On Trauma and Interfaith Grace

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Posted on January 21st, 2014 | Filed under Challenges, Learning, Theology
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I started a course called “Pastoral Care” this quarter, and had no idea what to expect. It is week 2, and it feels like week 9. We tackled “trauma” today, at 9 am on a Friday morning. I had no idea what was coming.

Trauma is defined using fancy words and vocabulary, images and concepts. Reading about it this week, I found myself vaguely identifying with signs of trauma, but knew that everyone would have some feelings within the framework. I read a story about a woman for whom hearing about the “blood of Christ” in church set off signs of trauma. The author of the story narrates that the woman experiencing the trauma, at that moment, couldn’t remember basic things- telling left from right, hot from cold, possibly even her own name. The “blood of Christ” put images in her mind- vivid, live images- just as she had seen them years before, when she was sexually abused.

Our task this morning was fairly simple: tell a story about feeling vulnerable this week. The two other students in my group would respond to three questions about my story: how they felt, what images or metaphors the story evoked, and what they believed served as a theological parallel for the story. Earlier that morning, I had felt extremely vulnerable. A fellow student began telling a story about the church where she interns, in the heart of downtown Chicago. She had heard a very bad car accident right outside her window, and rushed downstairs. She saw one car had t-boned another in the intersection, and the other car had flipped over. The passengers in the flipped over car were injured, in the best case. The other car’s driver had fled the scene. My classmate told us she felt helpless and a little ashamed- for no matter how she tried, she could not bring herself to go to the side of the flipped car.

I was 18, and it was 3 am on a Friday night. I was feeling very tired driving home in my red Jeep. The next thing I knew, I saw slow motion. The car hit mine and I saw my car swerve toward the lightpost, hitting it on the passenger side. I saw myself looking forward, to the side, trying to open the door, finally escaping through the window. I was ok, I thought. The people in the other car were ok. The police came. I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t follow the protocol, I could barely remember my own name. The only thing I could get out was I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

Suddenly I knew how the woman in church felt. The images flooded my mind as vividly as when they had happened. As a practitioner of Buddhism, I believe firmly in not harming any individual, and have dealt with shame and guilt since that night, though perhaps not consciously. Eight years have passed. It is said that time heals us, and I partially believe that. I believe in this instance, time has helped me imagine a different outcome, one in which I am alive, in which everyone is alive, and unharmed, and can separate the images and feelings from who I am now.

The two students in my group, George and Chris, are members of the Episcopal Church and an Evangelical Christian, respectively. As they answered the questions we were given about their feelings, images, and theological parallels, I noticed a very distinct vision we all held of vulnerability. Our stories all highlighted quite different aspects. Yet in answering the questions, we realized that we recalled similar images, feelings, and could even draw theological parallels across our traditions. George told me he thought of the Yin and Yang symbol, as he imagined me both in a time of light and a time of darkness. What we all responded to best was not necessarily theological parallels from our own traditions, but the honesty of the other person as they could share in our vulnerability. This is the grace, the shared vulnerability. It is soothing to know that regardless of our theological convictions we can all experience trauma, and we can all find honesty in this shared vulnerability.

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2 Responses to “On Trauma and Interfaith Grace”

  1. Shannon says:

    Thank you for this article Jem. When I was in graduate school studying to become a therapist I never heard about vicarious trauma and I didn’t know what is was. I did not realize how vital it would be for me to make my own self-care a priority. Several years later, I was fortunate enough to learn about the effects of vicarious trauma from some great Buddhist practitioners and eventually began teaching others how to address this in their own lives.

    I was taught that our empathic engagement with another’s story of trauma does not make us weak but actually proves we are connected to each other from the heart. Your story reminds me that the beauty of witnessing one another’s experience without judgment makes it easier for us to be vulnerable because we feel safe.

  2. Dorie says:

    Thank you for this very touching article, Jem! As someone who is interested in possibly doing work in theology around mental health, trauma is something I work with as an academic concept fairly regularly. Your piece is a very helpful reminder that trauma does have a human face to it, and as much as theory and theology can help rationalize it, there needs to be an engagement with it on the ground, as well. By chance, do you (or anyone) happen to know of any work being done around interfaith pastoral counseling? Given the ecumenical nature of your class, it seems like it would be an interesting topic to explore.

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Jem is a first year M.A. student at the University of Chicago studying Islam and pre-Islamic religions in the Ancient Near East. She practices Mahayana Buddhism and interfaith activism.


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