What helps, what doesn’t

November 14, 2015

How do we process and respond to the stream of tragedies we bear witness to, day in and day out? This week, it is the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut that have captured our collective attention and broken our hearts.  But every week, there’s something.  How do we stay awake and aware, without succumbing to compassion fatigue?  For those of us who are religious leaders, how do we support people whose lived experience is that things are bad and getting worse?

When the trauma is acute, it helps to turn off the tv, the radio, the computer.  It helps to connect with the real people who are nearby, to remind ourselves of the love and beauty in our lives.  Later, it helps to look at the root causes and educate ourselves on the events leading up to the tragedy.  It helps to find concrete ways to contribute, whether sending money or attending a vigil or just saying a silent prayer.  It helps to take a long view, to step back and realize that people who are good and caring and responsible outnumber those who are hate-full and violent by several orders of magnitude.  It helps to pay attention to the outpouring of love and support that inevitably follows each tragedy.  Yes, Mr. Rogers, it helps to “Remember the Helpers.”

It doesn’t help to jump to assigning blame.  It doesn’t help to watch bloody footage over and over again, imprinting traumatic images on our brain.  It doesn’t help to chastise people for their way of responding to the tragedy; each person is entitled to their own reactions and responses.

It helps me to practice tonglen meditation.  I visualize breathing in the world’s suffering, transforming it, and breathing out love and peace.  But there are other individual practices that can help…walking meditation, lighting candles, expressing solidarity through images or art or music.  These days, we all need our ‘go to’ post-traumatic spiritual practices.

It helps us all, collectively to come together and lament as a community.  In the wake of every tragedy, attendance at churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship tends to increase.  When we are hurting, we need one another more than ever.

As religious leaders, our job is to set the pace and the tone of communal mourning.  We need to be sensitive to the level of trauma in our congregations. Sometimes, our folks need us to be prophetic, to open their eyes and hearts to something they might rather ignore.  Sometimes they need us to be pastoral, to soothe and uplift.  Sometimes they need us to just acknowledge the feelings of pain, helplessness, and loss; to sit with them in the midst of the turmoil and to acknowledge how hard it is to be human just now.

These are challenging times, but they are also rich with potential.  As hard as it is to bear witness to the stream of tragedies sometimes, our broken hearts connect us in a way that has never occurred before, a way that is desperately needed.  I have unlimited faith in the resilience of the human spirit.  Together, we will figure out how to weave a web of compassion that embraces the whole human family.

In July, I’ll take one last summer intensive class, and then I’ll be officially “ABD”…just a dissertation away from my Doctor of Ministry Degree. I’d like to have my dissertation design approved before I start that final class, which means working with my advisor to clarify and focus my ideas and divide them into chapters. (I find it really helps to think of writing eight 20-40 page chapters rather than one 150-250 page dissertation.)

So what is my dissertation going to be about?

These days, our subjective experience is that we are swimming in rough seas…bombarded by a constant stream of traumatic and tragic news. This experience is based on an objective reality. The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) maintains an International Disaster Database, in which they’ve tracked the number of natural disasters since 1974. The globe has seen a dramatic eight-fold increase in the number of natural disasters. The scientific consensus is that this change is caused by human patterns of consumption and habitation. That means that in the years to come, things will get worse before they can even begin to get better… even without factoring in human-caused tragedies and disasters.

As if it that weren’t bad enough, we all have a front row seat to each disaster and tragedy as it occurs. A hundred years ago, if there had been a school shooting or a natural disaster somewhere in the world, we might hear about it several months later if it made it into a newspaper…but most likely, we would never know. Editor Harold Evans of the London Times reportedly said that “a single copy of the Sunday Times covers more happenings than an Englishman just a few hundred years ago would have been exposed to in his entire lifetime.”

Most of us don’t get our news exclusively from the paper, though. Between television and the internet, we are watching live footage of tragedies as they unfold and recorded footage afterwards…over and over and over again. Watching images is different than reading words. Studies have shown that our biochemical reaction to watching this footage is the same as if we were there—there’s only a slight difference in scale. So everyone who watches the news responds as if they are being traumatized.

Interestingly enough, when we look into the neuro-biochemistry of PTSD, what we learn is that images of trauma enter our brains through the amygdala (the reptilian brain.) Makes sense, right? If big bad things are happening, we want to respond with that fight-or-flight intensity. From there, they must pass through the hippocampus and into the neocortex. PTSD occurs when the pathway between the amygdala and the hippocampus gets flooded. The official name for compassion fatigue is “Secondary Vicarious Traumatization” or “Secondary Vicarious PTSD”…and I sometimes think that our entire society is suffering from it, simply by virtue of watching the news.

Then there’s the flip side of the coin: it turns out that tragedies can bring out the best in the human race, allowing people to cross boundaries of class, race, nationality, and religion and to embrace our common humanity. (Try reading Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell” if you don’t believe me.) Stories of loss and tragedy capture people’s attention and elicit an empathic response. We wind up caring deeply about people we’ve never met before, and that is a good thing.

This subject has been an interest of mine for several years, and I’ve taken trainings and classes as well as reading everything I can get my hands on. Yet still, I sometimes feel confused, overwhelmed, and inadequate when it comes to responding to traumatic events as a spiritual leader in the context of the congregation. I know I am not alone. Traffic on the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Chat message board after a natural disaster or other tragedy regularly reflects similar confusion on the part of my colleagues. My hope is that I can create a resource…possibly a rubric or a decision flow chart…that might help us know how to calibrate our response appropriately.

To some extent, I see our congregations as lifeboats. It’s our job to provide a place where people can rest for a while, experience kindness, reclaim a sense of agency, and turn again toward beauty, life, and hope. We all get knocked off the boat once in a while, and flounder in the grief and the helplessness and the anger. But we need to keep on swimming (“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”) and then climb back in. In the meantime, we are among the keepers of what is good and right and beautiful. It’s our job to foster in ourselves and in one another compassion and empathy and connection and a sense of responsibility and accountability, all of which is needed if our lifeboats are ever to land someplace stable and sustainable.