Talk about trauma seems to be everywhere these days. Type “trauma” into your favorite search engine and get about 345,000,000 results on any given day. Open your favorite news source to find articles and yet another new book on the topic. Listen as people use the terms “trauma” and “PTSD” casually in everyday conversations.
To me, this current cultural fascination with trauma is both welcome and disturbing. Welcome, in that we are beginning to release the layers of secrecy and shame that unhealed trauma perpetuates. Disturbing, because not everyone, including clergy, is approaching trauma, its aftermath, and recovery with the nuanced understanding that such pain not only needs but deserves.
My late husband was a licensed clinical social worker who witnessed the way church leaders, family members, and friends misunderstand the pain of traumatic experiences. He specialized in two specific areas of trauma recovery: sexual addictions and male survivors of childhood sexual violence, including clergy abuse.
Often Tony returned home from work shaking his head with this complaint: “I had another new client today who went to his pastor first. The pastor made him feel like the addiction or abuse was his fault. Now my client’s healing will be longer and my job harder.”
“The pastor made my client feel like the addiction or abuse was his fault. Now my client’s healing will be longer and my job harder.”
As a healer, Tony was a “pit dweller.” He climbed down into the pits of anguish and despair, meeting his clients where they were. In the pit he practiced “do no harm” to others through his own ongoing healing and training. His ire regarding pastors was caused by their unwillingness to do the same and often in the name of God. In Tony’s experience, pastors tended to be “edge dwellers,” standing with shaming postures and words near the pit’s rim instead of being willing to get in. This stance often caused additional harm, requiring pit dwelling healers to bear witness to both the initial or ongoing pain. Edge dwelling by clergy also led to spiritual pain, often caused by oppressive theology and fueled by spiritual leaders’ unhealed pain.
In scripture, pits are described as places to go down into, languish in, experience despair in, and even not return from. They are dread-filled places caused by either the pit dwelling person themselves or by their enemies. But pits aren’t necessarily bad; they can form a metaphorical containment of sorts that provide an external sense of protection. In the ongoing experience of unhealed trauma, for example, pits may feel safer than the plane of everyday life. In healing work, the role of the mental health therapist is to provide a safe physical and emotional container for each client, even when they feel numb or are stuck in slow-motion reactions. Therapists not only create this space with the client, but they are also trained to stay in it, which is difficult work.
Most people in ministry, including myself, are not therapists. While many of us take pastoral care classes and participate in clinical pastoral education, we either do not qualify or do not apply for specialized training in trauma recovery healing modalities such as Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing (SE). But does it take this expertise to create and share safe containment with others during suffering and sorrow?
We must understand that, to sit with suffering people requires doing our own, ongoing self-work.
It depends. No, not every person in ministry must become a clinical mental health therapist to work in despair’s pits. However, we must understand that, to sit with suffering people requires doing our own, ongoing self-work. It’s not only a matter of what faith leaders know or don’t know about the symptoms of traumatic experiences; it’s what we know about our own histories and painful experiences. It’s what we have taken the time and energy to heal within ourselves, often in partnership with our own therapist.
When we as faith leaders actively work to heal ourselves, we learn to create and maintain healthy personal boundaries in word, posture, and action. We then do not ask the suffering person to emotionally take care of us. In turn our healthy boundaries create a sense of being “safe enough” for despair to have its say without being shut down. In our own healing work, we also learn to maintain a sense of safety through ongoing internal observation and self-awareness even when another person’s suffering elicits discomfort, reminds us of our own pain, or our own emotional triggers attempt to sweep our feeling states away.
Most people want to do the right thing for those they love, support, and serve. But people in ministry often tune out the repeated message of “do your own healing first.” Instead, self-work is replaced by a “to do” list followed by a “what not to do list,” so we can avoid the much harder task of examining our own pain while exhibiting correct supportive behavior. In other words, the checklist, as Tony would put it, is all about us, the giver of care and support and not the person suffering. No checklist of prescribed behaviors is going to help us when we are triggered or encounter complicated suffering. The pit dweller’s checklist looks like this:
- Do your own healing first
- Keep doing your own healing
- Repeat 1 and 2
Yes, learning about how unhealed traumatic experiences cause ongoing suffering is important. But without doing our own healing work, these facts, case studies, and healing modalities live in abstraction. Abstractions separate us as humans. Disconnection from self, others, and God is already rampant in the afterlife of trauma. As people of faith we do not need to contribute to this painful symptom by relying on information rather than interacting with others from the place of our own healing.
When we make our own healing an ongoing daily practice, we enter the pits of others differently.
When we make our own healing an ongoing daily practice, we enter the pits of others differently. We practice God’s witness in the world by creating a spiritual container with the suffering one. We enter this spiritual pit with respect to the person and their pain without needing to know their story. We also do not push to solve pain and sorrow as if it is a problem. And we do not litter the pit with our “windy words”(Job 16:3).
When we do our own healing work we better understand how to be with the suffering person in a quiet form of human availability. We can use simple breathing techniques to keep ourselves calm when another’s traumatic afterlife wants to slither into our souls. We can pray silently for our presence to be soothing and supportive. We can pray for additional healing help to arrive as soon as possible. We can share, when asked, some simple techniques which create a layer of balm. And we can know enough about clinical healing modalities to assist sufferers in securing a clinical healer for the journey into wholeness.
As clergy, ministers, and faith leaders, we have the opportunity to transform from edge to pit dwellers, but it doesn’t happen without intention, professional support, and time. With ongoing work, we can create safe enough spiritual containers for those experiencing trauma and its afterlife. These containers begin with the shared acknowledgment of sufferings’ existence without added blame and shame. The focus becomes one of holding hope for others whose “days…come to their end without hope”(Job 7:6). And, holding hope in the pit with people who suffer is prayer, praise, and love in action.