From Joplin to Boston: The spiritual trauma of public tragedy

Soon after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., I attended a Christmas concert at our granddaughter’s high school. Crowds at such gatherings usually do not bother me, but this evening I felt a low level of insistent anxiety throughout the performance, and when a piece of equipment fell with a muffled boom, I nearly jumped out of my chair. Since the Boston Marathon bombing, my jumpiness has been rekindled. I suspect that many other people feel the same as I do in situations where they once felt safe.

In the last few years, many places seem to have become emotionally linked with the tragedies that have dominated our news and assaulted our weary minds: Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; Boston, Mass.; and Moore, Okla. Whether these traumas had human causes or were natural disasters, the psychological impact has been overwhelming for many. Survivors of previous trauma or abuse experience a resurgence of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially increased fear, hypervigilance and depression. They may find themselves—like many Americans—riveted by the ongoing media accounts of these tragedies, sometimes in an obsessive fashion. Although survivors of previous trauma are most susceptible to such emotions, we all experience some degree of psychological struggle as wave after wave of traumatic news washes over us.

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Traumatic events not only inflict psychological wounds, but spiritual injury and trauma as well. Throughout my years of counseling hundreds of survivors of various kinds of abuse and trauma, I have come to see that discernible spiritual scars are inflicted by trauma and that there is a definite need for a spiritual healing process alongside the psychological. When the mind and body are traumatized, the spirit and soul can feel shattered. Survivors of trauma and abuse struggle with despair and hopelessness; loss of life’s meaning and purpose; reduction of trust in life and in God; an inability to be mindful and in the present moment; a struggle to trust joy or feel gratitude; and either an addictive clinging to religion or a loss of faith altogether. Listening to my own soul, and to the souls of my clients, friends and family, I identify three primary areas of spiritual trauma: fear, shaken or broken trust, and struggles with meaning and hope.

The kind of fear I experienced at my granddaughters’ high school, while understandable, can become insidious and can even become a spiritual illness, a sickness of the soul. Fear becomes a soul sickness when it becomes our basic stance in and against life. Fear drives us to hold on for dear life, to try to grasp and control even the uncontrollable. If we let fear control us, paralyze us and rob us of joy, peace, serenity, connection and joyful mingling and assembly, our very souls are constrained and constricted. If we stop doing what our soul desires and needs because of insistent fear, then we give the terrorists, abusers and shooters control over our lives—and our spirit is diminished.

Fear and the soul are antithetical to each other. Our soul is and desires for us freedom, openness, connection, vulnerability, oneness, letting go, living in the moment, transcendence and love—all spiritual characteristics that fear tries to steal from us. Fear says, “There is danger everywhere, so pull in, hole up, harden up, trust no one, build a fortress.” Our soul says, “Trust, grow, keep your heart open, remain vulnerable, build a safe house; but be sure it has plenty of windows and doors to let in the light and fresh air.” Our soul wants to lead us to the spiritual courage that does not let fear, or the purveyors of fear, prevail. I love this anonymous text I first heard at a 12-step meeting: “Fear knocked at the door; faith answered. No one was there.”

Shaken or even broken trust is a related spiritual trauma created by these awful events. We ask, “Where was God?” when these things happen. How can I continue to trust in the goodness of life and the love and providence of God? How can I trust anyone when humans can be capable of such abuse, cruelty and evil as in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, Boston and Cleveland? These questions shake us to the core. They can leave us feeling profoundly vulnerable, alone and lost in what appears to be a hostile world. It can feel like the once solid foundations of our lives have turned to sand and mud, and we are sinking in the muck, with nothing to trust or to believe in.

This in turn leads us to struggle with questions of meaning and purpose and pushes us into the valley of despair and loss of hope. In the face of such tragedy, the dreaded, circular and often unanswerable “Why?” questions consume and torment our minds and spirits. Followed soon by “What’s the use?” “What can we believe in?” “What does it all mean anyway?” “Is there any hope?” These questions can leave us feeling helpless, alone, without a future and even de-souled.

Our mind tells us that if we can only find the answers to some of the existential questions raised by these traumatic events, then we will be all right. Some answers offered by faith and spirituality can help to some degree, although fully satisfying answers often do not come. My own observations while counseling clients has led me to believe that the healing answer is really found in certain kinds of personal experiences and the opening of our spiritual vision to see those experiences in ourselves and in other people. These are experiences of two kinds: 1) soul resilience and 2) the transcendence and ultimate triumph of love.

The Force of Love

Soul resilience is based in the felt knowledge of a deep part of us that we call soul, which always remains whole, untouched, alive and seeking a pathway to healing and life. It is the consciousness that at our core there is a wellspring of energy, hope and purpose, that ultimately cannot be shattered, even by the worst of traumas. Although I have seen this soul resilience especially in clients who have survived and transcended abuse and trauma, it is a basic human, spiritual capacity. We all possess this inner spiritual resilience, this lifespring of soul that we can tap to carry us through and beyond our personal traumas and trials and those occurring in our society.

In each tragedy, we have seen this incredible human capacity for soul resilience: Representative Gabrielle Giffords’s courageous recovery; the teachers of Newtown who sacrificed their lives to protect their students and the parents working for gun safety in memory of their children; the first responders and medical personnel in Boston who worked so quickly to save lives and the runners and survivors who weeks later ran the last mile of the marathon so they would triumph over violence and hate and finish the race; the three women in Cleveland who survived 10 years of horror to finally escape their captor. These survivors banded together to help each other to heal and their communities to recover. All of us can tap into this same resiliency of soul to overcome and heal from the spiritual trauma of these horrific events.

Our soul leads us to the second set of experiences, the transcendence and triumph of love, even in the face of these tragedies and in their very midst. Our soul can provide the spiritual vision to enable us to see that despite the apparent darkness, the light of love—whether we name it God or a force of the universe—still shines forth. Love is always present, even when we do not feel it. We are never alone in the darkness, although we feel lonely. Love is beyond, beneath, within and all around these traumatic events. Love is working within and against the darkness of these events to restore life, to bring healing, to give meaning and purpose to the seemingly senseless, to restore hope. Our soul yearns to show us this love and its triumph and its transcendent energy even in the midst of the most awful of events.

Everyday Moments

Days after the story broke about the three women in Cleveland who were abducted and held as sexual slaves for 10 years, my own soul opened my eyes to see an example of both soul resilience and the triumph of love right before me. I was walking into my second floor office with a client—who has her own story of deeply wounding trauma—when I happened to glance out my window to the sidewalk leading from the small office building next door. The elderly psychiatrist who practices there was slowly walking backward down the sidewalk guiding his patient, who was paralyzed on his left side, apparently by a stroke, and was struggling to make the short walk to his car. The patient’s daughter was steadying and holding her father from behind. The psychiatrist and the daughter patiently and gently helped the man into the car. They hugged and parted, and the psychiatrist returned to his office. My client and I stood there for a few minutes in awe-filled silence taking this in and then began our session. This scene has been repeated every week for the past year or more below my office window. The doctor and the daughter’s kindness and love and the man’s courage and determination touch and inspire me each time.

These moments of soul resilience and love are all around us every day, millions of times a day. They are rarely reported in the media; and yet they are, I believe, much more common than the moments of trauma, darkness or evil. They are so common that we fail to see them. Our sight is blinded by the glare of publicity for the dramatic tragedies. We have only to learn to see with the eyes of our soul to become conscious of these small miracles of kindness that surround us everyday. So when the next traumatic news story assaults your mind and spirit, remember to look within you to your soul and its amazing resiliency and to look around you for the many manifestations of love and kindness that are in your midst. Then hear your soul say to you, “Fear not, for you are not alone; despair not, for soul and love will overcome and will lead you through; trust and hope again; love, in time, will show you the way.”

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