The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice]When Helping Isn't Enough:[Chalice]
A Time for Healing

Presented December 8, 2013, by Rev. Scott Aaseng

Reading: from The Cup of Our Life by Joyce Rupp

It is time for me
to see the flaws of myself
and stop being alarmed.
It is time for me
to halt my drive for perfection
and to accept my blemishes.
It is time for me
to receive slowly evolving growth
the kind that comes in . . . [its] own good time
and pays no heed to my panicky pushing

It is time for me
to embrace my humanness
to love my incompleteness.
It is time for me
to cherish the unwanted
to welcome the unknown
to treasure the unfulfilled.
If I wait to be perfect
before I love myself
I will always be
unsatisfied and ungrateful.
If I wait until all the flaws, chips, and cracks disappear
I will be the cup
that stands on the shelf
and is never used.

Sermon: When Helping Isn't Enough: A Time for Healing

On Veterans' Day last month I watched a re-run of the movie, "Home of the Brave," starring Samuel L. Jackson. I guess the movie didn't get great reviews, but it hit home for me. It made the experiences of veterans returning from battle more present, more real. It reminded me of the time I had the opportunity to march from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans with a group of about 200 veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, and survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The year was 2006 - the year after Katrina, and the war in Iraq was still raging. The idea was to draw a connection between two, and to try to shift the country's priorities from a catastrophic war abroad to reconstructing people's lives in our own country after the catastrophe of Katrina. The march was called the "Veterans' and Survivors' March for Peace and Justice;" the tag line was: "Every bomb dropped on Iraq explodes along the Gulf Coast."

The march was organized by veteran Stan Goff, who had served as an infantryman in Vietnam in the 1970's, with Special Forces in Central and South America in the 80's, and in Somalia and Haiti in the 90's. When Katrina hit, the veterans' group he led was one of the first on the scene to help out. He began the march orientation by encouraging some of the older veterans to be mindful of the more recent vets just back from Iraq. "We know how it is," he said-"one minute you're here, and the next minute you're right back there and it's happening all over again."

He also reminded us that as we walked along the Gulf Coast we were going to meet people who had been through a lot right here in this country. As another speaker pointed out, post-traumatic stress syndrome had truly spilled over into civilian society along the Gulf Coast. This march was going to bring a lot of things up for people, he said - and that was the whole point. Because this was a not just a march, it was a spiritual pilgrimage. What we were doing was creating conditions where people-veterans and hurricane survivors alike- could tell their stories and be heard, one of the keys to recovery and healing.

It wasn't until later that I came to realization that we all have traumatic experiences of one sort or another. Not to equate all such experiences with surviving a war or a hurricane - not by any means. As a veteran pointed out to me last week, the term PTSD has become overused to describe difficulty dealing with any stressful situation. But I do think childhood traumas of one sort or another are a near-universal experience. (One of mine was being terrified of a bully for much of 7th grade.) If not abuse or bullying, then maybe an accident or loss or some sort or being a victim of your parent's or someone else's rage, or just the experience of someone not being there when you felt they should be, or someone important to you not living up to the expectations you had of them. Maybe trauma isn't always the word, but disorientation-a time when the world no longer made sense the way it used to, and you felt threatened or helpless, overwhelmed or out of control, no longer safe, and the world or your parents or life could no longer to be trusted in the same way.

Some of us have experienced more recent disorientations. You'll be happy to hear that Gale and I have mostly gotten over disorientation of our kids leaving home, but as she pointed out to me recently, parenthood itself can be its own kind of disorientation. For me, the birth of our second child was extremely disorienting (it's not for nothing that sleep deprivation is considered a means of torture). Birth, marriage, divorce, moving away, having someone close move away-every major life transition can be a trauma of sorts. Serious illness can certainly be traumatic, every death is certainly a trauma. Every crime is a form of trauma - a violation of way things are supposed to be. It can be extremely disorienting to come home and find that someone has been in your home, or to be looking for something and find that it's been stolen.

Then there are collective traumas - real ones, from 9-11 to Katrina, from assassinations to mass shootings, from typhoons to tornadoes. And there are the unhealed historical traumas of slavery and segregation, holocaust and genocide, and the ongoing traumas of war and poverty. It doesn't matter if you've been a victim, a witness, or even a cause of trauma, the need for healing can be the same.

Trauma therapist Carolyn Yoder has a book about Trauma Healing based on work with trauma survivors from the former Yugoslavia, 9-11, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina. She talks about the experience of trauma in terms of disintegration, of reality coming apart. I've talked before about the fight or flight panic response; as she puts it: when your pulse raises as little as 10 beats above baseline, the rational part of your brain starts slipping out of gear. But she points out that freezing is another common response, the tendency to go numb, to dissociate, to stop caring. Some of you undoubtedly know more about this than I do, but a common symptom of PTSD is avoidance - trying to get away from the pain of the experience, but being unable to do so, and getting stuck reliving "intrusive memories" over and over again.

This bottled-up tension of trying to escape but not being able to, can lead to freezing up, going numb, and at the same time being in a state of constant arousal or hyper-sensitivity, where the littlest thing can set you off. The result is living in what's called "low mode" states: intense or explosive reactions of rage or tears; rigidity and intolerance; fixation and repetitive behaviors; loss or impairment of the ability to communicate, to be flexible, to trust; loss of the ability to reflect, to empathize; loss of meaning - nothing makes sense anymore; a sense of helplessness or victimization, of guilt or shame; resort to simplistic answers - "I'm right, you're wrong" (or vice versa); blaming, demonizing, or dehumanizing the other; paranoia, fantasies of revenge or justice; and finally, resort to the familiar neural pathways of common societal narratives: good vs. evil, us vs. them, me vs. you, and belief in the redemptive power of violence-as if the power of force is what ultimately saves us, makes us safe. I don't know about you, but I've experienced most of these at one time or another. They're common, natural, normal responses, not just to trauma, but to intense stress.

Healing is a matter of breaking the cycle - of unfreezing the tension, working through the pain and grief, and re-integrating what happened with who you are and with the rest of your life, putting life back together again in a way that has meaning. Of course, there is no one right way, but reading stories of survivors who have been able to find healing, it often starts when they can stop resisting what happened, and start letting go.

One story is about a man who worked hard, got married, and bought a beachfront home in Gulfport, Mississippi. They thought his wife was suffering from a blocked colon, but when the doctors operated on it, they found a tumor. They removed the tumor, but it grew back. They removed it again, it grew back again. For eight years she fought with cancer, and it grew back three times. And then Katrina came along.

At first they didn't think much of it. They lived on fairly high ground, they'd made it through Hurricane Camille with no problem. But when the winds started tearing the roof off their house, they decided to go to a safer place. When they came back a couple hours later, they couldn't find their house - it was just gone. Oh, they found bits and pieces, but there was basically nothing left. People started coming from all over the country to help them rebuild. Some young adults from Connecticut came and interviewed his wife for a video, and soon after that, his wife went to the doctor and got the report that tumor was shrinking. Pretty soon he got his job back in New Orleans, and it seemed they were finally recovering.

The next week his wife died of a stroke caused by complications from chemotherapy. He sinks into depression for about a year, and then one day he's driving to his job in New Orleans when he starts thinking about his life. "I could tell I wasn't happy anymore," he says. "My life needed to change. [And then] I began to realize I was holding on to things I didn't need to hold onto anymore. I needed to track backwards for a minute and remember what really mattered. . ."

"So what matters?" he asks himself. "My wife is no longer here. That matters. But I can't change anything about that." An important part of healing is realizing and accepting what you just can't change. And that frees him up to start making choices about what he can do. He can stop drinking alone - it's not helping, and he knows it. He can go back to sailing - something that feeds him, something that makes him happy. And he can start helping other people. "I want to help others," he says. "Other people helped me when I needed it, and it's time for me to give back." He found his time for healing.

Part of getting out of the cycle of avoiding or resisting the negative emotions of trauma is simply to accept that it happened - stop trying to fight it. Because that's when you can start to reclaim your power over it, instead of it having power over you.

Another story is of a woman who grows up a victim of abuse, and then is assaulted by her tennis instructor. When she grows up and has a daughter of her own, her daughter is assaulted by a total stranger. And then her husband leaves her. She bottoms out, and considers suicide, but her love for her daughter holds her back. After a long period of grief and tears, she starts to ask herself, so if she's not going to end her life, what is she going to do with it? Where does she want to end up?

She starts by saying, "I don't know. I certainly don't want to walk around talking about what happened to me as a child . . . like some crazed [advocate for] child abuse [victims] on speed. Spending hours and hours . . . doing research on the computer trying to figure out where the guy lives now, whether he is married or has children, whether or not he has had any other complaints against him, whether or not he is still playing tennis . . . That all sounds frustrating, and honestly I don't see any healing at the end of that particular tunnel."

She finally realizes: "What I want most is to be normal. To relax in the idea of safety. To find a happy place inside myself. Accept that it happened to me rather than work so hard to prevent it from happening again, or deny that it ever happened, or believe that I am somehow dirtied or damaged from it. Maybe I want to move on without carrying it around. How does someone find happy? How does someone let go?"

And then she starts to look around: "Oddly, answers are everywhere. I sit in my young son's room, tears streaming down my face, and a cold yellow washcloth in my hand. He is toddling around the room vroom vrooming with a bright red and blue tractor in his hand. The are two skylights in the small room, and from them plenty of light comes in. In one window, a tree stands tall. There are several branches of leaves off the tree, and the branches sway in a way that mesmerizes the eyes . . . I think of a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'But in the mud and scum of things, There alway, alway, something sings." . . . She realizes: "My daughter was assaulted... [and] it was wrong on every level, yet she seems to be OK. The law is on her side, the police are on her side, the school is on her side, her family is on her side, and she has a ton of friends supporting her . . ."

Later on, she finds healing through humor, and talks about how "happiness comes in all sorts of places . . . even in words and phrases. Like the phrase, 'Don't poke a snake with a short stick . . . I mean, honestly, why would anyone poke a snake? The other day on the news, I heard the general in charge of the war in Afghanistan describing their methods of dealing with a particular region of Afghanistan as 'poking a short stick in a hornet's nest.' Men and their sticks. Poking them where they clearly should not be poked. I can't really explain the smile that spreads on my face when I hear those phrases, but they make me feel happy . . . Imagine a man leaning over a snake and saying to his friend, 'Hey, grab that stick over there, will ya? That short one will do. I want to see if this here li'l fella will move' . . . Women would not engage in this behavior . . . And if by any chance, one did declare it a good idea to poke a stick at a snake, the other would introduce reason into the conversation. For sure."

Finally she says: "I even find happy in sadness . . . At moments, the pain is unbearable. And there is no secret way out, or back door through the pain. It's real and it's staying. The only trick is to still feel joy. To still see beauty in life. It's amazing how often beauty sits there right next to horror . . . Which one we attend to is our choice at every given moment." She finds strength - not in the power of force or the security of external things, but in herself. And she re-integrates her life, not by avoiding what happened to her, but by re-storying it - telling a new story that gives her life meaning.

A final story about finding closure-the closure that allows the openness it takes to move on. It's about a soldier who sees his friends blown up in an explosion in Iraq. And when his sergeant asks if he needs a break, he says yes, but it only makes everything worse. As he says, "There are only so many movies you can watch." He sits in a tent for seven straight days and watches movies, and he realizes, "there is such a thing as too much time on your hands." Avoidance doesn't work.

He goes numb, he stops caring about anything, he can't move on, because he doesn't want to forget his friends because he feels guilty about letting them go. Closure with them feels dishonorable. Saying goodbye to them feels like betraying them. The hardest part, he says, is not being able to talk to them about what happened. "Couldn't tell them what I saw and did. Couldn't ask them how it felt. Couldn't tell them what happened next. Couldn't even say goodbye."

He has recurring nightmares where everyone around him dies. He survives, but he can't protect them from dying. The way he starts to find healing is through nightmare-resolution classes where he's able to talk about his nightmares, and then work through to a new outcome for his dreams. So that instead of working so hard to save his friends from dying in his dreams, he learns to say goodbye to them. Because as he says, "It's important to say goodbye." And "I love you, man" can be powerful way of saying goodbye.

We're all broken at some level. Sometimes we just need to stop being alarmed and embrace it. Embrace ourselves in all our humanness and incompleteness, and embrace each other in all our humanness and incompleteness. Maybe it can help to see ourselves as broken pieces of pottery-or mosaics made up of broken pieces, yet beautiful nonetheless. Mosaics aren't made by trying to glue the broken pieces back together again as if they had never been broken. The beauty of mosaics is found when we stop seeing brokenness as ugly and unacceptable and learn to start putting the broken pieces together in new ways.

As my colleague Barbara Ten Hove says, "We are called to transform the painful and harsh realities of our lives into as much beauty as we can. We are called to create mosaics known as communities, as family, as congregations. And we are invited to bring our broken selves into relationship, and find ways to help each other heal."

I picked up a hitchhiker on my way to that march along the Gulf Coast. He was an unemployed construction worker from Pennsylvania trying to turn his life around after years of messing up, and he decided to start his life over by coming down to try to help with reconstruction. After a couple of days marching with the group he was grateful that he was getting a second chance. By the end of the six days, he announced that he had found his life's work helping rebuild the Gulf Coast, and immediately set about recruiting volunteers and supplies to rebuild the roof of a woman's house we had passed along the way.

Empathy is source of healing, and healing is source of empathy. And isn't that what we're here for after all: to expand our capacity for love, and to nurture each other as people who care enough to act in love, for love?

Closing Words: from Barbara Kingsolver:

In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learn to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of my brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

©2013 Rev. Scott Aaseng

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Aaseng, Rev. Scott 2013. A Time for Healing, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20131208.shtml (accessed December 14, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.