Have you had experiences in your life that were extremely disturbing and still cause you emotional sadness or fear? Do you belong to a group that has been, or is currently being, oppressed or victimized? If you answered no to both questions you are uniquely blessed.
Human history is full of trauma. I’m an educator and experienced at teaching world history. My students loved studying the wars, especially the dramatic world wars when humans were traumatized on a global level. Sometimes we think of history as studying one war after another, as if all we humans do is kill each other in the name of some grand or greedy cause. One student told me she couldn’t do a report on the recent history of Brazil because Brazilians hadn’t been in any wars during the last fifty years.
Survival as a human has rarely been easy. Prehistoric humans faced dangers like wild animals, food scarcity, and harsh weather conditions from which they had little protection. Fast forward to the last millennium and we find our hardships continuing.
Europeans who had been traumatized in their home countries – by oppression, famine, homelessness, persecution of some kind – came across the ocean to what they referred to as the New World and inflicted trauma on the Indigenous people and the Africans they subjugated as slaves. Females have been viewed as property and had little recourse against rape or domestic abuse. Alpha males have made other males their pawns and directed them to kill and be killed for questionable causes. Kings, queens, and autocrats were constantly in danger of being beheaded or falling prey to some other sort of horror as those around them competed for power.
What has all that trauma done to us? It has indeed sharpened our survival instincts. We are equipped with an emotionally reactive amygdala that is powered by fear. It can override the rational, decision-making part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, because it’s programmed for quick, life-or-death protective action. Sometimes the amygdala is a hero, saving us from dangerous predators and accidents. But at other times, it destroys relationships and causes high blood pressure.
We have evolved to automatically focus on negatives because we need to be ready to defend ourselves against the perils of the world. But too much fear over long periods of time causes overexposure to the hormone cortisol, which disrupts our body’s natural processes and increases our risk of health problems like heart attacks and headaches.
Grouping people into “good” and “bad” categories and perceiving the world as a place where it’s “us against them” has protected us from harm as we banded together against them. But whether we like it or not, we are all connected. Viruses don’t honor national borders, and combatting the negative effects of climate change will take a global effort. Nuclear weapons have the capacity to destroy all the humans in the world, but I’m guessing cockroaches will somehow survive, as fossil evidence indicates they have for around 300 million years.
Why have cockroaches survived? It’s not because they are extremely fearful and have developed ingenious ways to punish and kill each other. It’s because they are good at adapting to changing and difficult conditions. They “overcome.”
Overcoming trauma, for humans, requires the ability to calm our instinctual fears and use our prefrontal cortex to adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves in. Scientist Marie Curie advised, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Understanding helps us overcome our fear, heal from our trauma, and adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Fear can take the form of what Lakota writers have called Iktomi, the trickster. We must be careful because we can be tricked into harmful behavior unless we are self-aware and able to understand what we fear. That’s why Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. ‘”
All the major religions recognize self-control and forgiveness as virtues because fear, negativity, and demonizing “others” can lead to destructive decision making. We need to quiet down our amygdala and convince it to hand over control to what psychologists call our “executive function” – the part of our brain that can reflect and effectively problem solve.
A Bible verse, 2 Timothy 1:7, reads “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” 1 John 4: 18-19 tells us that love — genuine love for ourselves, for each other, and for God — can overcome all fear. But self-control isn’t easy, nor is loving without conditions. It’s something we must genuinely desire and strive for.
“Moral injury” is a term psychologists use to describe a wound to our inner soul. It’s a type of trauma and it happens when our actions, or the actions of those we have admired and followed, runs contrary to our deeply held moral beliefs. This may happen in war, a time when survival instincts are on high alert, or anytime our foundational beliefs of goodness and truth are shattered. Our spirit suffers.
Forgiveness means letting compassion and grace heal us and set us free. Coming to terms with our own humanness, as well as embracing the humanity of others, allows us to let go of our fears and our bitterness at all the unfairness and cruelty in the world. We still work for justice and kindness, but with the guidance of that part of our being that directs us forward with hope and love.
Orson Scott Card wrote, “When you really know somebody, you can’t hate them. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them.”
That advice goes for knowing ourselves as well. We can shed our shame and resentment by accepting our humanness and forgiving ourselves for not being everything we assume we should be. We can reject a culture of blaming and liberate ourselves from fear. We don’t have to hide from the truth or distort it to feel in harmony with the world.
Deeply distressing, disturbing experiences – traumas – are hard to overcome, but it’s worth the effort. Forgiveness helps us heal, making life a little easier and bringing joy and light into our darkness.
My favorite Native American dance is the hoop dance, and it inspired me to write the following words.
Great people don’t spend their time jumping through other people’s hoops.
Great people don’t spend their time creating hoops for other people to jump through.
Great people learn how to dance with hoops and create circles that inspire, include, and enrich others.
Photo courtesy PDPhoto.org – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=868316