Trauma and Storytelling

By Dr. Johan Tredoux

A case can be made that storytelling plays a significant role in bringing healing to children and adults who were traumatized. The challenges for poor Black children in South Africa today are many and serve as a case in point. As part of mission outreach in one of my ministry assignments, we adopted AIDS orphans, abuse victims, street kids, or kids from financially destitute homes as part of our outreach on the wild coast of South Africa. Some were traumatized from witnessing violent beatings and murders, others were trying to come to terms with the AIDS disease that took their parents, and a few felt humiliated for their young pregnancies. What is remarkable is the resilience of these young people. In our visits, I witnessed first-hand how the young people and the children created original music and rhythmic synchronized dancing to tell stories of survival. The feedback from those working day to day with these orphaned children was that these enacted forms of storytelling have become a powerful means of coping and bringing healing to the children.

In her powerful book, Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog, recalls her experiences with children at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission trials after apartheid. She shares how allowing the children to tell their stories restored a sense of dignity to them. Many times, their experiences were framed in the context of folk tales passed on from great-grandpa and grandma where the hero survives by overcoming great odds. By telling their accounts of how they felt victimized, they were able to purge themselves of their pasts and remind us that what is important is not so much what is told, but rather that telling happened.

I also see storytelling powerfully manifested in the followers of Jesus in the days after his crucifixion. For years I have preached on the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost through theological filters. It is only recently, as a clinical chaplain, that I now see Pentecost as a storytelling event that powerfully served to heal the disciples’ trauma. 

In Acts 2 we read of Jesus’ disciples hunkering down in the Upper Room, traumatized by the death of their leader. In today’s terms, we would say they encountered an Amygdala highjack, where their whole Limbic system is on red alert…traumatized by the religious leaders who handed over their leader to be crucified by the Romans.

(Clinically, trauma has been associated with overwhelming anxiety. It lodges so deeply within us that everything around us is experienced through the lens of fear and its various postures: fight, flight, and freeze.)

During those 10 days in the Upper room, many stories must have been told of all the trauma they had just experienced in Jerusalem. They were probably trying to assure each other with stories that they learned as kids in preparation for their Bar or Bat mitzvah. In a crisis, what surfaces for most of us are our embedded childhood theologies that were hardwired in our brains. It couldn’t have been any different for these disciples. Suddenly, their comforting old assumptive world was gone, and a new one had to be constructed.” (Shattered Assumptions, 71)

Peter Levine: “Trauma is about the loss of connection—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and the world around us.” (Healing Trauma, 9)

Bessel van der Kolk: “Trauma is when your biology gets assaulted in such a way that you might not be able to reset yourself.” (The Body keeps the Score)

This Pentecostal story-telling event starts powerfully on the tenth day of them being together in mourning. Suddenly, a forceful wind blew through the window, tongues of fire appeared above everyone’s forehead, and they all started speaking in other languages they have never spoken before. The embedded stories they heard as children suddenly came alive with cinematic force and theatrical sound effects. 

The forceful wind blowing through the window reenacted the stories of the Exodus out of Egypt they learned as kids. It is the story of the great wind that held up the waters of the Sea of Reeds to help the Jews escape from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. It was a story the Holy Spirit wanted to reinforce for them. It was a lifegiving story reminding the disciples that the same God who got them out of bondage in Egypt showed up to free them from fear. 

The tongues of fire appearing above everyone’s forehead reenacted the story of the pillar of fire that showed up for 40 years in the desert now being manifested in a pyrotechnic show to remind the 120 disciples that they are not alone. In their trauma, they were reminded that the Holy Spirit always travels with them. It was a story the Holy Spirit wanted to reinforce for them. In their trauma, it was a good story to tell themselves and to live by.

When they started to speak in other languages it was a reenactment of the story of the Tower of Babel, which they all heard as children. It is the story where God brought confusion by introducing different languages and scattering the nations.

Now suddenly, the story was reversed as they all spoke in different languages without confusion. It was a lifegiving story to remind the disciples that the Holy Spirit serves as a source of clarity and unity when their limbic system shuts down as a reaction to the trauma they experienced. Judith Herman reminds us in Trauma and Recovery that remembrance and mourning are a powerful part of recovery when we have experienced trauma or moral injury. 

Given the disciples’ condition as they desperately hunkered down to find their bearings and safety together, I’m struck by the experiential immediacy of God’s healing approach. There was no promise that sometime in the future their problems will be solved. There was no clairvoyant projection of certainties for tomorrow. No coercive manipulation, but merely the powerful enacted retelling of childhood embedded stories to begin the process of healing from their trauma.

This uncontrolled manifestation of God’s love, in a sense, communicated “withness” with no expectations of what they ought to do from then on. God was in the journey with them and brought encouragement to enable the disciples to take their next step, whatever it was going to be. 

It’s not like the disciples brought God into the room, or that the Holy Spirit entered from the outside, rather, he was there all along with them. The relational openness of the disciples, in partnership with the Holy Spirit’s sensitive reading of the room, triggered the HS to manifest embedded childhood Torah stories in pyrotechnic ways.

The normal healing and recovery process involves the body coming down out of a state of heightened arousal. This is usually accompanied by the internal alarms turning off, the high levels of energy subsiding, and the body re-setting itself to a normal state of balance and equilibrium. Typically, this should occur within approximately one month of the event. It is fair to say that fifty days after the event of Jesus’ crucifixion, the ultra-alertness, disrupted sleep patterns, and rumination have probably become less intense for the disciples. 

Inevitably in trauma recovery, reconnection and integration become part of the healing process. We read about the disciples leaving the upper room and going down into the street engaging people from all walks of life. We see them embarking upon a healing pathway where their way of making sense of the world allows the cocreation of new pathways, both in their limbic system and in shoe leather as they encounter the chaotic alleys of the city of Jerusalem.

It speaks of a God who powerfully knows what the disciples needed and created space within which his followers’ disrupted equilibrium could be stabilized with love and encouragement. The upper room became a hospital room where healing was enacted through the therapeutic practice of the Holy Spirit telling stories. This theophany of God’s presence is a good reminder to me that God is not impassibly removed and detached, instead, he is affected by what happens to us. 

This begs the questions — what stories do we tell ourselves if we’ve been traumatized? How open are we to the Holy Spirit’s healing presence in our own stories? What stories do we tell our children that are life-giving that will be reinforced by the Holy Spirit?

We all have been traumatized by these last two years of the global COVID 19 pandemic. So many of our loved ones are no longer with us, who died of COVID-related complications. We witnessed the insurrection at the capital, the ongoing vaccine polarization, the fight for voting rights, and the proliferation of false stories that have no basis in truth. We experience the isolation of our children whose normal rhythms of play and learning have been disrupted, and deep down, our heightened anxiety tells us that trauma not only lives in our bodies but also in our institutions and our country.

Hopefully, we can all breathe deeply with a strong reminder that lifegiving stories worth retelling to ourselves and our children can bring healing from trauma. These are stories of a God who is not aloof decreeing outcomes from a distance, but a God who delivers us from bondage, a God who travels with us in time, a God who feels our pain, a God who welcomes the outsider, who does not prefer one people group over another, a God who embraces us, a God whose fiery justice is not destructive but restorative. A God who did not come to condemn us but to give us new life. May this lifegiving spirit permeate our relationships as we walk together, giving each other the gift of love, empathy, compassion, and active listening.