“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness” (Gabor Mate) [“Trauma” in this quote, refers to Post Traumatic Stress]
Often, people engage in counseling because they are suffering. But what is suffering? Dr. Kurt
Thompson, in The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hope, examines how it is
possible to have hope in the midst of suffering.
We all know what pain is because we have all experienced it. Pain is simply an ability to
perceive an uncomfortable stimulus. Suffering is more pervasive. Sometimes the suffering is a
result of something done to us, sometimes it is a result of something we have done, and
sometimes suffering is due to persecution for following Christ.
People are unique in the sense that we have the ability to perceive a sense of time in a way
other creatures do not. We have a sense of the past, the present, and the future. This pain
experienced over time is what materializes as suffering when we perceive that we will may be stuck in the pain forever. And, it hurts even deeper than this when, we tell ourselves the story that we will be stuck in the pain…ALONE.
This is what leads to suffering and trauma.
An unfortunate, but common response to suffering is shame. Shame causes us to move away
from connection with God and other people. Shame brings a sense of
worthlessness and being alone in our suffering, feeling , that no one can understand or bear
witness with us. Shame is isolating. As humans, made in the image of an interconnected God
(Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), we are designed for connection. We cannot heal in isolation. We
are designed to heal in community with others.
From a neurobiological and psychological standpoint, studies have shown that what we pay
attention to on purpose, causes our brain to form neural pathways. These pathways become
the embodied reality of what we expect from the future. If we focus on the pain, shame or
isolation, we will continue to suffer because our future will look bleak through that perspective.
Enter HOPE. Romans 5:3-5 states, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that
suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces
hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” God provides a way through our suffering,
and this is through hope -which ultimately is intertwined with the LOVE OF GOD, which He so
lavishly pours into us. Often, God uses our connection with others to generate our
feelings of love and acceptance. Because God designed us not only to be in relationship with Him, but with others.
Matthew 18:20 states, “For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in their
midst.” There is something so precious about connection with God and others. Here in these
times of suffering when we can physically look at another person’s face and find empathy and not judgement, while
telling our story, our brains are rewired to find hope. This is a beautiful way in which science
(neurobiology) and theology come together.
In these moments of beauty in the midst of our suffering, hope is built. When we purposely
dwell on these moments of connection and empathy, our neural pathways are changed to
expect a better outcome. This is where the practice of purposely paying attention to and
recalling these moments of connection is vital to our embodied future. Practicing hope happens
best in the context of connection. My mentor loves to say ,“I will hold hope for you, until can
find it for yourself.”
So whether you find yourself the one who is suffering, or you are given the great privilege of
walking along and sharing with another through their suffering, remember that we
build hope in the context of community…in the presence of an empathetic witness.
What people need to hear when they are suffering is simply these three things; “I hear and
see you (because I am listening), I believe you, and I believe in you.”