Written by Philip Monroe
Friday, 20 June 2014 00:00
As one who directs the Seminary’s Global Trauma Recovery Institute, I can say this: trauma recovery is kind of sexy these days. And that isn’t always a good thing.
Here’s what I mean: it seems everyone is talking about the problem of trauma, whether the traumas of child sexual abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, ethnic tension, urban violence, or military service. Organizations and cities are becoming “trauma-informed.” But awareness of the problem of trauma on individuals and communities is not just for secular organizations and mental health professionals. The church too is getting that trauma is the mission field of our time (as per Diane Langberg) with pernicious impact on faith and spiritual vitality.
Don’t get me wrong; this attention to the previously hidden problem of trauma is a really good thing. Those with hidden and previously considered too shameful problems can now have their struggles validated. Traumatized individuals can feel their problems aren’t “just in their heads.” We may not know what to do to help some victims, but we do know we can support and encourage those who are in significant emotional pain. Hear me: this is a very good development.
But…sometimes we can jump on certain bandwagons in ways that end up harming the very people we want to help. Sometimes our motives are pure; other times not so much. Let me point out two particular ways we can add to the hurts of those who suffer with trauma symptoms.
Lies for personal gain
Let’s tackle the ugliest reality. Some people find that their capacity to talk about the traumas of others brings public attention and is a way to sell themselves as a hero. It doesn’t happen much, but when it does and the public recognizes fabrications for what they are, those who are true victims are harmed. Either victims fear being seen as self-aggrandizers or the public develops a tin ear to similar cries of injustice. Most recently, I received this story from a friend documenting the outright fabrications of a well-known crusader for rescuing girls from sex trafficking in Cambodia. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she started with good intentions, but it appears that greed and the need for more limelight produced outright lies and thus the misdirection of donor money intended to help victims in need.
While this story might be unusual, what is not so unusual is the need to stretch the truth in order to garner a larger piece of foreign gifts available for humanitarian relief. How many mouths did you feed? How many tents delivered? How many traumatized people did you treat? Do you have pictures of naked and starving children? All the better to mobilize donors to your work…until the next compelling disaster. Linda Polman, author of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid paints a rather stark and ugly picture of the need to stretch the truth to keep the relief machine running. If that isn’t bad enough, she also suggests that much of the well-intended relief may actually harm, especially in war-zones.
Stereotyping for simplicity sake
Outright lying for the sake of self-promotion is not the only way we can harm those who continue to suffer from past traumatic experiences. We can also harm by painting victims in such a manner that they exist only as victims, those without resources or strengths. Our reasons for painting such a black/white picture are less to gain personal attention but rather are intended to keep an easily distractible audience focused on the core problem. We fear that victims with complex backgrounds and resources may be overlooked.
For example, might we be tempted to tell only of suburban trafficking of young girls grabbed off the street and thrown into the sex trade in order to keep the audience aghast at the heinousness of sexual slavery. What happens if our stories also include adolescent and young adult women with less than virginal characters who make poor choices and get caught in something bigger than they expected. Does such a story still keep the audience’s attention?
In a recent interview on Radio Times author Philip Klay (rhymes with lie) discusses a common problem he faces as a veteran of the war in Iraq.
“Either I find people who want you to be super Navy Seal, bad-ass character who can kill you in thirty-seven different ways…or a passive traumatized vet who is a victim of poor foreign policy and an object of pity.”
Sometimes, to help the audience see the damage of “invisible wounds”, we fall prey to stereotypes that end up harming those who do not fit the image we have painted. Our images may create “an object of pity” but in doing so may hinder us from seeing the resources and power in the victim. By not seeing their capacities, we treat such individuals as incapable of being resilient and of little value other than being that object of pity.
Whether we lie for personal gain or to bring attention to hurting, both cause harm to victims and to our own souls. Let us endeavor to tell the truth, even when inconvenient. Whatever good we do will be of greater value for the name of Jesus Christ.