Friday, February 3, 2017
Week 2: Submarine, Day 12: Throat Punch
Week 2: Submarine
Day 12: Throat Punch
A Word for Hands Day:
"Hypervigilance" n. An enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.
“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front--”
― G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” -Hebrews 12:28-29
Dates and numbers don't do much for me. I have to come up with complicated mnemonic devices to remember my own kids' birthdays. My car has a keyless entry and I have to look at a note on my phone to remember what the number is. I even have to look up my own phone number in order to give it to people. While math comes fairly easy to me, my memory for particular numbers is nil. But there's one number that I'll never forget: 1-12-2010. And the time: 4:53. Every time I really SEE that date my eyes well up. That anniversary has more significance to me than my wedding day, the days my kids were born, our adoption "Gotcha" dates, the anniversaries of my brother's death, or my dad's death, because all the lives I have cherished and my memories of them were on the verge of casualty that day, all at once. So many lost their own beloved people.
On these Thursdays that I talk about service, the earthquake in Haiti is never far from my mind. For those of us who were there, I don't think it ever really can be. The strangest sights and sensations can prompt a recollection. When I see a sturdy table and think about how good it would be for crawling under before I think of what it would be like to sit at it for a shared meal. When I feel the wobble of a parking garage floor, or when bath water surges in displacement. There are those physiological triggers. There are also the moments when memories come back. Every time I see the brother of the man who used to bag my groceries at Caribbean Market. I see that lost face in this younger one who is doing the same job. Sometimes when I see a flat screen TV I think of my daughter, Keziah, dodging ours in the quake. Or when I hear a particular sound of stone grinding on stone, concrete block's unique screech, the hiss of steam, the sound of generators. Those are all tied to particulars of my earthquake experience.
It has taught me that so many carry trauma around in their bodies like a virus. The aftershocks of a big quake can last months. There were more than 50 above a 4.0 after the quake in 2010. Since the first was so devastating, each of those that followed would flood our bodies with adrenaline, and the cumulative effect of that recurring surge is that it rewires a person with a kind of hypervigilant spidey-sense of precaution and readiness to run, or hide. Fight or flight get moved to the front of the cue of your mental activity, like a well worn book that doesn't ever make it back into the shelves in the library, but is checked out straight from the return cart. For me, the triggers for my trauma response are noises and sensations that are fairly common. I'm not "back there" in the earthquake when I get those sensations, but I'm in the moments just before a new one, as if the ground is about to shift again.
How many people that we interact with everyday carry trauma around in their bodies? What kind of "spidey sense" did they learn to need? Are they prepared to be hit? To be shot at? To be used? To be ignored? To be treated like a robot? To be manipulated? We all have our twitches, and they make us do weird things. Self-protection from trauma works really well to save us from repeated trauma. That hypervigilance is a gift for survival. It is total crap for a situation that doesn't require survival though. This is a lot of where the "hurt people, hurt people" talk comes from. Fear is the enemy of love. Fear kills relationship.
What most people don't realize when they want to start helping the poor or hurting is that poverty, trauma, threat, and harm make people kind of suck. They hear Mother Theresa quotes about how she could see the face of Jesus in the eyes of the poor and they expect to enter service and have a beatific vision of rapturous enlightenment and radiant, oozing care flow out of them the next time they encounter a homeless person. Actually, whatever trauma created the kind of dysfunctional behavior that has made it hard for that person to escape poverty has probably also made them hard to be around. The "Last, the lost, and the least" aren't just some emblem, they are real people, usually with more trauma than you might know, and they can be real jerks! More often than not, the romanticized "outcast" is outcast for a reason. They aren't easy to be with! That's why it is so important to engage them with Mother Theresa's expectation of engaging with Jesus. Jesus, after all, told us that that IS who we serve when we serve. But let's be honest, He may have said that because he knew that if they were anybody else, we might want to punch them in the throat.
SO many people come to Haiti to serve with the only semiconscious acknowledgement that they'd like to be thanked for their service. That is not a fair expectation of people who have been crapped on for their whole lives, whose authority figures and role models have all exploited them, and who haven't been given the opportunity to go to school, or have a job where these kinds of behavioral expectations are shaped over a long time. The earthquake taught me that trauma can bring out irrational, ugly behavior, even in really awesome people. It did so in me. I remember many moments of yelling at my kids for doing things that in normal times would have brought me joy. I remember cutting off relationships with people that loved me and that I loved because I thought they might ask me about experiences that were too hard to talk about. A room could be a casual, fun social space, and people would be having a great time, and where before I would have been the life of the party, now the noise would stress me out and I'd just want to leave and be alone, or I'd get impatient with somebody I cared about. I was in the middle of "relaxation zone" for everybody else and having a fight or flight response. The more you can understand this trauma effect, the more you'll be able to chase after lost sheep and be careful enough to not send them further into the thicket. Each person is worth that pursuit. You are.
You probably already sense it in my writing, but I'm not very confident in the overconfident. There's no way I can communicate the decentering nature of an earthquake. When the ground you've trusted to stay in place for your whole life betrays your expectation and dances death into a cloud around you, it gives you a different sense of what you can trust. Look around you. Look at that phone in your hand. Look out the window. Do you realize how fast this can all change? Everything that can be shaken will be shaken. Whether it's shaken by you losing a job, an illness in the family, by faltering memory or old age, or by a decision you can't take back. It's amazing how things can dissolve. Your grip on your life, your theology, your perception. God so wants to be known that He can become a wild kind of terrorist, ripping off the front of the world so that you can see Him behind it. He will go through your wallet, rip up all of your pictures of him if they are the thing that keeps you from recognizing Him as He is now. And the kind of humility that really makes you capable of service comes from that kind of stripping down.
I'd like to tell you all kinds of things I have learned about serving the poor, the hurting, and the broken. I do have tips and insights and advice. I have experience and failure to draw from. But most of the best of what I know comes from the pain of becoming poor, hurting, and broken. The earthquake was a harsh schoolmaster. I learned that what I needed in order to serve well was not the addition of any training, knowledge, perspective, or information. All I needed was subtraction. I may have had growth and fruitfulness in mind. but what I needed was pruning. I came to clothe the cold, I needed to be stripped. To be able to see things as they were and not as I expected them to be. Like learning to draw.
Did you know that's the WHOLE trick to learning to draw? Getting rid of your expectations and learning to see what your eyes are actually seeing. One of the crucial moments in teaching somebody to draw is when you can convince them that their awareness of their many mistakes is exactly what is needed in order to draw well. Right in the moment that somebody feels like they see all the faults in their drawing, the moment that they feel hopeless because it sucks so bad...That moment when their mistakes inspire them to give up and say, "I can't draw", that acknowledgement of the difference between reality and what they have made, that is the moment that drawing well begins to happen. That's the moment that they are beginning to discern, to distrust their expectations and trust their perceptions. This is when they will begin to draw what they see, and see a whole lot more. Many people who first take up drawing have an almost spiritual experience of realizing they haven't really been looking at the world, but have just been walking around in it as if they had known and taken all it had to offer before. Those new eyes are like a gift of wonder, and they come in the humility of a confession of previous blindness. This is exactly where we must start to try to help the world.... by laying down our expectations of what real help looks like.
More on that next Thursday! And Next Wednesday, your first drawing class!
Action: As an act of service today, consider lending your ear to a good friend who has had trauma. Be humble and open, and tell them that you care and that you want their help in knowing how best to be there for them. Maybe you can say something like, "I know you've gone through a lot, but I don't know how I can serve you best or if you want me to do anything to show my care for you. If you do, what can I do that would help you feel seen and known and cared about?" Don't assume they need to tell their story. Don't assume they need a hug. Or ice cream. Or gifts. Or letters. Or your help. Ask them IF they need something while communicating your desire for them to know that you are genuinely available.
Now flip that around. Do you need to tell somebody that you need their help, their time, their listening ear, or something else to help you through your grief or trauma? Say something.