Trauma-informed Engagement with Scripture, Part 2

attachmentandauthenticity curiosityandconnection emotionsasbondingagents processingtrauma trauma-informed Aug 10, 2022

“Trauma is something that touches every human being in one way or another.” This is the statement with which I started my first post in this series, and I want to unpack that statement a bit.

First, let me say a word about what I don’t mean when I say trauma touches every human being in some way. I do not mean to say that every person experiences shock trauma, or what some people refer to as big-T Traumas, nor do I mean to say that everyone exposed to potentially traumatizing events or situations will experience trauma wounding.

When I say we are all touched in some way by trauma, I am deeply informed by Gabor Maté’s observation regarding developmental, or small-t trauma.

Maté observes:

“A recurring theme—maybe the core theme—in every talk or workshop I give is the inescapable tension, and for most of us an eventual clash, between two essential needs: attachment and authenticity. This clash is ground zero for the most widespread form of trauma in our society: namely, the ‘small-t’ trauma expressed in disconnection from the self even in the absence of abuse or overwhelming threat.”[1]

Maté goes on to explain that when we are young, we must prioritize attachment, or connection to our primary caregivers, for the sake of survival. We do this automatically. Yet this natural pecking order of our in-built needs for attachment and authenticity does not mean that over time, we learn to thrive while ignoring our need for authenticity. Maté notes that eventually most people face a dilemma—situations where “one nonnegotiable need is pitted by circumstances against the other.”[2] 

If trauma wounding is what happens in us as a result of what happens to us, what makes the difference between potentially traumatizing situations or experiences that we are able to integrate or make sense of, and those we cannot? Jennifer Baldwin, in her book Trauma-sensitive Theology, explains that “the combination of the vulnerability of the person or community prior to the event/s and the degree of support, empathy, and resources present before and after the event to facilitate processing of the experience” significantly influence whether or not a situation or experience will give rise to traumatic wounding.

As an example, let’s imagine a 5-yr-old girl who is screaming in terror at the approach of a snarling dog. Because she has previously had nothing but positive interactions with dogs, she has no framework with which to make sense of this situation.

A situation like this is not in and of itself a trauma, nor does it necessarily mean the child will experience trauma wounding. Resourcing is a key factor in how the experience of encountering the snarling dog will impact the child. When the girl turns for support and protection, what resourcing she finds will impact how she processes the event internally. If no one is there and she is left to face the dog alone and gets hurt, her experience of that situation will be drastically different than if she turns and finds an adult there who can see what is going on, move her to safety, let her know it makes sense that she would feel scared, and be with her as she processes what happened. 

When we gather with others around stories and poems from the Bible, there is most likely wounding present. And we can never assume we share the same experiences. And we certainly cannot assume we share the same traumas—that is, the same internal responses or wounds. We do, however, share the human experience of having faced to one extent or another situations and events that were overwhelming; situations we could not easily make sense of within our current narrative or understanding of the world, experiences we did not have the resources to process or cope with, relationships that seemed to require us to be someone else.

For anyone whose religious background placed significant emphasis on uniformity of thought and practice, it may be easy to assume everyone responds to potentially traumatizing events or situations in the same way. Recognizing that my experience is distinct from yours, and even that my internal response to a situation at different times may be different, is a crucial building block for cultivating human connection. To quote Jennifer Baldwin again, “attention to the great variety of experience necessitates an honoring of the ‘other-ness’ in self and in relationship.” Receiving with an open heart the presence and experience of others as well as the variety within our own selves and experiences, takes compassion and courage. But this is one of the ways we can contribute to healing and wellbeing in ourselves and those around us. As Maté affirms, “A healthy sense of self does not preclude caring for others or being affected or influenced by them. It is not rigid but expansive and inclusive.”

Thomas Hübl describes separation (or the feeling of being separate) as both a symptom of trauma and also the space where re-traumatization happens. I believe there are many ways we can inadvertently contribute to a feeling of isolation and separateness in religious community, including: assuming everyone else experiences a text or idea the same way I do, thinking I have to take on the feelings of another in order to be present with them, comparing traumas and tragedies, withdrawing because I believe I can only connect if I have suffered the exact same loss or situation as another. Just as trauma can be reproduced in disconnected space, healing and ease can emerge out of human-to-human connection.

Whether we are facing tragedy and tremendous harm and loss or less severe events or encounters that we can’t easily integrate into our current schemas, being aware of trauma can help us resource each other. There are many ways we might be able to resource one another, but for today I will leave you with one idea: hold assumptions lightly and cultivate a posture of curiosity toward others and toward your own story and experience.

In her recent book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Susan Cain talks about the important connecting function of human emotions, and refers to sadness as “the ultimate bonding agent.” Cultivating an awareness of the wounds and separated parts we carry around with us can provide the fertile soil for growing connection and thereby lay the groundwork for personal and collective healing.


Author: Jody Washburn


[1] Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal, page 105.

[2] Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal, page 107.


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