“What is the Meaning of This City?”
Posted on July 31, 2015
At this point, we have followed our hero who, after being robbed of normal life, has been thrust into darkness through the experience of trauma. In my revised version of Campbell’s model of the journey towards post traumatic growth, the next stage I put forward is suffering. In this post, I would like to examine the nature of suffering and darkness from a community perspective, including how the nature of our communities can either help the healing process or intensify the traumatic experience.
This reflection was inspired by a poem by T.S. Eliot, entitled Choruses from the Rock. There were four lines in this poem that slapped me in the face – I believe they speak so powerfully of the call for not only trauma informed helpers and organizations but also trauma informed communities:
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
There is the suffering caused by the person inflicting the trauma (for the moment, let’s just gently hold on to the fact that those who hurt people have been hurt themselves), but there is an equally, if not greater, suffering caused by the community’s reaction to the victim’s pain. Eliot’s question of why we come together as communities hits to the very heart of whether communities, states, and nations dedicate themselves to healing trauma and fulfilling the call to love one another, or whether they perpetuate suffering and pain, by caring more about short term profits than the well-being of people.
I want to state an observation that I’m not the first to make: as a species we struggle with trauma. Just pay attention to how fast we leave one act of mass murder or terrorism for the next headline, act of violence, or next episode of whatever reality TV show or sports event we are watching that night. We struggle to reflect, losing the opportunity to gain insight from traumatic experiences. It is easier to turn our back on abuse, violence, and poverty than to be present with the vicarious pain these things cause. At times, especially when it was important to get “shell-shocked” military personnel back to the business of war, nations have seriously considered trauma. But as soon as the war is over, it no longer is profitable to think about trauma and the cost of the greed, ambition, or religious fervor that created the suffering the soldiers still carry inside of them long after the guns have gone silent. As might be obvious, we are currently in one of these “shell-shock/PTSD historical cycles. This time, it is all of our responsibilities to ensure we do not let society forget not only the cost of war on our returning veterans but also the cost of trauma in general on those in our communities.
As our hero is thrust into darkness caused by trauma, there is a moment that challenges us all. Do we collectively have enough understanding, calm, and strength to recognize the signs and sit with the fact that these terrors exist in our community? A trauma informed community takes a breath and mindfully looks at the not only what the victim needs, but also what societal issues contributed to the abuse, neglect, or “criminal” act. This mindful response allows both appropriate reactions to the pain of the victim, and justice (and hopefully actual rehabilitation) for the person causing the trauma.
As the rates of incarceration and homelessness of those experiencing trauma and mental illness show, if profit is our motivation, we can find it easily in traumatic situations. There is profit to be made in prisons and punishment and, from a short-sighted view, it is more profitable to just house “criminals” than to offer opportunities to heal their past trauma and address the societal issues causing criminal behavior. There is profit to be had in treating the mental and medical impacts of trauma through medication, but it takes a greater effort to address the societal issues that create the need for the medication in the first place. If we are honest with ourselves, as service providers, we can also get caught up in this mindset. While profits might not be our main motivation, we can easily just focus on the problems (and surviving financially) and forget to put energy into solving the causes of the problems that lead people in need to our services.
We live in a time where the philosophy is most often, ‘Profit,’ not ‘Love.’ A city or nation that is created to maximize profit will damage a large portion of its own population as a mean to this end. Tax cuts, senseless drug policies, cutting social programs that work, failing schools, and the highest imprisonment rate in the world are symptoms of our historical choice to prioritize profits over love. We have powerful science to show that crime, poverty, violence, riots, and the inability to succeed in the profit-driven city is not the fault of the person, but a failure of the community.
We have the numbers, but do we have the strength to take a stand and speak truth to power? While a community gathered together out of love for each other might be hard for many to grasp in our profit-driven culture, we can show scientifically that the behaviors we judge and often punish people for occur not because these people are evil or criminal, but because something happened to them. We can show how poverty prevents the development of the brain areas needed for success in school, the workplace, and achieving the American Dream. We can show that investment now will yield long-term economic, intellectual, and cultural benefits for decades and centuries to come.
The hero’s journey does not need to exceed the scope of suffering caused by the traumatic act – not to mention that communities can do a lot to prevent the act itself from happening. If pain is met with empathy, compassion, and love, trauma loses its destructive power and transforms into strength and wisdom (what we know as post traumatic growth). If it is met by judgement, punishment, and fear, the suffering is multiplied, not by the abuser or the abused, but by the community. My challenge to you this week is to think about how you and your organization promote change in your community. How do you speak truth to power, speak love to profit? Finally, look at your own organization. Can you honestly say you are gathered to do this work out of love for each other, your clients, and the community? If not, that is where change must start.