I have often told people I’m training that one of my goals is to put myself out of business. As a specialist in trauma, I work with survivors of the worst that humans can do to one another. And thus in my optimistic heart I try to imagine a day when the supply of work for trauma specialists will dry up and disappear.
That’s not today. I’m writing this in the week that two more African-American men were shot by law enforcement officers, one while lying on the ground, one sitting in his car next to his partner, the incredibly brave woman who live-streamed the entire horror show while it was happening so that no one could ever deny it. And then last night, a sniper in Dallas shot at the police officers protecting a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest of the earlier deaths. Five dead, seven wounded. Less than a month after the massacre in Orlando, the suicide bombings at the airports in Brussels and Istanbul. The beat goes on, and on, and on.
Why is trauma so painfully ubiquitous? Because on the days that these public deaths occurred, many other people died of gunshot wounds, some by accident, some at their own hands, some in violent encounters with others. Many children were abused, sexually, physically, emotionally, by neglect. Many people were targets of harassment, hate crimes, discrimination. Many experienced betrayal at the hands of people and institutions who they had trusted to protect them. Millions of people experienced trauma; more as I write this. I do not believe that trauma is ubiquitous because there is some inherent violent streak in our DNA. Our closest genetic relatives, the bonobos, are a peaceful species who handle conflict by creating closer physical connections with one another. We are not born to harm one another.
But we do pass on the changes to that DNA and the genes it carries that were created by trauma exposure. Epigenetic changes to gene expression have been found in several groups of people known to suffer endemic and persistent, sometimes multi-generational traumas. Does this create trauma’s ubiquity? No, because in those populations most people are not violent, do not violate the boundaries and safety of others. Trauma, betrayal, micro-aggression, violation, are not baked into any of us.
Instead, and I hope you will join me in this perspective, people keep traumatizing one another because we do too little to heal the effects of trauma on mind, body, and spirit. If a child watches the adults in their life solve problems with violence, that child will learn to do so as well, absent intervention. If a child is not given secure attachment and effective strategies for soothing difficult emotions, that child is more at risk to both perpetrate and be a target of trauma as they grow.
So today, in the midst of despair, I also look for hope. I see the people with whom I work, survivors of appalling childhood trauma, who are gentle, loving, decent human beings, good partners, good parents, good and contributing members of society. I see people seeking and finding non-violent, non-traumatizing paths to change the world around them. I join with others in working to stop the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. And then I go back to work. As the Talmud famously says, the one who heals one life heals the entire world. Today, let’s each of us heal one life – your own, someone else’s life. Heal the world.