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Histories of Trauma and Resilience

My parents divorced when I was 10. They tell me that when my dad moved out of the family home, I cried for three days, morning noon and night.

Six months earlier, the Boston Red Sox lost the 1975 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in an agonizing game 7 where the Sox blew a 3 run lead, losing 4-3 with the winning run scored in the top of the 9th. My parents would tell me I cried for over a week straight. I was inconsolable. The tell me that twice in the week following the defeat, teachers had to send me out of the classroom because I couldn’t stop crying. When they divorced 8 months later and I only cried for three days, it was a relief that I wasn’t taking it worse.

It took me long time to bounce back from my parents’ divorce. I think all children of divorce understand how complex this can be. As in the case of many other of life’s difficulties, everyone who goes through it experiences it differently. It may be easier for some, but it’s never easy. The worst for me was having to do every single holiday twice. Christmas, Easter, and Birthdays were the worst. Somewhere between the start of high school and the end of college, I made peace with it.

And true to form, it took me much longer to bounce back from the 75 World Series. It was a rough one. I was only 18 months old when the Sox had played out much the same script losing to the Cardinals in 7 games in 1967, but in 1975 I was just old enough to be aware, very aware of how special a world series appearance is . I was prime baseball age. 9 years old, and baseball was my world. I was one of those kids who took his glove to school, who collected all the baseball card, and even kept score – a truly dying art form – when I went to Fenway Park. I listed on the radio, I watched on TV. I began reading the sports page every day. When my favorite player, Carlton Fisk waved that home run fair to win game six in 12 innings, I was as euphoric truly as I ever remember feeling. And the very next night after they blew a 3 run lead and lost the series, I was as despondent as I would ever feel until experiencing depression as an adult. Oddly, when a therapist asked me if I’d ever felt this way, I replied, “Yes, when the Sox lost the 75 World Series.” The counselor laughed. I wasn’t joking. It might not have been so bad, except two years later in 1978 Bucky Freaking Dent hit a three run homer in the top of the 7th to erase a 2-0 Sox lead and start the comeback that saw the Yankees win 5-4. Then the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs when the Sox were one out away in the 1986 series against the Mets. By the time Aaron Rodgers homered off Tim Wakefield in extra innings in 2003, I had finally come to grips with not letting the Sox make me depressed. And all the trauma was erased in 2004 when the Sox finally won the series for the first time 86 years.

Divorce and the Red Sox are not the worst traumas of my life and they certainly don’t compare to truly devastating traumatic experiences like war, sexual assault, debilitating disease, or homelessness. Yet traumatic they were in their own way and in their own time.

Trauma is any form of shock that impacts the normal capacity to function. My parents’ divorce and the Sox losing the 75 series impacted my 9- and 10-year-old self’s capacity to function. Acutely for days and to a lesser degree for months, even years. Eventually I found the resiliency I needed to move on. I grew up and having to make my own compromises with life certainly helped me understand those my parents had to make and living through my own relationships I came to understand how sometimes things just don’t work out. Eventually Larry Bird’s Celtics made the travails of the Sox easier to take. And then the Patriots and Sox seemed to be winning championships every other year, ho-hum! I also arrived in that place where men making millions to play ball while people are hungry and taking performance enhancing drugs to do it, and well cheating to win, like the current Sox manager, put professional baseball and even the Red Sox in perspective.

As Robert Wicks writes, The question is not if we will experience trauma in our lives, It is when. None of escape the darkness and traumatic experiences. Lucy Hone is a resilience expert from New Zealand that had to put her research into practical use when her 12-year-old daughter died unexpectedly. She wrote a book about what she learned in the wake of that experience. Her book What Abi Taught Us, Strategies for Resilient Grieving was published in 2016. In her TedX Talk from Christchurch, NZ she says that resilient people practice three things the less resilient have trouble doing:

1. They get that SHIT/STUFF happens – they don’t live in woulda, coulda, shoulda land. They don’t play blame games. They don’t spend all their time wondering why and why me? As novelist John Green writes in his story The Fault in Our Stars, “The universe is arbitrary , but it’s not malicious. It didn’t come FOR YOU. Things just happen.”

2. They’re good at focusing on what they CAN do and don’t worry about what they CAN’T Do and Can’t Control.

3. They recognize the importance of the triage question, “Will this help me or will this hurt me?” in discerning what to do and discerning how to best heal.

These don’t seem like overly grand and complex strategies. They are not character traits reserved for the most superhuman of us. And yet, many of us find it difficult to practice these things in the course of daily life, never mind in the wake of trauma and while grieving. Because it’s nearly impossible to start up good habits in the spur of the moment when tragedy occurs, these are life hacks worth practicing as often as possible so when we next need them, they are in our brain’s toolbox.

These three things are a big part of why MUUS has come through the pandemic in relative good shape. Our Leaders understood that stuff happens. Pandemic is horrible, but we’d better get busy doing the best we can. And they did. MUUS focused on what we could do. We did online services; we had a continuing series of socially distanced functions and drive through celebrations. The Mobile minister drove around making visits, and the online minister had a weekly lunch. We asked will this help get through the pandemic, or won’t it? We combined with the Meriden congregation for online services and a virtual choir, we stopped paying rent for space we weren’t using. We acted like a resilient group.

Trauma researchers tell us that one of the best things we can do in the wake of trauma is to tell our stories. We tell personal stories of personal trauma, and we tell personal stories of collective trauma. Pooling our stories, we tell community stories of trauma.

Back in the day, Red Sox fans would tell stories of Bucky Freaking Dent and God Darn Bill Buckner. Each fan’s story slightly different. How the even impacted them. Where they were. How they survived the moment of pain. Together Red Sox nation had a communal story of pain. Likewise, after 2004 each Sox fan had a story of where you were when the Sox completed the Sweep in St. Louis in 2004. What relative did you call. Who in your family didn’t live to see the Sox win the series? Taken all together, this forms the lore of Red Sox nation. And so it is for more serious trauma. We all have our own personal story of traumatic things that happen to a group, a country, a congregation. Those stories will have similarities but also differences. When people live through trauma, they need to feel as though their story of the trauma is heard, that their pain of the trauma is felt and seen.

Our nation has a collective story of the trauma of the Great Depression, of World War 2, of the JFK assassination, of 9-11. Our nation doesn’t have a collective story of the Vietnam War, or Slavery and Racism and White Supremacy. One of the reasons we are such a divided nation is that we no longer share common stories of trauma and resilience. The main reason for that is for the first in our history those whose stories of the trauma of America has never been heard and whose pain and personhood have not been seen are refusing to be ignored. Historian Jill Lepore says a people NEED a common, shared story, and they will have it, they will get it one way or another. It will be trained historians, or it will be demagogues, but a common story will arise. We are caught up in the struggle for what story we tell from now on about our collective trauma.

During Covid, we have put a lot of effort into creating opportunities for you to tell your story. How are you doing? Send in your photo? Drive by to get Halloween Candy and Cornbread and Cider and Valentines. Make phone calls to each other. Check in on each other. Eventually, we will have a collective story of how MUUS survived Covid, but it must be created out of shared stories. If it isn’t then it won’t lead to resilience. We now see the first fruit of our striving to tell the story through the process of the traumatic event, we are emerging, slowly, carefully, into buying land and building a meetinghouse. Putting all our stories together through the crisis we tried to create a narrative of this time we can all claim and share as a congregation.

Resiliency is a response to trauma. We bounce back by reframing because our stories of trauma are ALSO our stories of resilience. We tell the story of not only how we suffered, but how we survived and this in turn helps us thrive. Just as there is post traumatic stress there is also post traumatic growth!

Ricky Greenwald Says The concept of post-traumatic growth has been around since long before the term was coined. For example, people have long proclaimed, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The thing is, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, the point of trauma-focused therapy is to help those who have been wounded by their experiences to heal and come out stronger. In other words, when post-traumatic growth doesn’t happen naturally, we try to induce it.

Greenwald uses the archetypal Hero’s Journey, in Fairy Tale form as model to explain the post traumatic growth pattern used with children in trauma counseling to get them to face and process fears, traumas and/or losses.

  • Base line, or “once upon a time,” when everything is normal.

  • The call to action, in which normal doesn’t work anymore. Because now (for example), the old parents can no longer feed their growing children; or there’s a dragon in town, wreaking havoc.

  • Gathering of resources to enable the hero – who typically starts out as someone decidedly not heroic – to face the challenge.

  • Death and rebirth. The hero utilizes her resources, faces death (or some equivalent fate such as enchantment), and comes through. In the process of overcoming the challenge, the hero becomes transformed, for example from child to adult, or wounded to whole.

  • Re-entry, in which the hero returns home, but in a new role or higher level as per the growth/transformation that has been achieved.

Once upon a time in first two decades of the 20th century the Red Sox won the world series 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, 1918, but since then the dragons of the Curse of the Bambino – When the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth’s contract to the Yankees – wreaked havoc with the team’s success, causing them to lose the world series in agonizing fashion four times and agonizing play off loses in other years.

Then came Theo Epstein the brilliant young GM from Brookline, MA who grew up a Sox fans and used Bill James Sabrmetric statistical analysis to construct a team that WON the Series in 2004 and now the Red Sox have won the most world series of any team in the 21st century.

MUUS has also followed this model to post traumatic growth. There was the time before COVID. And then many of things that used to work for having a successful congregation didn’t work any more when the Dragon COVID forced us out of our building and online. Then MUUS stopped paying rent and we learned how to be successful with technology and online ministry and a team found land to buy to build a meeting house. And now we are getting ready to be reborn into our new home with renewed energy.

constructive-developmental psychologist Robert Keegan says, “The emotions and the experience, the gratitude or the terror, associated with transformation are very different from what transformation actually is.” In his book In Over Our Heads: The mental demands of modern life, Keegan says that transformation is not just learning new information; not just putting new things in our brains. To transform is to substantially change the form of the container itself, so that our mind, and I would say our spirit or our soul, is different, bigger, more expansive, more complex, more able to deal with shifting sands, uncertainty, disruption. When we are transformed, Keegan says we change not only how we behave and feel, but HOW we KNOW and the WAY in which we come to know.

What we have lived through in the last two years has made us different than who we were in the before times, before Covid, before Pandemic and Quarantine and Social Distancing and Vaccinations. We have come to understand in a new way the importance of community, mutual support, common values and common purpose. We have come to understand in a new way how to love each other and answer the call of love. We have come to understand in a new way who we are and what MUUS is. Both our personal and congregational histories have been through a period of trauma AND post traumatic growth. We have found ourselves to be more resilient than we realized. We will carry our collective congregational narrative into the future transformed by our experience of traumatic stress and traumatic growth. Transformed by our history of trauma and resilience.

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