This makes me think of my sons, of my brothers and their children, and of my father whose memory is blessed.
I’m thinking about Dr. Susan Moore, a Black physician who recently died after battling for her own quality medical care and against Covid 19. And I’m thinking about a mother named Mary from a long time ago who was unmarried and who spoke sonnets about her experience of getting impregnated and carrying a baby whose existence was misunderstood from mystical beginnings.
Trauma, a word coming out of an early surgical model for discussing injury, has come to encompass a full set of pains. Trauma is an injury, a bewildering injury or set of injuries.
A trauma can occur to a person or a people. A lot of people from many disciplines are talking about trauma these days, how it happens, what it means to be trauma-informed, etc. From anthropologists to neuro-scientists, chaplains and therapists, and social workers and teachers, lots of folk are discussing and working to respond to traumas in people.
There is language in these discourses about how a trauma is a discrete event in many cases. It happens; it ends. There is a healthy discussion on when and if that’s always true. Some traumas do end. Some are protracted and are, in a real sense, unending. I won’t get so much into that but I want to write a little about the way trauma can return.
After occurring and “ending,” it/they can revisit persons in seen and unseen ways, through known and recognized forms, as well as through insidious and unacknowledged means. Sometimes we see the re-visitation coming. We anticipate it. When we do, we can prepare and draw upon resources to help through the revisited pains. When we don’t see them coming, we are likely more reactive, doing anything in response to the unexpected-but-somehow-still-known.
Disparities in healthcare and medical treatment can be a means of trauma recurrence. Unfairness and mistreatment become a mechanism whereby trauma returns. Now, you’d have to accept a cultural transmission of trauma to appreciate this reality where earlier experiences are translated and handed over to subsequent persons related to those who have experienced trauma. In other words, what happened in prior times affects these times. There is another post somewhere in this direction that combines cultural trauma (at least that type of trauma) with attachment theory to explain this transmission and the patterns and connections making this possible.
Still, interacting with a disparity in the emotional neighborhood of a prior trauma is an uneasy psychological experience. I’m thinking about healthcare but this is true in other places. Whenever a person meets the reminders of prior pain, the body recalls and sends all its resources to preserve life. Emotional life. Spiritual life. Physical life. You don’t want to be hurt. You never do. So if you’ve been hurt, if your people have been hurt, you consciously or unconsciously respond to the disparity, the trauma, at least because of deep memory.
This is evidence of what, in The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman called a “strange quality of renewal.” The response to the disparity is to, in some way, resist it as a means of death. Resistance is a sign, a strange one perhaps, of life. Thurman says, “this is the way of life.” When you’ve experienced traumas and bruising pains, and when those are revisited among you, your reactions are little signs that life is present.
The exercise of distrust by Black people, then, is a needed one. It is needed because that distrust is evidentiary of a different trust, a trust in life. I call it everlasting life. Black distrust of the traumatic opens the world to the actual agitating presence of the God of life, the Source of life. Distrust of one system illuminates abiding trust in another. Distrust of medical science or research practices, say, points toward the life bonds elsewhere. Isn’t the question, “how do I find the life here?” Or “What does trust look like then?”
Take it from there. Look for the next sign of life. But name that life force. Relish the presence of Spirit. Moving against the brokenness and the flagrant disregard of life is a spiritual resistance that itself is being visited in the world through your own act of resistance.
Listen to the Spirit. Act with the Spirit to preserve life, to vanquish non-life. Do what will counter the forces of death and what will make right – or righter – what was wrong the first place.
Illinois law requires drivers to stop at pedestrian crossings, sometimes hardly noticed lines in the street that are designated as safe places to cross. These crossings aren’t marked by stop signs. There is no stop light. There’s only a set of lines. In more resourced neighborhoods, those lines are accompanied by stand out posts with a kind of stick figure. Words are printed that tell you something about the law, words that are, if you’re unfamiliar with them, a distraction or an annoyance.
The truth is, these crossings aren’t always safe places. For drivers or pedestrians. It takes patience for a pedestrian – perhaps one on the phone – who is standing near a crossing to wait. It takes effort to gesture that you’re waiting to cross and not being ambiguous about your intent. These crossings are sometimes located near actual stops or lights, and since pedestrians may not be ready to cross, interpretation takes work. Designated places can be dangerous places.
Pedestrians dart out or jog out or walk in dark clothing at night, expecting drivers to yield. Drivers are distracted, have slower reaction time, or under the best circumstances, sometimes fail to notice and stop. The crossings themselves aren’t always clear since lines can be hard to see, covered in sand or snow. They can be so neglected by municipal services that they are invisible from wear, from walking, from untending.
These crossings are there. They invite us, or require us, to slow down, a whole related issue. Why walk or drive in a manner that you can’t slow down to stop? What are we doing that we can’t notice the speed of the other? Why are we so unempathic? What makes us assume that the other will pace for us when we won’t pace for them?
These crossings are there and they bring questions, queries for the head, heart, and hands. One of my theologian teachers, Nancy Bedford, said once that people drive for themselves, that they don’t drive for others. She said this in a way that she’s said much of her theological brilliance, when speaking about embodied matters. It was an “offhand” comment, inasmuch as Dr. Bedford makes those. She wasn’t talking about Christology (necessarily) but she was. She is, in a way, always talking Christologically.
Those crossings are there, worth seeing, worth responding to, worth thinking about. The pedestrians and drivers are there. All things worth noticing.
I was scanning lines, searching for articles in the news, trying to choose what I’d read and what I wouldn’t. The morning read. The light reading. The reading I wouldn’t quite plunge into, even if what I saw would sit on the corners of my mental bookshelves throughout the day.
I didn’t read the article but I saw a title on a page about why you should smile behind your mask. It got me to thinking about my own answers to the prompt and about the dual possibilities of wearing a mask, of being masked, and of being authentic. It got me to considering where smiles come from.
And the title prompt is a good one, no? Smile in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of a day when it’s nothing but helpful that people can’t see the twist and curve of my lips when I hear what they say, see what they do, note who they are? But does it take something away, hiding these things called smiles?
Like lots of people, I think about how these masks are more than tools to maintain health and to minimize transmission of germs. A mask is a direct way to keep from seeing and being seen. Masks keep your germs to you but they also keep you from spreading your true identity in a way.
Masks can keep you in the habit of being fake, practicing inauthenticity, accepting reality as you offer yourself in the world without the important contribution of feedback.
As much as a mask is a tool promoting real health, these masks are also complicating the already complicated practice of being and showing who you are. Don’t we have enough trouble being who we are, presenting ourselves as we are?
So smiling. Smiling is a behavioral way of responding. It’s an embodied act, a gesture, sometimes an uncontrolled one. They are reflexes of a kind. They are also interventions. Reflexes show up spontaneously. Interventions come as a result of intention. Smiles can be both.
In college, I took–and dropped at midterm–an anthropology course. It was cross listed as a gender studies course. A three hundred level thing I was not ready for in my second year at U of I. I had never heard of gender studies and wasn’t even surprised to be the only young man in the room. Even less surprised to be the only Black because, well, it wasn’t Hampton.
The professor was as tall as anyone I had ever seen and she walked with a power and grace that was curious to me. She had done work too deep for me to appreciate at the time and talked about it. She pressed her feet into the floor as she taught, moving through the room in sandals, which threw me off, because it was cold all the time in Urbana-Champaign.
I have forgotten most things from the class. As I said, I dropped the course. But one thing I remember is something she started into about smiling. She was describing the behavior in chimps, explaining that a smile was theorized as a passive, self-effacing attempt on the part of the animals. Smiling was like cowering. Smiling was an attempt at deference in the presence of some stronger chimp, some more powerful other.
Now, I like smiles. They are surprising, often reactive, things. They come when you force them and when you think nothing of them. You can smile in a way that expresses disgust. You can smile from within and show everything that needs to be seen.
They can be attempts to pass the moment quickly and to relieve pressure, perhaps like with the chimps, and smiles can anchor you so far inside joy that you use all your good and bad teeth.
I think there are questions developing in me about these smiles and these masks. Which smile am I offering behind this mask? Am I en-joying myself, finding joy inside the face and body that is restricted or not by this mask? Am I being seen for the sometimes grumpy man I am? Is the soul deep joy coming through my ears, my eyes, off my head like a little halo?
But there are other questions. Am I hiding? Am I bouncing off that fabric or paper mask the reality that I’ve created, reiterating a lie about who I am, and keeping my germs to myself? Am I, therefore, ineligible for healing? Can I be seen for any fraudulent expressions of myself, and am I finding paths to be open and real and honest and accepting of truth? Am I looking at my real face and my real self in mirrors of life that I haven’t created, those self-created mirrors that make me look better than I really am? Am I looking?
Sometimes you smile when you know you’re in the presence of greatness, of a greater person, or a greater other if you will. I wonder if you and if I can cower in the presence of the truer other in the self. I wonder if rather than living inauthentically, you might consider smiling at who you truly are. Of course, the other related inquiry is who are you?
When you know who you are, there is very little to frown about. Even behind a mask you smile because of the reactive and reflexive delight in being the person you deeply, honestly, and truly are. I think it’s the unknowing, the rejection of one’s identity, that causes the downward smile.
When you know who and where and why you are, you meet joy. A joy that cannot be taken but only given away. That means, when you know you, you’ve found happiness. How can you not smile behind the mask?
Listen to these renditions of a song by one of my favorite ministers, Jonathan McReynolds:
Me and a Womanist Sister are working on a webinar for the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education where we introduce the community to Black Liberation Theology. It’s part of a series of didactics that’ll be accessible to our pastoral educators and CPE students.
The series is called 8:46 and will have 8 webinars that are 46 minutes long–in sober and theo-ethical acknowledgement of Brother Floyd’s murder and how ministers, clinicians, and leaders might nurture our work in everything from the social construction of race to the psychological implications of racism and other sins.
I’m working with a practitioner from North Carolina and we’re offering an introduction to (Black and Womanist) theology. In the preparation, I found a sentence Dr. Stephanie Mitchem wrote where she said that theology begins not in studying in the classroom but in living a life.
So I’ve begun journeying over the beginnings of theology, the origins of my own, lately. It’s resting with me that the origins provide a long shadow over the rest.
If theology begins in a word, who wrote it or spoke it or claimed its authority? If theology started in a person, was that person relatable, relatable in every way or particular ways? If discourse about the Sacred started in practices, were those practices exclusive, open, and are they relevant? The questions continue when you think and live theologically, right?
Think about yours. From where have your best understandings of the Transcendent come? How were you introduced to your “theological” world? We could keep going. These are the kinds of questions that need answers.
Yesterday Rev. C.T. Vivian died, and at the age of 95 he joined a community beyond. I have thought about his life, his record, and the public ways in which he lived. I didn’t know him and have never met him, but I’ve always been drawn to ministry leaders whose lives have been full and long.
In a day when theological visionaries and ethical leaders can be hard to find, it is even harder to support those folks throughout lives that contain many days. Our godly leaders end early, die young.
I think of a remark that Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes made about the how powerful and politically corrective it is to live a long life. When I contemplate the life of Rev. Vivian and when I recall the pictures of people like my other preaching hero, Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, I’m drawn to lengthy trails of service and the even longer lists of persons who have also made those ministries and lives possible.
The private and the popular are on those lists. So many people make a long life of ministry doable.
May we remember Rev. Vivian and all the people whose names are alongside his in the cause of justice and better world-making.
I have often heard myself saying to people that I don’t like to change my mind. It is true.
Part of it is that I make decisions slowly. I choose carefully. At least, this is also what I tell myself. So, when I make a choice, that choice is done with the weight of consideration, deliberation, and care coming out of a patient direction.
The other part is that I’m stubborn. I tell people that I’m committed, that I’m committed to the move in martial terms, but it’s a soft way of saying that I’m stubborn. I think most humans are this way.
Most people are committed to their views of things. We are loyal to our own worlds, loyal to our own beliefs, committed to those things we’re comfortable with. Change is hard on us.
I could say this in spiritual and moral terms. The consistent practice of making up one’s mind leaves a person open to pride and closed to change. Making and maintaining your mind leaves you vulnerable to the same loyalty.
So, changing your mind, seeing a thing with fresh eyes with an openness to what’s truly there, may be the most powerful moral and spiritual act of your day. It’s a little like being loyal to openness and opposed to it’s enemy, it’s soul antonym.
That feels like generosity to me.
We cannot be in a hurry in matters of the heart. The human spirit has to be explored gently and with unhurried tenderness. Very often this demands a reconditioning of our nervous responses to life, a profound alteration in the tempo of our behavior pattern. Whatever we learn of leisure in the discipline of silence, in meditation and prayer, bears rich, ripe fruit in preparing the way for love. Failure at this point can be one of unrelieved frustration. At first, for most of us, skill in tarrying with another has to be cultivated and worked at by dint of much self-discipline. At first it may seem mechanical, artificial, or studied, but this kind of clumsiness will not remain if we persist. How indescribably wonderful and healing it is to encounter another human being who listens not only to our words, but manages, somehow, to listen to us.
From Disciplines of the Spirit
I’ve sat with this book for a couple months beyond when I started reading it. So many things have occurred since I opened Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma. I’d like to conclude thinking about the book in a different way than I originally envisioned.
Rather than capturing her final chapter in a review that summarizes and suggests directions of thinking, I want to lift how the final chapter, “Remaining in Love,” may provide angles into the ethics of things. I’m thinking of differences her theology of remaining can make in the moment–in my moment.
I’m sitting at my desk, swirling in the day with notifications about health and sickness and, among other things, the coronavirus and recovering in the evening by balancing my beautiful boys’s needs, one of my last courses in the PhD program, attendance to my martial practice, and trying to sleep.
How does remaining as a theology work? In what ways might pneumatology impose or, better, invite us to a way of being in the swirling world of political fighting (and is this the normal political process now?), sickness and recovery, death, life, play, love?
Rambo suggests that involving the spirit in the life of remaining has direct meaning for time. Witness and proclamation impact views of time because reality links us “to another time” and not only this moment we’re in.
She notes that preoccupation with violence and death, both in our narratives and biblical reflection, as well as how we sit with life. In sitting with life, we sit and watch and rehearse death.
Rambo turns us to love and in doing so challenges this emphasis of what overwhelms our “vision of flourishing” and her work turns us to a “move to life,” even as that move has its own blind spots.
I suggest that the following may be particular ways to stay with the middle that Rambo discusses, ways that I’m sitting with her book and the gifts of it, ways I’m with it today. I’m not trying to explicate as much as integrate. I may be, simply, rambling, which is not different than any other post, I suppose.
First, I think slowing down becomes a way to engage in the middle time. Rambo’s work offers a theological articulation for changing my relationship with time. She settles in theologically and provides a theological bridge to endorsing the Spirit’s activity in different time zones.
Second, revisiting biblical reflection and theological sources for their resonance with this middle material feels real. The Bible says many things and much of theological scholarship deals with the words in it. But Rambo’s trauma lens requires an imaginative reappraisal of what’s not there. The middle, the unseen, the unspoken, and the unuttered–what’s there?
Third, remaining in love has an orienting purpose. Remaining connotes a way to honor the weird reality of being in-between, being with the Spirit even without the assurance of more victorious moments like resurrection or finishing or accomplishing or succeeding. Getting through it would relate to these finishing words, right? But remaining relates more to the prior moment, the more troublesome moment. Again, there’s the time part, but there’s the present element of being in that now which is stabilizing.