Trauma, Don't Paint it Pretty


I recently started a new painting, using a canvass big enough to use up some old paint.  It was to be a study of yellows, with burnt sienna, vermillion red and other odds and ends I had accumulated over the years.  So I mixed the old paint with walnut oil, hoping to reconstitute it enough to have it slide on the canvass.  I quickly discovered that is not how it works.  I ended up with thick leaden lines that killed any life in their vicinity.  So, I left it for a while, thinking I would see it with new eyes next time I could go to the studio.   But when I walked into the studio a week later,  I was filled with a desire to destroy the canvass, to paint over it, to slash it, to throw it out.

Something held my hand back.  Some whisper of inspiration, some angel of knowing, took my hand instead to an old rag and turpentine.  I used the soaked towel and tried to take off all the paint, start over with a clean slate.  I wiped and wiped, each time removing more and more of the lifelessness until no more would come off.  What remained was a patina of deep golden yellows, like a mellow maple floor, walked on for generations.  The dead lines were gone, but there were traces, like old scars of old wounds, faint but ever present, that became the roots and branches of new life.

That painting taught me about trauma in a new way.  To be human is to suffer the vicissitudes of betrayal, loss and grief.  Not everyone suffers horrific trauma, assaults to the self that are unbearable, but many do. But no one is served by trying to gloss over the pain and suffering and lull us into the belief that all things can be overcome, that the trauma will disappear, that all will be well.

We want to deny that some things will never be completely healed and made whole.  We want to say that everything that happens has a reason and a purpose under heaven. Even if terrible things happened, there is meaning to be made.  But that is not the case, and we see it in the woman pushing a grocery cart with all her belongings down the street.  We see it in a child who winces at loud noises in an airport bathroom, as well as in the returning soldier who stands in line at the drugstore, mere days after having been in battle and is startled by a sudden noise.. 

That we can make a life out of suffering too cruel to name is a miracle.  As Dr. Conforti says, resilience is a secular miracle.  We can learn to live with the damage but we can never deny that the damage happened. We can accept that for the rest of our lives we will have to be careful, to resist those places which hurt us, to build walls when necessary, and to say, no, I can’t go there.  I know this because I have been participating in the Trauma and Healing Certification Program offered at the Assisi Institute. 

What we are learning from leading scholars and clinicians who specialize in trauma and healing is that the power of the trauma, whatever its description, leaves a sheen on the soul that affects the way we experience the world.  The contours of the trauma can be seen by the way the person moves, behaves, believes, by the way so many of us find ourselves taken over, yet again, by the re-enactment of the trauma.  Father sold you out, you sell yourself out.  Mother kept you close, you never live your life. 

So how do we manage not to fall into despair, the repetition of alienation, violence or the theft of a good life?  There is no technique, no panacea, but a real moral response to sit with and be present to someone’s suffering without trying to make it better.  When we witness the horror without flinching, when we abide with the unspeakable and don’t try to turn into it into a positive ‘learning’ experience, we let the other know that we won’t run away.  That it is possible to be human, that there are those who will not betray, abuse or abandon.  The healing that is possible takes place in the alchemical container of soul witnessing soul. Like the painting, we carry the many layers of our life without denial, without pretense and make the best life we can.