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Facing the Trauma and Embarking on the Healing Journey: An Interview With Michael Lapsley

The Rev. Michael Lapsley barely survived a letter bomb attack by agents of the South African apartheid government who sought to kill him. The bomb exploded in his hands. In the wake of the recent Boston bombings, he reflects on his own experience of physical and psychological healing.
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NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18: Father Michael Lapsley speaks onstage at the Shared Interest 19th Annual Awards Gala on March 18, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Shared Interest)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18: Father Michael Lapsley speaks onstage at the Shared Interest 19th Annual Awards Gala on March 18, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Shared Interest)

The Rev. Michael Lapsley barely survived an April 28, 1990 letter bomb attack by agents of the South African apartheid government who sought to kill him. The bomb exploded in his hands, seriously wounding him and leading to the loss of both arms and the use of an eye and ear.

Born in New Zealand, Lapsley had moved to South Africa when a teenager and was ordained in the Anglican priesthood shortly thereafter. He then joined the liberation struggle, and his anti-apartheid activities forced him to leave the country for many years, serving as a chaplain to the African National Congress in exile. It was during that period, while living in Zimbabwe, that Fr. Michael was bombed.

Following the first free, democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, Lapsley returned to South Africa. He joined the staff of the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, and served as an advisor to the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 1998, with the blessing of the Trauma Centre, Fr. Michael formally launched the Institute for Healing of Memories.

In the wake of the recent bombings in Boston, Mass., Lapsley reflects on his own experience of physical and psychological healing. He discusses the challenges that will face the survivors as well as the larger U.S. society in dealing with the aftermath of the violence.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: What was the first thing that came to mind when you heard the news about the Boston bombings? You were here in the United States, correct?

Michael Lapsley: Yeah, I was in Washington. I was preparing to go to a launch of my memoir, "Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer," hosted by the South African Embassy [to the United States]. I was in the house, preparing, and a message popped up in Facebook from a friend in South Africa, who said, "I am so glad you are in the United States, as a voice of wisdom and compassion, especially in the light of Boston."

So I quickly Googled Boston, and I learned then of this terrible incident at the marathon, and I saw some of the footage. And then, shortly after that, we left for the event, which began -- the embassy itself took the initiative -- with a moment of silence for the victims of what had just happened. My talk at the embassy began with a reflection on how we are living our lives, and then something happens in an instant that has consequences we live with for the rest of our lives.

I had a particular, if you like, sense of compassion that there were many [in Boston] who had traumatic amputations, which, in that sense, I identified with personally. And also subsequently, OK, those who did it [the bombings], why did they do it? But also the loved ones of those who did it, and their journey as well.

I am conscious that sometimes the harsher responses come from not those who are directly affected, but from those who are "one removed" -- those who watched or who are relatives [of the victims]. Sometimes the direct victims are more able to travel their own journey of healing, where sometimes the relatives feel almost they owe it to those who have been injured to respond in a tougher way.

But I was struck almost immediately by the outpouring of compassion, kindness, gentleness. It was something that struck me because there was quite a bit made of the way in which when the incidents happened, many people rushed towards the event to try and help, rather than rushed away.

For me, it resonated in a way that is very challenging for people in the United States to face, and that is what happens with drone attacks by the United States. There is research being done by Harvard and Stanford [Universities] on drones that discuss the use of "double tapping." Double tapping is precisely where a drone attack happens, and people respond and rush to help, and 15 minutes later there is a second attack. All the helpers, all the people who have responded in compassion to come to help the first victims, that is the second group who are the direct victims.

That particular point is quite a challenging one. It is confronting. Because I suppose underneath it, underlying this is that pain is pain is pain is pain. And do we appreciate not only when we are the recipients of pain, but when we are the ones who mete out pain, and the implications of that.

In the moment when you hear about an attack like this -- be it in Boston or be it Bethlehem or Beit Jala, Bogotá, Damascus, or wherever -- does that evoke a flashback for you? Or are you so distant from your own bombing experience?

Not really, and it's not so much distance [of time or place], rather that I have traveled sufficiently far along my own healing journey that I am at peace with what has happened to me. I have integrated, if you like, what has happened along my life's journey, so it's not a fresh trauma ... [yet there is] a sense of identification and compassion, and an awareness [that this is] the beginning of a very long journey that all those affected are going to set out on.

And I am also conscious of how, because of the work I have done over so many years, that the journeys of healing will be very different. And some, a very small proportion, will need long-term, expert intervention. The majority will not; they will lead functioning lives. But some have stuff in them as a consequence; they have deep feelings so there will be an importance for people who have not become pathologized by what's happened, but who will still need to travel that journey.

I think that when something terrible happens, it locks into all these things in our lives that may not be automatically related. So when in the midst of a crisis, other psychological wounds may be exacerbated, even though they may not have direct connections.

You mentioned that in your experience, something like that which happened in Boston will possibly cause others who were not immediately there, but who are connected to it, to react more harshly than those who were directly affected. Were your family members or friends unable to let go of your tragedy?

[It was] not so much family members, but there were friends of mine who were extremely angry about what had been done to me. And anger wasn't [productive]. My feeling was certainly coming to terms with what had happened to me, and certainly an ongoing sense of grief for what I'd lost, but rage and bitterness were not my experience. There were times when, sort of, the tables were turned -- when I would find myself a survivor ministering to those who were the witnesses. Saying, "There, there, it's not so bad." I mean, really, it was a kind of an interesting [phenomenon]. However, I think it's not that unusual: the survivor, who has found the resources to deal with what's happened, can end up ministering to others. Also people [the witnesses] are not necessarily conscious as to why they have reacted as strongly as they have.

During the struggle against apartheid, we had a motto: "Don't mourn, mobilize." So it's almost like if something happened, pick yourself up and get on with the struggle. The consequence of that is that people often had buried deep emotions. Sometimes it was years later, when someone died of natural causes in old age, that people came out with a scale of emotion that was partly to do with that person, but partly to do with the stuff that they'd repressed.

Obviously there is not a "one-size-fits-all" way of dealing with trauma. Each individual case is going to be different. But what guidance can you offer to those who are going to be working with people in the Boston community in terms of effective methods to help process people's emotions and pain?

I think the key thing is the willingness of people to accompany us [the survivors]. It is the idea of walking beside, rather than affixing; and to walk beside in such a way that at times we can be completely silent with these people, but we're there for them.

Also to be clear in the way that we [as accompaniers, as healers] conduct ourselves that we give people permission to feel the way they feel. And even if those feelings are quite destructive, that we provide a safe place for people to work through those feelings. To be gentle accompaniers, rather than telling people what they must do -- that they should feel this way or that way.

I think this is genderized to some degree; in society, we don't give men permission to cry, to feel vulnerable. But in the end, human beings have those feelings, be they women or men, and sometimes it is important for people -- who maybe haven't before -- to send a signal that that's OK to have those feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty.

Also in relation to trauma, there are a wide variety of individual responses. There is not a "correct" way that one should feel trauma; there is the way that we do feel trauma. In a sense, [we should] give reassurance to people that the way they feel is not a sign that they're crazy, it's a sign that they're fully human.

Of course, there is great value in collective processes because even when there has been a common trauma, people feel very lonely in their trauma. They know other people suffer, but they don't know that other people are going through some of the same stuff, and having some of the same feelings, unless they have the space and permission for talking and listening to happen.

I think everybody goes to the emergency room to get aid for broken bones, or whatever, but people are often afraid to get help when it's about their emotions and spiritual stuff. I think trauma raises questions about our fragility as human beings -- our vulnerability, but also our mortality -- that can be quite disturbing for some people. Especially in our western society, [this can mean] suddenly looking death in the face in new ways.

I would say that anything that is life threatening can be life changing. There are different ways in which we can change or grow, but the likelihood of growth is hugely more so if we have people around who support us and encourage us and walk beside us. And also who recognize that the society is about "Get over it -- fast, fast, fast, fast," whereas people often have to travel a journey that involves going one step backwards, or two steps, before they can go forward. For some that will be a journey of days; for others months; other years.

Sometimes, you will heal through the journey in time; but every so on, you may find that you have to take more steps, and you will. And sometimes it is another trauma that happens that makes us realize that there is still unfinished business from the previous trauma that we haven't dealt with. It doesn't mean that we didn't heal at all; it just means that we didn't heal as much as we could at that time, but there are more steps to be taken.

Religious communities and people of faith have a particular role to play in this work, correct?

Yes, because healing and reconciliation are so central to our faith. We have this idea that Jesus talks about, "I have come so that you may have life." And have it more abundantly -- a vision of life and wholeness. This is so central to our own faith.

Compassion is such a central characteristic of Jesus, and equally called to be so of his followers. It is something that we are called to be about by the very nature of our faith journey.

You have been dedicated in your work to interfaith engagement -- not just dialogue, but deep engagement. When a moment, a violent incident, like this happens, certainly here in the United States, there are often faith-based events that bring people together to "honor the fact that we are all one." What are some ways that congregations can do this long-term work? How do we acknowledge that it is not just a pastor who can provide pastoral care, but indeed a congregation can provide a healing presence in a sustaining way?

I think the important thing here is intentionality. The importance of leadership -- be it lay leadership or clerical -- to take initiative towards other faith communities. Because out of trauma can come redemption. You can create new relationships, find new things that you can do together, if the leaders or guiding voices are willing to embrace change.

Often, faith communities have works of compassion that they can do more effectively together than separately. So a horrible occasion can provide new possibilities from which people can take and grow.

It's interesting, I watched the [April 18 interfaith memorial] service at the cathedral in Boston, where they had people of different faiths. The beauty of it is that whatever your faith tradition, you are hearing some of the jewels of wisdom from the other faith traditions, which normally in the mosque, the temple, or the church, you don't hear. But given the occasion, wow, what an insight that comes from the holy Scriptures or the believers of other faiths that can enrich and be precious for everybody who is hearing them.

It is ironic to me that you're here in the United States at the time of this tragic event, as I had been in South Africa, your home, when the World Trade Towers were hit. Although there is a debate going on as to whether or not the Boston bombings should be defined as terrorism, for many people in this country, this is the first sense of a major "terrorist" act since September of 2001. When that terrible day happened, I was in Johannesburg, having just been with you at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban.

For many of us, there were two small glimpses of light in the wake of September 2001. First, there was a real sense of people coming together to try to support one another, in many communities, certainly in New York City. There was a sense of people trying to be open to one another. Second, people who formerly had no sense that there were Muslims in their country, much less in their community, started seeking to learn about Islam. There were many Muslims who were invited to speak in churches and so forth. Yet, after a period of time -- after a year or two -- that seemed to backtrack.

So for me, as I look back 12 years to that terrible moment and its aftermath, a grave concern is that there might be an openness now -- to engage with one another and to lift up the best that we can learn of one another -- but will that ultimately be pushed down by what we now call Islamophobia?

In that sense, there is always the battle between good and evil -- the forces of death and the forces of life -- or simply a kind of narrowness. And that's why there is always the need to redeem, the need for new initiatives. If you look at the history of Christianity, the monastic movement in the fourth century was saying, "C'mon, let's get back to the fundamentals." The role that Saint Francis played, the points of renewal -- even elements of the Protestant Reformation -- saying: "We've got to recover what scripture was about." Then you fast-forward to Latin America in the 20th century, and liberation theology, saying: "How come our faith is about the rich and the powerful? Isn't it about justice? Isn't it about the poor?" So I think you always have these impulses of the spirit, taking us back, as life-giving responses to wrong and injustice.

I think in a particular, increasing way there is an urgency for interfaith work. Because it should concern all of us as people of faith, of all the great faith traditions, the degree to which present conflicts in the world have a religious dimension, and to which faith is exploited for violent ends -- by Christians, and Jews, and Hindus, and Muslims, and Buddhists. And we say, "No, no, no, no, no, this is a hijacking of our faith. This is not what our faith traditions are actually about." So I think we have to affirm the life-giving centrality of the chief tenets of all the great faith traditions.

But see, there is always the need for new initiatives, for renewal as well. There is the ongoing way of redeeming acts of evil, of the wrong things that have happened. What do you do? What will the people of Boston continue to do as a consequence of this terrible incident? Will it make them a people who are more fearful?

I think one of the more remarkable examples was when the guy in Norway shot young people on an island [Anders Behring Breivik on July 22, 2011, killing 77]. The response of the king, but more particularly the prime minister of Norway, was extraordinary. He said, "We will have more openness. We will have more democracy." He responded profoundly in terms of life-giving values. His key message wasn't, "Let's take away some of the rights of citizens; let's close down the society." No, no, no. [It was] "Let's assert these more deeply."

So a key importance is life-giving leaders who have a moral compass, leaders who have a moral vision, who can play to the best in us as human beings. We all have a side that is dark and negative; but do leaders play to the dark and negative, or do they play to the side that is "more" -- more generous.

Marathons happen all over the world, and one of the wonderful things about them is that they bring human beings together in a very broad way. So we need to continue to have these places where there is a celebration of being human, there is a celebration of our common humanity. Sport can play, and does play, that kind of role.

So for you, things to place in opposition to fear are openness and compassion?

Solidarity, solidarity -- as well as seeking to understand the pain of the other. Listening to the pain of the other becomes the experience of the commonness of our humanity. You can change how we see. That's the antidote to how we see "All Muslims are like this. All Jews are like that. All..."

Solidarity is the antidote to so many forms of prejudice. Whether it is the solidarity of men and women, the solidarity of heterosexual to homosexual, or the solidarity of able-bodied to those with disability; it is in the solidarity of listening to each other's pain that we become truly a human family.

I know what a strong opponent of the death penalty you are. You have said that you don't know the person or persons who bombed you; and how, if that person or persons were ever made known, and they were alive, you wouldn't seek to throw them away or kill them. You'd want to talk to them and seek a sort of engagement.

If you had the opportunity, as someone who does pastoral work, to sit with the accused young man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, not to act as judge and jury, but to talk, what conversation would you seek to have with him?

I would want to begin with, "I'd love to hear your story. I would love to hear what happened to you. I would love to hear what has shaped you to be the young man you are today, and what hopes and dreams did you grow up with?" And in that context, to be prepared to listen to whatever came -- be it pain, be it rage, be it anger.

I always remember a woman in South Africa who came to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When she came, she had shrapnel in her body because she was a survivor of an attack on a golf [country] club. She completely gob-smacked the country because she said, "I would like to meet those who were responsible for what happened to me because I want to ask forgiveness for the things I did in my life that made them feel the way they did to do the things they did. And to ask for their forgiveness." And totally there was an "Oh, uhhh, uhhh" [Michael makes a face that mimics people being dumbstruck by this statement].

It confronted all of us. It is why I always joke that I'd like more citizens of the United States to get passports and travel, but I'd like to tie up their lips before they leave so that they could simply travel the world and listen to the pain of the human family. I think that would transform the way that people not only saw the world, but how they saw the United States as well. The travelers would come back to the United States as missionaries to transform this country.

I think there are many values of death that are still very strong in this society. The death penalty is but one example; and, yet, at the same time, Maryland recently got rid of the death penalty [in March 2013]! There are always signs of hope, signs of life that are there, but one wants to increase those, and lift those up.