Escaping tyranny of the past

Sep 19, 2017 by

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Afew days ago I found myself at an event called “The Art Between Us.” It was an eclectic gathering of souls: Women shared hard-learned truths in the form of poems or original music. Others, like me, were just there to listen.

Though I had planned to scribble down poignant sentiments, I was too consumed with the performances. I sat for two and a half hours, enraptured. I saw women blooming as they told their stories.

One woman beautifully articulated her experience of growing up as a child with a stutter. I pictured her: small, with childlike vulnerability, in her physical education class. She was pulled to the side by a teacher who told her she was limited to one question per class period because her stutter delayed the entire class. Frustrated and hurt, she returned home to her mother.

And from that day, she and her mother committed to overcoming her stutter together. She detailed the dismay that came with the process but also the overwhelming gratification when she finally felt heard.

Now, removed from the stress of her stutter, she recognizes that her greatest weakness proved to be her greatest strength. By overcoming the limitation on her ability to speak, she learned to convey her emotions and thoughts powerfully, definitively, succinctly.

I was mesmerized by the transformation she described — and by how it was facilitated through her relationship with her mother. She embodied the beauty of accompaniment: what happens when we feel truly safe with another, when we are truly and deeply listened to. It creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

Recently I read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, who outlines how trauma affects our bodies: how we hold the hurt, the anger, the abuse and neglect within our physical bodies.

Van Der Kolk states: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside.”

Trauma forces individuals into the primal survival mode: fight or flight. Though they have survived, their escape is thwarted. Closeness triggers a sense of danger. Intimacy requires vulnerability. Even a close embrace requires allowing oneself to experience immobilization without fear.

Yet, Van Der Kolk argues, what individuals dread the most after experiencing trauma — close contact with other people — is exactly what we need to heal: “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

Connections are not as simple as being together. To truly experience accompaniment, we must be fully heard and seen. Van Der Kolk writes: “For our physiology to calm down, heal and grow, we need a visceral feeling of safety.” When we feel safe, heard and wanted, we begin to tell our stories, make sense of what we have endured and move forward.

I do not want to equate the woman’s story of overcoming her stutter to one of trauma, but I do want to use her story to show the beauty of relationship.

Though it may be difficult, our calling is to pursue healing by compassionately listening and accompanying individuals through their pain.

Closeness, tenderness and listening encourage us to be our fullest selves and relieve ourselves of the tyranny of the past. We are loved into life.

Hanna Heishman is a Mennonite Voluntary Service worker in Washington, D.C., serving as a U.S. policy and advocacy volunteer at Habitat for Humanity International. She blogs at Even the Journey is Home. A longer version of this post appeared at Mennonite Mission Network.

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