This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 6: LEARN MY GOSPEL STORY by which God gives meaning to my experience.”
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The experience of trauma does not allow us to “move on” with life “as if nothing happened.” At the same time, we do not want to believe that this experience should define us. We have an identity and dreams that transcend this experience, yet they are inevitably shaped by our trauma. How do we make sense of this?
Changed and Unchanged
You are living with a real tension. You are the same person you have always been. But also life is different and so you are different. Both realities have to be reckoned with in order for you to make sense of your experience in a healthy way.
First, you are you and will always and only be you. You are the person living the life and story God has given you to live. The “new you” cannot write a letter to the “old you” (or vice versa) and it be read by two different people. When you think of yourself as “a different person” you give your trauma the same significance as your birth and conversion (new birth). It is important for you to know that there is a “you” that transcends these painful events.
Second, you are less naive than you were. Events and experiences cannot be unlearned. You may begin marking time as “before” or “after” your trauma. This is appropriate for any major life event – graduation, marriage, having children, the loss of a parent, retirement, etc… It’s just that trauma intrudes into our lives without warning. Also, certain actions, words, places, or emotions may not be experienced the same way again. This is the effect of every life experience (we are changing day by day), but traumatic moments create more change that is unwanted in a very short period of time.
Read Galatians 2:20. In this verse we see Paul wrestling with the changed-unchanged dynamic. Paul is changed – “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Paul is unchanged – “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith.” Paul was no less dependent upon God after his conversion than he was before. It was just that after his conversion, Paul realized how dependent upon God he was. Similarly, as you grapple with how you are both changed and unchanged many of the things you “know-know” now here true before you appreciated their full weight. Paul was probably shocked at how cavalierly or unprepared he lived before his conversion. Similarly, you may experience a sense of fear-guilt for how naively you may lived before your trauma. After conversion we see God’s protection over our pre- and post-conversion life. Similarly, you need to begin to see God’s protection over your changed-unchanged life.
Question: How has trying to make sense of life as either-or, changed-or-unchanged, made it harder for you to gain a sense of peace or stability? How does this both-and mindset alleviate those challenges?
Strong Enough to Be Weak
Hopefully one of the primary things you’ve gained from this study is the strength to be weak. Nothing makes us crumble at our core like the perceived need to be stronger than we are. Conversely, nothing maximizes the strength God gives us like the freedom to acknowledge our need for grace, help, and encouragement.
Having the language to describe your experience and the awareness to know that others who experience trauma face similar challenges afterwards should give you the social strength to be weak. Knowing that God understands your experience and is compassionate towards suffering should give you the spiritual strength to be weak. Realizing that “weak” is not a derogatory social class under “the strong” (which is a fictional class of people we think could handle trauma), should remove the shame associated with being weak.
Read Matthew 5:3-6. The beatitudes are the epitome of being “strong enough to be weak.” In each beatitude Jesus describes a state of being that we would find undesirable as “blessed.” Yet, with a little reflection, we realize that it is trying to be what we consider “strong” that exhausts us. When we are willing to be poor in spirit, meek, hungry, and thirsty we find that life is better. We find there is more strength in willful God-dependency than in self-sufficiency.
Question: How have you grown in your willingness to be “strong enough to be weak” during your experience of trauma?
Capable of Influential Choices
Being weak does not mean being voiceless or lacking the will to challenge things that are wrong or undesirable around you. Balancing the emotional freedom of being able to be weak with the volitional freedom of having a voice is one of the great post-traumatic challenges. It is another area where we are prone to think in either-or categories rather than both-and.
Begin by making a list of important choices you are free to make which are unrelated to your trauma. Never allow yourself to view these parts of life as insignificant. If you do, then only those parts of your life where your trauma holds its strongest influence will be deemed significant. That centralizes your trauma in a way that will cause it to always dominate your life story.
- Examples: matters related to caring for people who are important to you, eating a healthy diet, exercising to care for your body, practicing your faith, etc…
Now make a list of the important choices you can make in response to the effects of trauma in your life. In step seven, we will expand the number of strategies and responses available to you. The longer and more effective this list becomes the less powerless you will feel.
- Examples: If you struggle to identify choices to place on this list or the next, you will receive examples in step seven.
Finally, make a list of the choices you can make to remove the presence of this type of trauma from your life and the life of others. If your trauma cannot be removed (i.e., the experience of law enforcement officers entering life-threatening situations to save others), then make a list of the redemptive benefits your sacrifice provides.
Read Psalm 127:1-2. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the influence of your choices and begin to think that all the pressure to make the world a safe place again is on you. Psalm 127 speaks to this experience. It does not refute the efforts of house builders and watchmen. Both are good and warranted. But it emphasizes that God makes effective our efforts. Our role is merely faithfulness. As you think about the influence of your choices, remind yourself that it is God who blesses these choices so that he can give you “his beloved sleep” (v. 2).
Question: How have you grown in your ability to see the influence of your choices while resting in God’s utilization them?
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.