All Souls Kansas City

“The Heritage of Trauma” February 25, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons


My friends, let us deal kindly with one another, for life has many struggles, and everyone you meet is bearing hidden wounds, and carrying unseen burdens.


Click here to start at the sermon.

There is an old saying about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones, that comes to mind when the current president invites us into a national conversation about mental health – but okay; let’s talk. Let’s talk not so much about the mental health issues that precede mass killings by gun violence, but rather, the ones that follow them. Let’s talk about trauma – and I expect we may find ourselves coming back around to what’s going on with those unbalanced young white gunmen before long.

We know that human consciousness is a function of both electrical and chemical processes that happen in the brain. We know that such inherently human activities as memory, learning, creativity, and decision-making take place at the delicate intersections of networks of nerve fibers; a flow of electrical impulses in a bath of hormonal and other chemicals; a ballet of physics that generates the mind, with all its perceptions, responses, and emotions; with its awareness of world and self, and its elaborate repertoire for sorting experiences into useful categories. It’s an admirably tough system, all things considered, given the ways in which the physical box can get bashed around in the environment, and the bewildering variety of experiential inputs it may run across in the course of a lifetime. But it’s not ultimately invulnerable. Damage the physical stuff enough – starve it of oxygen, blast it with toxic chemicals, corrupt it with germs, shoot bullets through it – and it will cease to function, that’s certain. But you can also overwhelm that interior dance of cells and neurons, and throw the whole system of mental processing out of whack, by handing it such intense, painful, and disruptive threats that it just can’t cope with the input. This kind of short-circuit is the essence of trauma, and it has both physical and mental consequences.

Traumatic events come in a variety of forms, and what is trauma to me isn’t necessarily so to you. By now we are probably all familiar with the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD for short. It is how we clinically describe the dysfunction of military veterans who are haunted by their experience of war, for instance. Yet soldiers in the same unit, who undergo very similar situations in battle, respond to these events quite differently. Siblings exposed to the same incidents of domestic violence or abuse often process those episodes with very different reactions. Some people, for reasons that we are only beginning to explore, are more resilient than others, but despite this diversity, each of us has a trauma threshold – a point at which our capacity to cope with what is going on around us in a rational, reflective way implodes. It’s important to recognize that in most cases, we don’t simply stop coping altogether, but our strategies become less intentional, less inventive, and less productive. From a perspective outside the traumatized self, those strategies may appear threatening, incoherent, or self-destructive, but if looked at through the emotional logic of trauma, there is always a certain pattern of meaningfulness and self-protection to them.

The jury is apparently still out on whether traumatic experiences affect the physical structures of the brain permanently, particularly among children whose brains are still forming the neural networks that are the foundations for memory, learning, and trust. One study suggests that adverse childhood experiences – that is to say, forms of trauma – can alter the structural development of neural networks and the biochemistry of neuroendocrine systems, which may have long-term effects on the body, including speeding up the processes of disease and aging, and compromising immune systems. Children who are exposed to adverse experiences may become overloaded with stress hormones, leaving them in a constant state of arousal and alertness to environmental and relational threats, which may cause them difficulty focusing on school work, and consolidating new memory, making it harder for them to learn. I tend to think that it’s quite likely that trauma does impact this process in a negative way, but I’m not doing the lab work. What we do know for sure is that physical brain function alters in the moment of trauma, and for a long time afterwards. No one is in what might be called their ‘right mind’ when they are overwhelmed with fear, pain, or loss.

People who are most likely to suffer from enduring trauma include military combat veterans; survivors of domestic violence, both partners and elders as well as children; survivors of sexual abuse and assault, victims of violent crimes; refugees and survivors of military occupation, war, or riots; survivors of natural disasters or terrorist attacks, people who have been incarcerated or tortured, children who are bullied or live in a violent environment, parents whose children die suddenly or by violence; people who experience prolonged hunger or homelessness, victims of disabling accidents or hate crimes, and people abused by religious authorities. These are suggestive examples, not an exhaustive list, and clearly not everyone who undergoes any one of these experiences is ongoingly debilitated by it. But add in the secondary trauma of all the partners, families, and loved ones who are deeply affected by the primary survivor’s experience, as well as physical and mental care-givers, and it becomes clear that trauma has an impact on most, if not all, of the human beings of the world.

This awareness makes a difference when we seek to understand our fellow humans, and when we try to structure institutions to help create the just and compassionate society that is part of our own mission here at All Souls. Indeed, it might make a difference for how we think about the structures of this very community. Recent inquiry into the nature and impact of trauma has arisen from two sources also struggling with the challenges of building community and supporting learning among individuals whose behavior does not always seem to make rational sense – schools, and prisons.

The very first shift called for in a trauma-informed approach to institutional structure is subtle, but powerful. It is to change the presenting question from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” One of the defining aspects of a traumatic experience is that the victim feels helpless. There is nothing they can do that will stop the violence, injury, or fear that is their reality, and that powerlessness is part of what causes rational shut down. When someone later asks, especially with any tone of impatience, “What is wrong with you?” it is not the objective events, but the inner sense of inability to do anything, that gets remembered, and interpreted as ‘wrong’. “What happened to you?” by contrast, creates an alliance with the objective, narrative memory, and can help the person begin to find a linear story, rather than just flashes of feeling, which itself is a step toward healing. Children especially, but even adults, often do not connect their feelings of present discomfort or distress to something that happened in the past, particularly something that is painful to remember anyway. But paradoxically, telling the story to another listener helps to locate it in the past rather than the present, and allows a space to open up between the person’s previous experience and their current identity. We ARE more than the awful things that have happened to us. Inviting the brain to construct a narrative sequence automatically puts it in higher function than the impulse to flee, fight, or freeze that is the limited repertoire of survival.

Institutions and individuals who seek to take seriously the effect of traumatic experiences on those to whom we are responsible, are also challenged to make a conscious shift from looking at the intent of our structures and interactions, to observing their impact on others. As advocates for awareness of white privilege and dignity for women have been pointing of for some time now, it doesn’t matter very much that you meant no harm, if in fact you do harm. If one’s efforts to offer care or support services to a trauma survivor only ends up making them more traumatized, then it’s irrelevant that your goal was to help. Administrative and institutional structures that communicate arbitrary authority, power over, or insignificance to people who are in need of support to begin with can have a damaging impact whether they are intended to or not. As schools and prisons and mental health service organizations begin to examine the way they do business, there are five principles emerging to define what has come to be known as trauma-informed care. I find it fascinating that each of these five principles resonates with the foundational beliefs and values of Unitarian Universalism – it’s as if we were a faith designed to recognize and heal the scars of trauma.

The first of these principles is Safety; creating a system in which the participants will not be harmed, or deprived of core needs, or threatened with additional pain or loss. Safety is the result of three dynamics – first, the belief that safety matters, and a stated commitment to create a safe environment; second, a dedication by the majority of participants to safe practices, and third, a determination to hold everyone, including those in power, accountable for their behavior. I believe that safety is part of what is meant by our congregational covenant “to dwell together in peace, and to help one another;” we cannot fulfill that promise unless we are willing to define what we mean by ‘safe’, and decide how we will find our way back to that place whenever we get off track. I look forward to the time when there is enough trust and commitment in this community that we are willing to undertake the work of creating a behavioral covenant that we can agree to abide by. I also think that our first Unitarian Universalist principle, The inherent worth and dignity of every person, points in this same direction. Everyone deserves a basic level of safety from harassment and threat, and to be treated with decency. There will always be risks in life, because risk is necessary for discovery, creativity, and growth; moreover, making mistakes is an inevitable part of doing anything worthwhile. Trauma happens when people and systems who are supposed to nurture or protect us fail; when the structures we relied on don’t work the way we thought they did. That cognitive dissonance is part of what overwhelms the system, and makes it so hard to cope; we no longer know what we can trust.

This brings us to the second principle of trauma informed care, which is Trustworthiness, or dependability. Systems that can help those who suffer from trauma to heal, to learn, and to change, must be stable and reliable, with clear and consistent boundaries and specific, achievable tasks. When the environment is arbitrary, and you never know what might happen, you are always in survival mode, which is where trauma always leaves us. If you can’t tell what is expected of you, or if what is expected seems completely beyond your capacity, you experience the same powerlessness that is part of trauma all over again. We heal best in an environment that is consistently courteous, respectful, compassionate, and comforting. Trustworthiness includes stable relationships, where it is possible to make a connection with the same therapist, teacher, or care giver over time. Caring human relationships are part of the toolkit of resilience, that enables a person to survive traumatic events, and continue to thrive instead of remaining traumatized.

The third principle is one deeply embedded in our heretical UU history, and that is Choice. Having choices is the antidote to the powerlessness of a traumatic experience; when people are able to give or withhold their consent, or select aspects of their environment, or choose among tasks, their sense of self is restored, and their capacity for decision-making is reaffirmed. Too many options, or too many choices in a short period of time, can be overwhelming, but a consistent flow of self-determination helps any of us to feel in control of the world and ourselves. Witnessing to the process of choice can also help care givers to understand better what an individual needs, or how the traumatic logic of self-preservation is operating in apparently random or defiant behavior. I see this often in helping folks prepare memorial services – and I have felt it myself in working on my own dad’s upcoming memorial. As I make choices about music and pictures and words to share, the whole event of his death feels less chaotic, and more nearly part of a narrative that I have helped to construct. Even though I had no control of his dying, then or now, by making these choices it becomes less psychically overwhelming; more manageable and less disabling to remember.

Thus arises the fourth principle, which is Collaboration, or mutuality. As tempting as it can be for those outside to want to ‘fix’ everything for someone who has experienced a traumatic event, it is really more helpful in the long run if the survivor is involved as a collaborator in whatever needs to be done. Whether it is a school assignment, a therapy goal, or a restorative justice requirement, the outcome will be more productive when the person in question is part of designing how the process should go, so that it feels coherent to them. In the same way, our religious tradition does not offer set theological answers to life’s deepest questions, but invites each member into the project of discovering and defining our own unfolding beliefs. Under this principle also falls the concept of cultural humility; that the way teachers, caregivers, and other would-be helpers see the world through their own cultural lens, may be quite different from how the student/client/patient/customer sees it through their own cultural lens. Words, gestures, and behaviors may have different implications; a particular event might not have at all the same meaning from someone else’s point of reference. Calling the police, for instance, can be an act of summoning safety for one person, while it increases the sense of danger for someone else. Trauma-informed institutions recognize the need to be aware of cultural assumptions, and open to learning about alternative meanings from other communities, just as I hope that our churches do.

The fifth principle of trauma-informed care is Empowerment. Its goal is never to create conformity or dependency, but rather to give people the tools to make their lives what they choose for them to be, and to have an impact on the world if they want to. Haven’t you found it inspiring to watch the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school take the trauma of losing 17 classmates, and the safety of their school, and turn their pain into a demand for social and political change? This doesn’t mean that many of them are not suffering shock and grief and fear, or that some of them won’t need caring help to process this event over the days and years to come. But the most important way to regain the selfhood that trauma robs us of, is to make meaning of our pain, especially together with others. That is exactly what we want, here in this church, and in all the UU churches I know – to empower each other; to take whatever pain life has handed us, and whatever resilience we can muster together, and change the world for the better, so that it all means something in the end.

None of us goes through this life unscathed by trauma – or if we do, we are the rarest of human beings, and I would argue, not the luckiest. We all carry our own scars – if not out in the open, where everyone can see, like the lady on the bus, then perhaps in our most hidden places, so that no one else knows. But either way, we are not alone. Trauma affects all of us, and those we love; it snatches away our highest human functions of reason, compassion, ingenuity, and self-awareness, narrowing the world into dangers, enemies, and sheer survival. My humanism teaches me not to expect superheroes or saviors; we must be redeemed from that hopelessness by and with the imperfect others all around us; by our own capacities and those we borrow in our need, and share out of our abundance. We can get better at seeing each other through, learning how the traumatic events of our lives injure and change us, and how best to help one another heal. For in the end it is also true of our humanity, that like the dust, and the tides, and the sun, we rise. Even so, we rise. And still, we rise.