Last week I was reading through a book on the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war and the enduring effects this has on women’s psyches and I came across a piece of paper the last person who had checked out the book was using as a bookmark.  It was a tear-off from one of those calendars that has one sheet for every day of the year.  This particular calendar, called “Life’s Little Instruction Calendar,” advised its owner: “Don’t miss an opportunity to watch an artisan craft handblown glass.”  This kind of imperative sounded misplaced to me, especially when encountered in the context of extreme violence and suffering.  Who cares about artisan glass??  People’s bodies are being ripped apart!!!

But on second thought, something was appropriate about advocating a simple aesthetic pleasure in the midst of immersing oneself in traumatic realities.  In my own experience of trauma theology research, I have found myself taking (and needing to take) more frequent breaks in order to prevent myself from becoming emotionally overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.  During these breaks, I’ll do silly things like look at fashion blogs or contemplate the seasonal color analysis profile of myself and my loved ones.  If I’m asking myself, “Who cares about artisan glass?” I certainly should be asking myself who really cares if I’m a soft summer or a soft autumn!  Yet, if I’m really honest with myself and the limits of my capacity for emotionally disturbing material, I recognize that these musings have given me the stamina to keep coming back to this kind of research day after day.  These mini-escapes allow me the opportunity temporarily recharge and face another set of horrific narratives about the sexual abuse of women and children.  I’m not a robot who can plow through this kind of material unaffected and, really, who would want that kind of theological reflection anyway?  What can a robot really say about the presence of God in the midst of the abyss of traumatic violence?

As contemporary theologians such as Johann Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx have reminded us, it is primarily the question of human suffering which is able to make possible an authentic theological discussion of human existence.  Theologians urgently need to engage the realities of suffering and violence in the world in order for contemporary theology to remain authentic.  Yet, this can be an exhausting and disturbing process.  Theologians need to have strategies in place in order to find the support and emotional relief necessary in order to maintain the stamina required for this important work.

My strategy of looking at pictures of other women wearing beautiful clothing as a temporary escape is an understandable one, though certainly incomplete.  I can have compassion toward myself and my limited capacity for long-term exposure to traumatic materials while still recognizing that my current way of dealing with this dilemma is less than ideal.  I think that these aesthetic pleasures can only sustain me to a certain point.  What is needed is a deeper level of emotional support for this task.

Judith Herman comments in her text Trauma and Recovery (1992), “It cannot be reiterated too often: no one can face trauma alone.  If a therapist finds herself isolated in her professional practice, she should discontinue working with traumatized patients until she has secured an adequate support system” (pg. 153).  Here too is word that theologians need to hear: if a theologian finds herself isolated in her research, she should discontinue working with emotionally disturbing material until she has secured an adequate support system.

I can imagine the value of graduate students and professors gathering in small groups to help each other process emotionally disturbing material and provide each other with some resources for continuing their work.  Yet, I have no experience with such a group myself.  It seems prudent for theological departments to provide encouragement (either formally or informally) for the organization of such small groups.  I would suggest something like this to my own department if I had a really concrete proposal in mind, but I don’t.  Do you have any experience with an existing group like this?  Or, do you have any ideas about how it might be possible to create a support system for researchers engaging with emotionally difficult material?

2 thoughts

  1. Julia, this has been a topic of concern and disquiet for me as well. Last summer, I was spending a lot of time with theological texts on the Holocaust (in particular, Melissa Raphael’s The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology, which draws at length from women’s accounts of the death camps), and I truly did not know how to continue my research on such material—at one point, I began having very vivid nightmares related to what I was reading. I don’t have any suggestions to offer, as my ultimate approach was to set that segment of my research aside and work on other things, but I did, and do, feel very strongly that departments should offer some sort of support or wisdom on how to cope with such material. Thanks for bringing this to attention.

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