It's been a difficult week for trauma survivors. Survivors of Hurricane Sandy may wonder if the rest of the country has forgotten about them. Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault have questioned why protecting them suddenly became a partisan issue. Survivors of mass shootings wonder why the immediate media frenzy quickly cools to yesterday's news.
Meanwhile, we reassure ourselves with platitudes about trauma and recovery. Those little angels from Sandy Hook are having the best Christmas ever in Heaven, I saw someone tweet. Those Newtown kids headed back to school are so resilient. The spirit of those homeless Staten Islanders is amazing -- you can't keep them down. Look at brave little Malala Yousafzai, the face of resistance against the Taliban; I'm so glad our girls aren't abused like that.
But the truth is that resilience after trauma doesn't come quickly or easily. Some of us might think that a combination of our individual personalities, perseverance and good old American individualism can rescue us in times of trouble. And they can, to an extent. But I've never worked with a client who has healed from trauma alone. Not one. Healing from trauma requires a community, a culture that's behind you. One that is willing to support you with both the material resources you might need, and the spiritual and emotional sustenance you crave. What we do and what we say, as individuals, as communities and as a government in the aftermath of terrible events really does matter. We have the ability to help people heal, and we can wound people even further.
I'll never forget working with Vietnam combat veterans who could describe in detail their run-ins with people after they were discharged. These grown men experienced the hurt and pain of being called "baby killers" and "murderers" and vividly remember coming home to no jobs and even fewer social supports. Did we learn from this, and vow not to re-injure survivors anymore? It's high time for a compassion revolution. For example, Sandy survivors deserve a clear message from every American and every politician, "Until all of you have food, clothing and safe shelter, we will not forget you." For Sandy Hook survivors, it might mean the public sitting with their pain long enough to figure out how we can prevent this from ever happening again. Noah Pozner's mom describes his gruesome injuries, ones which only an assault weapon could cause. This is hard to read, and even harder to think about, but that's exactly what we need to do to support her resilience. For rape victims, it means that every time a legislator says something that is victim-blaming ("The body has a way of shutting down a real rape.") the public outcry should be so loud and so sustained it should be deafening. This is how we stand with survivors.
In our daily lives, we have many opportunities to create a compassion revolution -- to change the way we treat people who are hurting.
• To begin, we can no longer distance ourselves from the suffering of others. If each of us spent five minutes a day reading or thinking about other people who are struggling, it would change our consciousness. When we avoid other people's pain for sustained periods of time, it's easier to ignore and forget. But it's not enough to sit with that pain, we must transform it into meaningful action.
• Second, forget everything you've heard about avoiding touchy subjects. Don't be afraid to be a compassionate voice in both online and offline interactions. Most of us have someone in our social network who is a survivor of a traumatic event, whether we know it or not. When you say something that challenges victim-blaming, when you remind others that no one can heal alone, you can bet that survivors are reading and appreciating your advocacy.
• Finally, start to think in terms of respectful dialogue, not avoiding conflict. Resolve to engage in at least one difficult conversation per week. We all have an uncle who doesn't believe in disaster relief or a sister who believes in the right to bear assault weapons. Avoiding difficult conversations will never help us support survivors. When we engage in meaningful conversations, we have the ability to change one heart and one mind at a time. That's the only way the world changes.
I've always been amazed by human being's abilities to heal. I've been awed and humbled by the ways my clients have made meaning from such difficult life circumstances. But I also know that no one is an island. Trauma touches just about every family, every community in some capacity. By speaking up for each other, we speak up for ourselves -- for our own humanity. So let's not wait. The time for a compassion revolution is now. We can't look to others to make it happen. Let's get to work.