The symptoms of war zone trauma are real and sometimes disabling: withdrawal, freezing over, hyperarousal and high anxiety, insomnia, eruptions of anger and other emotional dysregulation, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, depression. But these symptoms are often just the tip of the iceberg. As veterans and service members come to feel safe enough, we may hear "the rest of the story": pervasive meaninglessness, terrifying night visitations, shattered worldviews, inescapable guilt, overwhelming grief, helpless rage, despair and hopelessness, unbearable shame and deeply buried self-loathing. If we just focus on symptoms, we can miss the heart of the anguish. Safety is the core condition necessary to address these moral and spiritual injuries. A non-judgmental atmosphere of acceptance. A warm compassionate welcome, without qualification. I will call it by its name: unconditional love. I am not talking organized religion here, though all religions speak about it in some way or another. I am talking about providing spiritual nourishment. It is not esoteric or otherworldly, but it is the greatest gift, and people feel supported and nourished when it is present. The ice begins to melt, the turbulence begins to subside, the heart begins to open. Deep listening in the company of a trusted companion is the activity of unconditional love. It promotes speaking from the heart, another gift. Veterans, like most of us, are allergic to being "fixed."
The group that provides this elusive and overlooked ingredient is, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, called the "beloved community." In Buddhism, it is the "sangha." In the Native American tradition, "all my relations." With the provision of such a safe emotional atmosphere, people find their own way to reconnect within themselves, with their peers, with their families and with their community.
Reconnection takes patience. Veterans test the waters to see how real and how deep they are before venturing in; they want to verify how genuine the environment is, how devoted and skilled the people. Suspicion runs deep. No one wants to be re-traumatized. But once veterans begin to feel safe, a process is set in motion that takes on a life of its own. This healing process is energized by what Jean Sanville calls the reparative instinct. A natural urge to become whole takes over. The words healing and religion both allude to bringing and binding together something that has become frayed or broken. The path to our wholeness takes us, as Steve Torgerson says, through accepting our very brokenness.
Veterans complete the mission no matter what the cost; sometimes the price is their own emotional and spiritual wholeness. I remember a service member in a small group at a retreat who asked why he couldn't just will away his inner anguish relating to incidents that were already over. Others echoed his frustration. "Because you have a beating heart," I replied, "because you're human."
There exists a very human process not for eradicating pain forever, but for helping it find its rightful place while no longer torturing us. A process for turning ghosts into ancestors. It involves the beloved community, representing and re-experiencing the shards of trauma within a new environment, and having them re-encoded into our experience in a different way. And it requires mustering up something really tough: self-forgiveness. This just scratches the surface. More in part three of "Spirituality and the Return Home."