True peace begins with healing.
It’s self-explanatory, isn’t it? If we long to see peace in our world, whether it be within ourselves or on the global stage, there needs to be a healing of the pain which obstructs that peace. Or, in the language of the Hebrew prophets, we are in need of shalom: wholeness. Peace is wholeness. We live in a fragmented, broken world, and we carry that very brokenness within our very selves.
Often, our own brokenness leads us to inflict pain onto others, perpetuating the vicious cycle.
Enter trauma. The Centre for Nonviolence and Social Justice defines trauma as follows:
“The word “trauma” is used to describe experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless. Trauma has sometimes been defined in reference to circumstances that are outside the realm of normal human experience. Unfortunately, this definition doesn’t always hold true… In addition to terrifying events such as violence and assault, we suggest that relatively more subtle and insidious forms of trauma – such as discrimination, racism, oppression, and poverty – are pervasive and, when experienced chronically, have a cumulative impact that can be fundamentally life-altering.
Particular forms of trauma, such as intentional violence and/or witnessing violence, sustained discrimination, poverty, and ensuing chaotic life conditions are directly related to chronic fear and anxiety, with serious long-term effects on health and other life outcomes.”
As is clear in this definition, trauma is more than the pain caused in relation to an extraordinary event. There are more subtle forms of trauma: poverty, racism, oppression, discrimination, and exclusion. In recent times, there has been an emphasis in the community services sector on the importance of trauma informed practice. The Mental Health Coordinating Council defines trauma informed practice as “an approach which recognises and acknowledges trauma and its prevalence, alongside awareness and sensitivity to its dynamics, in all aspects of service delivery.” That is, a practitioner who is trauma informed will seek to deliver a service in a way which is aware of the underlying trauma which marginalised people may carry: trauma that they have experienced both personally and at the hands of societal structures. At its core, trauma informed practice seeks to understand the underlying pain that an individual or group of people hold, and how this shapes their actions.
To a degree, we all hold trauma. Whether we have experienced it directly or indirectly.
The more I reflect on my own practice, both in Australia and overseas, the more I begin to see the underlying trauma behind the actions of those in conflict. Whether it is the homeless young person who reacts with anger at a worker’s offer of assistance (due to their previous traumatic experiences with workers), or a young Palestinian’s violent reaction to an Israeli soldier who has come to embody the military occupation that they live under, trauma lies at the heart of conflict. And if we are to begin to work toward peace, that trauma must be dealt with. The first step? Empathy. A trauma informed approach will seek to create a space of empathy in which an individual is heard, affirmed, and given the opportunity to rebuild a sense of empowerment and hope.
A few months ago, I spent some time in Israel-Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams. The majority of our time was spent in the West Bank, hearing stories and seeing with our own eyes the effects of the Israeli military occupation on the lives of ordinary Palestinian people (I have written in more detail about this elsewhere). What we witnessed was nothing short of traumatic. A key part of coming back was dealing with some of this secondary trauma I held within myself. Though it pales in comparison to the daily lived reality of my Palestinian friends, it was still painful. I am incredibly thankful to those who journeyed through this with me, giving me space to offload some of the pain I held in response to what I witnessed. And, I had to first and foremost be empathetic toward myself, creating space to heal even when I did not want to.
Being trauma informed should not just be something for those who work in a community, humanitarian, pastoral, or helping professions. It should be something we all strive to be: toward ourselves, our neighbour, and even our enemy. When we understand this, we’ve already taken the first step toward peace, toward wholeness, toward flourishing.
Peace begins with healing.