Living in the traumatic past

Trauma: artist unknown
We all know someone who "lives in the past." Maybe it's a high school friend who is constantly bringing up those "glory days," as Bruce Springsteen put it. Maybe it's an elderly relative whose memory of breakfast is weak, but can recall the most minute details of her First Communion.

The past, as good as it may be, is not a place to live. Being mentally healthy means, in part, that we visit the past, but we don't stay there.

Unless you've suffered trauma. Trauma - when it's not fully integrated and successfully treated - drags us back to the past, over and over. (We generally call this PTSD.)

Last year, I lost two jobs. I couldn't do all that was required well. I was constantly making mistakes, and being told the same thing over and over didn't help. I was, for the first time in my life, failing miserably at work. Why?

As a recovering perfectionist, I told myself all this was my fault. For some reason, I was not remembering details of the job. I was doing something wrong. I was wrong.

But now I'm learning the truth. The truth is that I've been traumatized. No, I was never abused or assaulted. But my kids have been. And as a mother, I identify so strongly with my children that whatever hurt them, hurt me. Yet, I never acknowledged this. I never even knew it.

Years of trauma have built up. I ignored all the warning signs and plunged forward, all the while being dragged into the past, psychologically and physiologically. So, when I tried to do jobs (one that I was capable of doing!) that required new skills, my brain objected. Strenuously. Seriously.

And I ignored it.

It got to the point at my last job that I was getting sick on Sundays, thinking about the week ahead. I would sit at my desk, trying to work as my heart raced and I got dizzy. As hard as I tried to learn, I failed.

Thankfully, my spiritual advisor bluntly told me: "You need help."

In his book, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk explores exactly what trauma does to the brain. He says that trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. Trauma, he says, changes our very capacity to think.

And I realized: I am not a failure. I am traumatized.

Now, the work begins. Thankfully, I have an extremely compassionate therapist, one who deals primarily with people who suffer from trauma. I am learning to integrated the past into the present in a healthy way. It's not easy, and I'm not really sure I'll be able to work again, but it is necessary.

Caregivers can be traumatized too. Moms and Dads especially, as they witness trauma inflicted on a child. I have to learn that the past is truly past - I don't have to live there anymore.


Covered Wagon - artist Robert Wesley Amick
I read "Pioneer Girl," the annotated autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder about 2 weeks ago. Her life, as reflected in her work, was pretty unsettled. She was young enough to remember the last of the Sioux Indians being driven from their own land.

Her Pa started getting itchy feet whenever he would feel hemmed in by people in what many saw as a vast prairie. (He apparently tried to talk his wife into moving to Seattle in their later years. Ma put her foot down.)

As a reader, you don't get the sense that Laura felt unsettled. Every outing was a new adventure, a new place to explore, new people to meet. She may have moved a lot, but Laura never felt unsettled.

I am a "settler." I like the familiarity of a place, the curve of the ground in my backyard, the knowledge that my neighbors are the same today as 20 years ago.  I lived in the same house for the first 19 years of my life, and watched the world blossom, bloom, die and fight back to life out of the same windows, year after year. Perhaps my intense rootedness then means that now, every move makes me feel off-kilter, and wondering why God calls me to this unsettled life.

God's Chosen People, the very people He brought out of slavery and molded into a community of faith guided by His law: well, He let 'em wander around in the
desert for 40 years.

Jesus told a would-be follower (Mt. 8:20) to come and follow Him, but know that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. That doesn't sound too promising for one with a "settled" heart.

Jesus began His life on earth as unsettled, with Mary and Joseph having to go to Bethlehem for the census, and then at some point, Joseph (acting under God's directive) uproots his small family in fear of Herod's slaughter of Jewish baby boys.

Our God is an awesome God, but He is not a settled God. He moves in ways visible and invisible. He unleashes a mighty army of angels that guard our souls every minute, every day. And He wants us to be unsettled. Because being unsettles means: "I'm not home yet."

Years ago, when I was teaching at the college level, I used a BBC series on world religions. The narrator cheerfully bounded about the globe, talking to people about their faith. In South Africa, he took an interest in new Christian religions - often small churches that began in someone's home.  At this time, apartheid was still the law of the land, and it was easy to see how the promise of freedom (in faith) played out in the black townships.

One lady interviewed must have been 90 years old. She'd seen it and done it. She been a servant in white people's homes nearly all her life. All of her comings and goings over the years were tightly restricted by a government that believed she was "less than." And yet, she swayed with joy when talking about her faith. "Oh, I don't worry about this world," she said, "I don't belong here. No sir, my home is Heaven."

This little old lady, whom the world may have completely forgotten, who was illiterate, and who had lived under such degradation: she was not unsettled. She knew right where she belonged. This world was nothing but passing time for her.

I fall very short of this. I fret and worry, pack and unpack, purge and stuff closets, get rid of a dog and bring home another cat. I want to line my nest with the nicest and coziest feathers. And then God says, "Move."

I don't wanna. But I move.

Why? "O Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of everlasting life."

I wonder, if on that day that Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John (Mt. 4:18-22) if there were not one or two more men - men in their boats, going about their work - who heard that call as well? What if just one of those men thought, "He's an interesting man. I'd like to know more. But I'm settled. My life is right here?"

What if we miss the Holy Spirit because we want to be settled?

Of course, I'm writing this in my big comfy chair with my two cats on my lap. I am not exactly heading out to mission territory any time soon. But I have just moved, and I have the stacks and boxes to prove it. It was not a move I wanted to make, but God said, "Move." All I can ever answer is, "Here I am, Lord."

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