Tragedy strikes. It hits like a bolt of lightning. He lifts you up off the floor and sends your heart into the pit of your stomach. We have all felt this at one time or another. If you haven’t, you will. Tragedy is a part of life. It is a never-ending, never ceasing part of the world. Some call it sin, some call it karma, and others do not really know what to make of it. There are natural disasters, systemic tragedies like slavery, or personal tragedies like the death of a child or the physical/emotional attack of a stranger. War is tragic. Miscarriages are tragic. Murder is tragic. Abuse of children is tragic. There is just so much sometimes that our hearts and minds cannot take it.
Every community deals with this. We all spend our lives trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist and trying to make sense of it when it does. In my community of Shreveport and Bossier, we have been slammed with tragedy in the last year. Probably no more than others, but due to the effects of social media, we are keenly aware of these tragedies. We have seen a wide array and a diverse population of victims. Tragedy doesn’t discriminate. It does not have political views or bias. It comes out of left field and smacks us across the face.
Tragedy brings up questions. Is God good? Is He real? Is our society going to hell in a hand basket? Am I safe? Am I lovable? Did I deserve this or do something to deserve it? Am I truly known by the people who have been closest to me or am I isolated and lost forever? I hear these questions in my office every day. I hear them whispered through tears and tissue. I hear them screamed into pillows and towards the heavens with clinched fists.
Now this may seem like quite the downer, quite the negative blog. There’s no doubt it’s heavy. The things that happen to us as individuals, groups, and communities are devastating. The good news is there is hope. There are ways to be resilient against tragedy. We can overcome loss, grief, and trauma.
One of the remedies is education. One of the cures is other people. Our healing is found in Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father. The problem with these fixes is that they are in direct conflict with our brain’s chemistry and biological protective duties after tragedy. What I mean is that most tragedies, as listed above, originate from one of these sources. People or God. When tragedy happens, lets call it trauma, our brains are damaged. The things that we used to see as safe are no longer safe. If it was a person or a natural event that harmed you, then you will be afraid to be vulnerable with people or God.
Your body will respond in fight or flight. You will have startle responses, avoidance of people, places, and things that remind you of the event or person. Imagine that you are walking down a path with your best friend. You hear rustling in the grass and a tiger jumps out and kills your friend. You narrowly escape. The next time you see tall grass or think about going for a walk what will happen? You will get anxious. You will move to the other side or in the opposite direction. Your body will respond with shakes, tension, the instinct to run or attack, you will sweat and clinch your teeth in fear or rage. The issue we have is that the tall grass did not kill our friend. It is just a reminder of the tiger or the real problem. These are all normal and natural responses to pain and to trauma, but focusing on the tall grass instead of the tiger keeps us stuck.
Another difficulty is that the same things that hurt us are the same things that can save us, and yet we are avoiding them like the tall grass. We think God did this to us or at the least allowed it to happen. We believe all men, women, parental figures, leaders, cars, back alleys, smells, sounds, that remind us of our trauma (the tiger) but they are really just a reminder (the tall grass). As a result, we continue to avoid the wrong things while ignoring the true issues.
Recently we had a couple in our community murdered because they gave a person a ride. I saw people post comments like “that’s what you get for doing good” or ” I will never give someone a ride again” or “well you know how those people are” or “that is why I do not give people rides.” These are all communal trauma responses. They make sense at face value, but they are not functional or rational in living life with other people or God.
Let me explain. The brain’s right and left hemispheres help us to survive and function in the world. The right brain is focused on music, art, feelings, intuition, and holistic thinking. The left brain’s function is facts, math, logic, and linear thinking. When trauma happens our prefrontal cortex, which helps these two parts connect and function together, stops connecting and working together. Our nervous system kicks and we go into fight or flight. We think irrationally and respond impulsively.
If we look at our culture and how we communicate around tragedy or trauma we see people reacting. Regardless of the topic like religion, race issues, sexism, gender issues, abortion, contraceptives, policing, or politics, all of these types of issues someone has a personal story or trauma or tragedy associated. This makes their view of the subject bias and usually their responses, if not previously worked through in a therapeutic environment, extreme or emotionally driven. This is because their/our brains are damaged, and we have not properly healed. We still see everything as tall grass or see it through the lens of danger. This type of response keeps us from seeing the human on the other end of the discussion, because our bodies and mind are self focused.
Let’s use the murder of the couple for example. How many people in Shreveport have given someone a ride in the last 10 years? How many couples have been murdered for doing so? Research would show a tiny amount. Yet our community response is to not give people rides anymore? Not to help those suffering or struggling? This is because we personalize things and overgeneralize things when tragedy happens in order to protect ourselves. This isolation in most cases is not necessary and counterproductive. Withdrawing makes us feel more depressed and anxious. It makes us see the world as scary and dangerous. None of these beliefs are based on facts or reasoning, because remember, our right brain has taken over and is damaged.
Why is this a problem? Well it is a problem because as individuals in a society, to be most helpful and healthy we must think rationally and respond appropriately. When we have community, support, intimate relationships, based on trust and reciprocity, we can more quickly overcome the tragedy or trauma that will inevitably come. When we step out of fight or flight we can have logical conversation with others and work together to identify issues and come up with solutions to our worlds problems.
If we can acknowledge that God is good and that he is not the cause of all bad things, if we can work with another human to experience safety, validation of our feelings, and healing from our trauma, then we can begin to see the world as safe and ourselves as loved, cared for, and good enough.
The challenge that I want to issue is to focus on the real dangers. We have ignored the real issues such as crumbling family structures, divorce, pornography, addiction, obesity, mental health issues, that are destroying us by all research, statistical analysis, and if we are honest general observation. We do not see them as dangerous until they knock on our door. We must educate ourselves and prepare ourselves so that when tragedy strikes, we know who to turn to or what to do. Be prepared so we know what is happening so that we can be rational and helpful. We can work through our issues together with the power of knowledge, love, and compassion to heal the wounds of the past with hope for the future.
We are not people who are made to live isolated lives outside of the fray. We are made to build communities of support and love so that when tragedy happens we can pull together to heal and rebuild. This starts with us as individuals. We cannot live in segregated camps, of us versus them, in tribal warfare, but through reciprocity and understanding. Please make peace with yourself so that we can make peace in the world. Your tragedies do not have to define the way you live your life and the way you see your future. We must continue to work together to make this world a better place and shine light in the darkness. We must not stop doing good just because bad things happen.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9
Clint Davis M.S., LPC, CSAT, CCTP
Director of Recovery for The Hub: Urban Ministry