Lead from the scar, not the wound

Collective healing for co-liberation

2020 has introduced to our standard exchange of pleasantries a welcome invitation to vulnerability. Whenever we are inclined to give the default “I’m fine” response to the common “how are you?” the reality of the moment causes us to pause, and reconsider. First of all, no one is fine: even the president of the United States can’t escape this pandemic. Therefore, our “fine” can only be understood in relative terms: I’ve caught myself saying in emails that I am “fine, notwithstanding the apocalyptic hellstorm that is 2020 thus far.” I’m reminded of the line attributed to Jiddu Krishnamurti:

It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

We are living through a moment of collective reckoning, a refusal by many to be gaslit any longer into believing that this is the only way to live. Increasingly we can see, can feel, can no longer escape the reality that something is desperately wrong with how our systems operate. And we are beginning to believe that it can be otherwise. That we deserve better.

In my last post I explored this moment of intersecting crises through the lens of processing grief. I want to use this post to explore it through the lens of trauma. As Kazu Haga recently wrote:

We are traumatized. Let’s start there.

TL;DR: We as individuals and societies are living through a collective trauma response: the natural reaction to living in a system that is deeply dehumanizing. The only way out is through: as we acknowledge our own pain, we have the opportunity to transcend it… and to invite others into a process of collective healing.

“You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge”

Healing from trauma is different from grieving loss (the subject of my last post), but they have this in common: we must first acknowledge the harm. This heading comes from Father Richard Rohr, who adds:

Hurt does not just go away on its own; it needs to be spoken and heard.

In a brilliant piece on collective healing, Boting Zhang observes:

When we as individuals listen deeply to the parts of ourselves that are most hurt and unheard, we can become more whole. 

This is as true at a societal level as it is at an individual level: reconciliation must always include a commitment first to truth, to an honest reckoning with our past. Before we can reconnect, we must recognize what has been severed. In a presentation for this year’s Collective Trauma Summit, convened by Thomas Hübl, psychiatrist Dan Siegel reminds us:

Collective trauma becomes intensified when it’s ignored.

This willingness to listen to the parts of ourselves that have been hurt requires a willingness to witness… and feel, our pain. This is not easy. As Brene Brown notes:

It is easier to cause pain than feel pain.

Brene reached this conclusion through her research, but James Baldwin got there first, musing in The Fire Next Time:

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

From listening… to feeling: interoception

A repeated theme for me in these posts, and a learning edge for me in my personal practice, is the centrality of embodiment: of moving beyond the limits of cognitive learning (the “rational” brain) to integrate our feelings (emotions) and most importantly our bodily sensations. I finally learned the word for this, which I was searching for in my last post: interoception. Lisa Feldman Barrett, the pre-eminent scholar of this subject (the interplay between our emotions, our bodily sensations, and our brain’s reactions), defines it this way:

The constant monitoring of the state of the body, carried on largely below the level of conscious awareness. 

We are fortunate to live in a moment where neuroscience is catching up to what indigenous wisdom already knew: as Bessel van der Kolk notes in his aptly titled book The Body Keeps the Score. It’s an astonishing and incredibly profound piece of work. I’m struck by the overwhelming evidence that reconnecting with our bodies is not only helpful, but is essential. Trauma is rooted in our bodies: it’s a physiological reality, both when we ourselves are traumatized (child abuse, e.g.), and increasingly evidence suggests that our bodies carry intergenerational trauma that is transferred epigenetically (and certainly via our caregivers’ behavior). Van der Kolk puts it this way:

Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies… Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.

The cruel irony, of course, is that the more traumatized we are, the more disconnected from our bodies we are (self-numbing and disassociation as a necessary survival mechanism).

“Trauma not transformed is trauma transferred”

I love this line from Tabitha Mpamira-Kaguri in her courageously vulnerable TED talk. It’s the old adage “hurt people hurt people,” a reality documented with brutal prose in James Gilligan’s foundational work on shame, guilt, and violence. In his work inside prisons, he consistently found that the most violent men reported that:

they felt dead inside: empty, numb, without the capacity to feel anything, neither emotions (such as love, fear, or remorse) nor even physical sensations. Many described committing the most horrific atrocities in order to see if they could feel anything, and were surprised and disappointed to see that even that did not restore a capacity to have feelings and feel alive.

I’m reminded here of the unforgettable opening line to Trent Reznor’s classic Hurt: “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.” Bessel describes the survival mechanism at work here as a “tragic adaptation”:

In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.

Scarlett Lewis, the mother of a child killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, reached this conclusion through the depths of her own pain:

There are only two kinds of people in the world, good people and good people in pain.

With the stakes so high, this work is urgent. And: it’s possible. This is the work of healing, and it is our collective responsibility. Shakti Butler’s beautiful film Healing Justice points the way: “hurt people hurt people transforms into healed people heal people.”

We can’t do it alone

This is true for two reasons. First, the obvious but rarely-acknowledged reality that trauma and harm is always a collective experience. Maria Popova summarizes van der Kolk:

Trauma… affects not only those who have suffered it but also those who surround them and, especially, those who love them.

Second, we are deeply relational beings: the only way to heal is together. Popova again, channeling van der Kolk:

The very thing we come to most dread after experiencing trauma — close contact with other people — is also the thing we most need in order to regain psychoemotional solidity and begin healing. 

There is so much outstanding work coming out right now focusing on this reality: this is the work of collective healing. One of my favorite Conversations on Transformation that we’ve hosted thus far at Building Belonging was on this subject, featuring some of the best in the game: Staci Haines, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Kazu Haga, and Tada Hozumi. Bo captured it beautifully here.

Kazu’s new book on this is just stunning. Here’s the core insight, expounding his Kingian philosophy of nonviolence:

The goal is always reconciliation and steps toward beloved community. The goal is always to build and strengthen relationships and to bring people and communities together, not separate them. If we are not able to find ways to bring communities together, we will always have separation, violence and injustice.

One more thread to draw out here. While Rev. King influenced Haga, it was Paul Tillich who influenced much of King’s thinking on beloved community. Tillich famously conceived of “sin as separation”: from ourselves, from each other, and from land. The antidote, therefore, the path to reconciliation (he talks of grace) is through reconnection. This is why I organize my work around the frame of “belonging”: it offers a path to reconnection at every level. Tillich:

We know that we are estranged from something to which we really belong, and with which we should be united.

As Bruce Perry noted in discussing “the physiology of belonging,” describing the core lessons emerging from indigenous medicinal practices:

All of the healing processes involve reconnecting with the rhythms of nature, reconnecting with the people that you belong with.

“Passion comes from pain”

I take this line from a beautiful interview with Priya Parker, which Thomas Hübl conducted for the Collective Trauma summit. Layla Saad put it this way, in an interview with Glennon Doyle:

Where we often grow from the most is where we have experienced the most pain.

There is a saying that “great art comes from great pain.” But that’s not quite right: it’s the process of alchemizing that pain into learning, of transforming trauma into growth, that leads to great art.

And it need not be from pain alone, of course: art springs from the process of transformation. Sharon Salzburg described the Dalai Lama’s view:

Beautiful art was beautiful because of the inner transformation the artist went through during the act of creation.

This is the sixth stage of grief I discussed in my last post: it’s not the loss, it’s the process of finding meaning as we grieve. The only way out is through; if we don’t go through, there is no way out. This is what crystallized for me when I first heard the quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber that leads this post (initially shared with me in a conversation with Ben Katt):

Lead from the scar, not the wound.

Yes. This continues to feel so right, and what feels good to me about the notion that we should center those most marginalized. Yes: if they have survived — and thrived — in the face of an oppressive system, we should listen to their lessons.

“It takes courage not to be discouraged”

Take it from one who would know: Ben Ferencz, the prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who had seen firsthand the worst of what humanity can do to each other. But here’s the thing: there is always another side to the story. We are more than the worst thing we have ever done. Here’s van der Kolk:

Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being.

Lately my kids (3 & 5) have been into Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire (as we fled omnipresent wildfire smoke here in southern Oregon). Something never sat right with me about that song, catchy though it is. And it clicked for me watching Tabitha’s TED talk, where she finishes the thought:

It might not have started with us, but it can end with us.

Buckminster Fuller reminds us, writing presciently in 1981:

We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before — that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.

These are the stakes. Someone said to me recently that we are heading toward either global solidarity or global extinction… I’ll choose solidarity, thank you very much. But it won’t come easily: the trauma of separation runs deep, and reweaving our connections (to ourselves, each other, and the planet) requires vulnerability and courage.

And yet: of course it can be done. It is happening right now, all around us, in the middle of unimaginable hardship. Mutual aid networks responding to COVID around the world; incredible sacrifice and solidarity sustaining mass protests months after the killing of George Floyd; citizens standing up to authoritarian violence in Belarus; all of us drawing strength and courage from each other.

This is an invocation not only for collective action, but for collective healing. Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us that this vision need not be grandiose:

It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

This is the beauty of emergence, of the concept of the fractal (the notion that the microcosm IS the macrocosm, that small is large). As Chelsea Robinson put it:

You are able to shift culture in micro moments.


As always, I fear I tried to put too many ornaments on this tree… hopefully it won’t topple under the weight of my ambitions. One thought left on the cutting room floor that I want to develop more fully in a future piece: something about the transformative power of being tended to. Of being taken care of.

As part of our quest to detoxify our media diet, my wife and I have been watching Queer Eye recently (following this brilliant piece, the second time I’ve read that Queer Eye is a key prong in our efforts to dismantle patriarchy.) And it’s just heartbreaking that none of the characters have ever really allowed themselves to be truly held, tended to, or taken care of.

There’s something terrifying — and universal — in the vulnerability of asking for help… and then accepting it. And something profoundly liberating about feeling and trusting that others can take care of you, can hold you in all your messiness and complexity… and be there for you. That’s the world I want to live in: where everyone is safe, seen and celebrated.

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