivor to find their own path, to support them in that effort and help them rebuild their lives in their own way.
Many years ago, a book came out that showed us a lot about what we can learn from trauma. Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose son died at age 14 of progeria, a rare disease that rapidly ages a young body, wrote about his grief and rage, his sense of overwhelming loss, and his personal story of slowly climbing out of the blackness of his loss. In When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he wrote this:
Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But we can give them a meaning. We can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
The facts of life and death are neutral. We, by our responses, give suffering either a positive or a negative meaning. Illnesses, accidents, human tragedies kill people. But they do not necessarily kill life or faith.
As we respond with compassion and indignation to life’s unfairness, then we are able to bring something of value out of the tragedy. Gary Mervis, out of his grief, indignation, and compassion, founded Camp Good Days and Special Times after his daughter, Tedde, died of cancer at age 12.
We must find a way, in the midst of the pain of trauma, to respond with compassion and indignation and to hold onto the painful questions and to follow where they lead us. Dr. Rachel Remen told about the death of a young boy from cancer:
I remember the memorial service that was offered for Timmy, a gathering of a few hundred shocked and grieving people. The Quaker minister who spoke to us was only slightly older than Timmy’s parents, and was himself the father of a little boy. He did not tell us that this was a beautiful experience. Instead he pointed to the pain in the room, encouraging each of us to allow it to touch us in our own way and to know that we are not alone in being touched.
The pain would help us to love our children. It would remind us to love each other. He told us that Timmy was not replaceable. Nothing important ever is. He reminded us that the life in every person is unique. And then he pointed to the Mystery. Why should a little boy suffer and die? He asked us to listen for the questions that we now had in our hearts because Timmy had died. Does God exist? Does life have a purpose? Does love go on forever? Does it matter?
He encouraged us to hold those questions close and to follow them. To begin a dialogue with the world about them. To measure the events of all of our lives against them. These questions would help us to move closer to life, to know life more intimately. Looking out over the hushed gathering, his own eyes filled with tears, he wondered aloud if perhaps that was the wisdom.
-My Grandfather’s Blessings
In Paul’s letters to the followers of Jesus in Rome, he said that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because of love and the presence of God’s spirit in our lives and in our world. And Paul says that no trauma can ultimately separate us from the love of God.
We can redeem the tragedies of our life from senselessness by imposing meaning on them. We can be mentors and companions to others as they struggle with their own unique and overwhelming tragedies. And we can be a church family where no agonizing questions are considered to be out of bounds here.
Even in the midst of darkest valleys, we can do all we can- with God’s help- to enable the people we care about to find a way to restore their souls and to be the hands and feet and voices of God, bringing comfort to those in pain.
In this way, this church family can continue to be a resource in the tragic circumstances of life, a resource that helps to enable post-traumatic growth- with the help and love of God.