A Handbook for Processing Cultural and Personal Trauma

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Many people are emotionally reeling right now. In addition to the turmoil in the world, we all have our own stuff. My great-uncle passed away this weekend, and I loved him dearly. He was a hero of the Korean War, beloved by all, full of laughter and light and stories—and love. All he had seen, all he had experienced, made him more loving, more empathetic, and more compassionate. He cared deeply for all life. With my emotional red alert raised already by the refugee crisis, my uncle’s death was harder to process. This is normal; we’ve all got our “stuff.” And in times like these, what might have felt like ordinary obstacles can become full-on roadblocks, and traumas seemingly insurmountable.

Seeing refugee children torn from their parents’ arms and placed in cages and tent cities is terrifying. Perhaps it is even more frightening seeing people we know (or thought we knew) supporting this horrific violation of human rights.

When I taught the Holocaust, my students would ask me, “How could this happen?” There is no simple answer. Indifference, fear, hatred, and bigotry are the big ones. But the choice to be a bystander is in itself a choice. Do you look, and face the darkness, or do you turn away, barbecue something on the grill, change the tv channel? Do you believe the propaganda, because it’s easier than facing the darkness and then having to make the choice about actually doing something about it? Or do you find a way to stay kind, to stay aware, to stay good, and somehow remain sane despite all the madness around you?

These are hard questions. And I’ve thought about them for seventeen years. As a scholar of war and human rights, watching or reading the news is never simple.

Anxiety is running rampant in these dark times.

But there are some strategies I learned in my years studying the Holocaust, slavery, and genocide, that help me to stay sane.

The first is the most important. It’s about perspective. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard hundreds of hours of accounts of the worst violence, torture, and cruelty—what Victor Frankl described after the Holocaust as “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Oprah (yes, Oprah, legit!) asked Tutu years ago how he handled it. Tutu said that most people are like vacuum cleaners; they suck all of horrible things they see inside of them and it just stays there. Tutu said that we have to be dishwashers: to witness, to help others be seen, to process their stories, and to clean them.

It’s hard to be a dishwasher. Reading concentration camp memoirs and stories from the Warsaw Ghetto and U.S. State Department documents turning refugees away, such as the story of the SS. St. Louis, in which refugees from the Holocaust were literally on the coast of the USA, yards away from safety, but were turned away. They died.

I fell into a deep depression the first time I was studying these things, and understandably so. But I had to learn that the act of witnessing, of listening, of not turning away, is itself a good deed. It’s the right thing to do. When we don’t turn away, we can educate others.

When we don’t turn away, we have to process the grief and the horror and the compassion fatigue. It’s hard, but it can be done.

MEMOIRS

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Reading memoirs of trauma and violence can be overwhelming. But they can also be sources of hope—many authors stand out in this category, transmuting their experiences into stories that can uplift us after they make us cry. Organized by going backward in time, here are a few to get you started:

  • Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom (Mandela’s memoir of Apartheid)
  • Ruth Minsky Sender’s The Cage (on surviving the Warsaw Ghetto in the Holocaust)
  • Frederick Douglass’ Autobiography (American slavery and freedom from the perspective of escaped slave—and greatest orator of the nineteenth century—Douglass)

HISTORY

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And reading books that explain how ordinary people either let terrible things happen—or how they chose to fight them—is also helpful. Alphabetically, these are excellent:

SELF-CARE

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It’s also important to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself!

  • Go outside and look at nature, whether that means visiting the flowers in a park a few blocks away, or out your backdoor at the Chesapeake Bay, just DO it! Here’s more on “Why Connecting with Nature Elevates Your Mental Health.”
  • Read a favorite book, one you already know and love. (Check out my Goodreads here!)
  • Watch an old comedy that always makes you laugh. Lifehack has a great list of 10 Movies You Should Watch to Boost Your Mood and Energy. An IMDB user made a comedy list of movies that cheer you up.
  • And seriously, laugh! No, really. Even fake laughter releases endorphins that are very real for your body. If you can’t make yourself laugh, take a gander at “laughter yoga.Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a long time.
  • Call the people you love and tell them how much you love them.
  • Send snail mail along the same lines.
  • Look at beautiful pictures—faerie eyries, mountains, the beach, puppies–to destress. There are ACTUAL STUDIES on this.
  • Make yourself a special mocktail (here’s my mocktail recipe board).
  • Order your favorite meal.
  • Take a hot bath. Use candles. Add bath salts. Music helps too. Go wild. Add a boat like Chandler Bing from Friends if you need to make it feel more manly. (Actually, here’s a whole fun thread about Friends!)
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  • Listen to slow, soft music that slows down your brain. Here’s Peaceful Piano on Spotify!
  • Take deeeeeeep breaths. In to the count of three, out for the count of five. This gets your body out of fight or flight mode, and lets it normalize itself. Let the Berkeley scientists teach you mindful breathing here.
  • Play: pick up an instrument, lift weights, play video games with your kids or friends, toss a ball for your dog, annoy your cat by removing them from whatever box they are currently sitting in and cuddle.
  • Exercise—just 20 minutes of cardio releases seratonin in a big way. The Runner’s High is REAL, folks.
  • Get in touch with the Higher Power of your understanding and ask for help.
  • Work on mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh is my favorite writer on this topic, and this is my favorite book of his. He even has a great quote on the magic of washing the dishes:

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace Prize Winner

OTHER RESOURCES

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And please remember: it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out. Ask your loved ones for a little extra TLC or a hug. Talk to a trauma therapist. Send up a flare. Let someone see you, really see you—so they can know.

We are all in this together. Keep fighting the good fight and take care of yourselves. And love each other. Love each other fiercely, because life is short. But hang in there, because together, we dishwashers can help heal ourselves, hold each other up, and continue the great work of doing good wherever we can, however we are able

And as always, Namaste, Darlings

—Maggie

3 Replies to “A Handbook for Processing Cultural and Personal Trauma”

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