Trauma and Shame: A People of Grief

trauma and shame

When we bury our grief instead of offering it to one another, it becomes like an infection.

Excerpted From 

The Soul of Desire 

We are people of grief.

In the presence of our desire to be known in order to co-create and become beauty with God and others, we often encounter instead a depth of grief and brokenness that can make the hope of new creation seem like a cruel joke. It doesn’t require a psychiatrist to tell us that grief is the painful emotion we experience in the face of losing something or someone to which we have meaningful attachment. It is no surprise, given the significance of our attachment and social engagement systems, that it will be painful to lose something that provides us with a sense of being seen, soothed, safe or secure. But knowing this fact does not make the reality of our loss any easier. 

For all our desire, what we often experience is grief resulting from unmet longing. We grieve the loss of things we have had and sometimes the loss of things before we have even had them. My father died when I was 17. I wasn’t aware then that I would sense my loss of him repeatedly over the years when he was not present for graduations, my wedding or the births of my children. We want our lives to be a wondrous symphony, but when we turn to face our own music, what confronts us too often is something quite different. For all our hope in the glory of the resurrection, life continues to offer plenty of occasions to persuade us that the whole story of new creation is a figment of the imagination of some first-century itinerant preacher. The meek shall inherit the earth? 

Evil’s intention for our space and time is very different than the creation of beauty, and it is difficult to resist its attempts to get a foothold. Evil intends not only to cut us off from God and each other; it intends to annihilate beauty and tempts us to do the same in our response to shame and fear.

Everywhere we turn the world appears to be enduring pathos without end. Sometimes it’s associated with our own traumatic experiences and sometimes not. We know this not just because others “out there” are encountering pain or foisting it upon us; we carry it in the center of our own souls, and it courses through our own bodies. It’s in our irritability with our friends and our fights with our children and parents. It’s in the deaths from cancer and the coronavirus and the losses of jobs and relationships. It’s in bullying on the playground and bullying in the workplace, in our abuse of our racial and class privilege and abuse of our environment. Anxiety. Depression. Addiction. Disordered eating. Hoarding. Bigotry. Greed. Political contempt. Violence. Emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. These are the effects of evil—but we are complicit in them, for we are actors in the play in which all of this happens. Evil couldn’t do it without us. I would like to think that only “other people” were involved in such matters, but I know better. Perhaps this is why the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are so full of words of warning and judgment while offering, by sheer number, far fewer words of comfort and hope. Perhaps they were forever having to speak to what they witnessed, and most of what they witnessed was the same as what we see, in the same proportion.

Despite our deepest longing to be known on the way to creating beauty, our attention, often ultimately via the neurobiological force of shame, is drawn to some form of beauty’s opposite. Instead of attuning through the function of my right hemisphere to the present moment and being open to creating with God whatever may be in front of me, I find that my imagination, furiously locked as it is into the analysis and judgment of the left hemisphere, lives temporally in the anxiety of the future or the regret of the past. Or I am submerged in the ocean of infinite options the world offers to distract me from myself and my real life, all kindly presented to me by my web browser. My addictions are the result. I do not create in this life; I cope.

Yes, coping can be necessary for a time, but it is not life in its fullest. It is not the agency of creativity. In fact, it often devolves into denial of grief. And who would blame us? Grief is no picnic, and we’re not stupid. But we can be naive. When we do not share our grief in a community committed to our flourishing, we disrupt our ability to extend ourselves as agents of creativity. The loss of an attachment, unsurprisingly, can create in us a fear of forming new attachments. Who wants to go through that kind of loss again? Genuine, healthy grieving is a necessary part of the experience of loss. But when grief is not addressed openly and vulnerably, it can keep us from entering new relationships—stuck in isolation, cut off from others. This resistance prevents us from being known explicitly in our grief, and by extension it keeps us from creating the next new object of beauty God has prepared for us to join him in making. As we will soon see, our grief is the very source of much that God is making in his new creation.

When we bury our grief instead of offering it to one another, the result is like a bacterial infection. Once the antigen is hidden, it multiplies, developing into the symptoms that lead people to my office, symptoms we tend to believe indicate a problem to be solved, a mental disorder or form of psychopathology to be diagnosed and treated— which in and of itself is a reasonable response. But rarely do we interpret these symptoms as heralds of a wounded, disfigured, misdirected, and ultimately unmet desire, let alone see them as the opening movement of life’s next great composition.

Excerpted from The Soul of Desire by Curt Thompson. Copyright © 2021 by Curt Thompson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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