Subba’s Serendipitous moments

May 20, 2010

Can trauma be healed?

Filed under: Learning,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 11:39 am
Tags: , , ,


I would guess that all of us have at some or the other gone through traumatic incidents in our life. Much of that trauma continues to reside in our subconscious memories and continues to affect us in unknown ways.

The trauma could be a broken relationship, a major injustice, a heartbreaking death or anything to which you has not reconciled. The memories linger on for a long time. While we try to mask it intelligently or ignore it, they rear their ugly head at the most unexpected moments.

The question: how do you reconcile yourself to trauma especially if there’s someone responsible for causing them?

For years, I have been trying to find the tools to deal with trauma effectively as I believe it is the first step to heal myself.

Forgiveness is one surefire approach. It is a proactive approach, more effective than mere acceptance of the fact or trying to hide the event by putting on a mask. Yet forgiveness doesn’t come easy. No wonder, the capacity to forgive is considered to be a divine blessing.

I have always approached forgiveness through a rational prism. I was enthralled by Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation effort. It was an attempt to publicly air the feelings and experiences of victims of apartheid and for perpetuators of violence to also give testimony and request amnesty. The famous movie Forgiveness is a gripping tale of such an event and left an indelible mark on me.

More recently, I read an article (translated from the original Spanish to English) of an address by Perez Esquivel (Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1980) of his long years in prison where he was horribly tortured. He talked of doing "active goodness" – even to his torturers – which goes beyond forgiveness. He wrote that perhaps that’s the only solution to go beyond the "horrific" things that happened to him in prison.

Both Mandela and Perez are intellectuals and philosophers of a high order who could conceive and act on the higher order of things. Even Priyanka Vadra’s (daughter of assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) visit to meet her father’s assassin in prison was praiseworthy and was covered in my blog here.

The point is: How does someone like me with less intelligence yet suffering from painful memories deal with that? That’s something that I have been looking for till someone sent me the story of Mama Wangele.

Mama Wangele, a poor and uneducated widow, lost her only son in the Rwandan Civil War. She lived on, unable to come to terms with her grief. She hated her son’s killers, yet she was powerless.

One day, a worn-out, one-legged child soldier knocked on her door and asked for food. By the tribal marks on his face, she recognized him to the enemy. She asked him coldly "Have you ever killed anyone?"

"Yes, many", he said.

Mama Wangele shut the door on this face and wept for her dead son. But something kept tugging at her heart. She followed this new stirring. She opened the door. She had no idea of what she was going to do. She saw the boy had gone a little distance.

"Mutabani" she called. The boy turned back and saw her. "Mutabani, come back."

The boy was surprised. She asked him to come in. She gave him some food and filled water in a tub for his bath. Then she brought out her son’s carefully preserved clothes and gave it to him.

"These are my son’s clothes. You can have them now, Mutabani," she said very quietly.

The boy looked at her with tears in his eyes. Had she really called him Mutabani? (Mutabani is the Lugunda equivalent of son). In that moment, she had forgiven her son’s killer. And, that was the beginning of healing.

After hearing this story, I wonder how does one create the stirring. Does it come naturally or is human intervention possible?

For years, I have wrestled with this question, till I decided to recommend the gratitude diary approach to someone who went through a life-scarring experience. A gratitude diary is a simple compendium of events and people to express gratitude. The power of gratitude is vast and untapped. It helps in tapping into the dormant good in everyone.

I asked this person who has suffered trauma to maintain a gratitude diary and make entries in it daily. The sheer thought process is elevating. I can’t say for sure, but the thawing process started. Slowly she managed to feel the reason to forgive. Just talking about the event, the perpetuator and the weight of her trauma was possible only because she could open her heart – thanks to the gratitude diary.

While most of us feel the need to heal ourselves, few accept the thesis that it is forgiveness that makes it possible. Most people see forgiving as a sign of weakness. We cling to our hostility and relive the trauma, keeping ourselves from healing. It is the rare person who understands the need to forgive, but waits eternally for the divine moment.

Forgiveness can come in a magical moment like that of Mama Wangela or through intellectual deliberation of a Perez Esquivel, but one has to be prepared for it. I believe having a gratitude diary makes us ready for that moment of realization.



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