A few days ago, I found myself at an event called "the art between us." It was an eclectic gathering of souls: Women shared hard-learned truths in the form of slam-poems, some shared original music, and others, like myself, were just there to listen.
Though I had planned on scribbling down particularly poignant phrases and sentiments, I found that I was simply too consumed with the performances. I sat for two and a half hours, completely enraptured. Before my eyes, I was seeing women, completely uninhibited and entirely supported, blooming as they told their stories. There's just something about circles of women that has always felt like home to me.
One woman beautifully articulated her experience growing up as a child with a stutter. When she spoke, her words were so vivid. I pictured her: small, with childlike vulnerability, in her physical education class. She was pulled to the side by a teacher who spoke down to her, telling her that she was limited to one question per class period because her stutter delayed the entire class. Frustrated and hurt, she returned home to her mother that day. And from that day, she and her mother committed to overcoming her stutter together. She detailed the dismay that came with the process, but also the overwhelming gratification when she finally felt heard. Now, removed from the stress of her stutter, she recognizes that her greatest weakness ultimately proved to be her greatest strength. By limiting her ability to speak, she learned to convey her emotions and thoughts powerfully, definitively, succinctly.
I found myself mesmerized by the transformation she was describing and how it was facilitated through her relationship with her mother. She embodied and described the beauty of accompaniment: what happens when we feel truly safe with another; what happens when we are truly and deeply listened to – how it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.
Recently, I read the book, The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk. Within it, Van Der Kolk outlines how trauma affects our bodies: how we hold the hurt, the anger, the abuse and neglect within our physical bodies. Van Der Kolk states:
Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside.
Trauma forces individuals into their primal survival mode: fight or flight. And though they have survived, their escape is thwarted in some way. Consequently, closeness, for traumatized individuals, triggers a sense of danger. Deep intimacy requires deep vulnerability. A close embrace even, requires that person to allow themselves to experience immobilization without fear. Yet, as Van Der Kolk argues, and what many of us can attest to, what individuals begin to dread the most after experiencing trauma – close contact with other people – is exactly what we need to heal. He states, "Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives."
Connections are not as simple as being together. To truly experience accompaniment, we must feel held, to be fully heard and seen. Specifically, from Van Der Kolk's work, "for our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow, we need a visceral feeling of safety." When we feel safe, heard, and deeply wanted, we begin to tell our stories. As we begin to tell our narrative, we see who we are, and we make sense of what we have endured, and we begin to move forward.
I do not want to equate the woman's story of overcoming her stutter to one of trauma, but I do want to use her story to exemplify the beauty of relationship. What I want to distill from her story is that closeness, tenderness, and deep listening encourage us to live into our fullest selves, and relieve ourselves of the tyranny of the past. What her story demonstrates is that we are loved into life.
Truthfully, there have been so many moments that I have been simply amazed at what women around me have accomplished with love. However, one of the most influential experiences thus far has been the gathering of the Women's March on Washington. The numbers of people pouring through the streets, determined to be seen, and determined to see each other, was simply astounding. Public discourse of the preceding months reminded us of how incredibly common it is to have one's bodily integrity damaged by the hands of another. After such a disruption of peace, it was important to see women reclaim space. The meaning of the march has been debated and disputed, but for me, it was about showing up, and making sure that my sisters knew that I would be their keeper.
On that day, I was reminded that I must stand by the sides of those I love, and those who are most vulnerable. I was reminded that though it may be difficult, our calling is to pursue healing by compassionately listening and accompanying individuals through their pain. I was reminded that though I may have to strain myself to hear, I needed to listen to the stories of the women and men around me.
In Van Der Kolk's book, he ultimately demonstrates four fundamental truths that he argues aren't recognized by the ways we currently look at trauma and pain. These truths are that:
(1) Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being.
(2) Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning.
(3) We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching.
(4) We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
It's tempting in our current sociopolitical environment to want to hasten process and to dismiss seemingly intangible answers to our larger world's problems. It's easy to be the teacher that limits a girl's time to speak for the sake of time management. Being told simply to "listen" to those around you and those far from you does not feel like a solution.
But, truthfully, no one can treat or remedy a tragedy or an abuse. There are no easy solutions. What has been done has been done. Van Der Kolk states that rather, "what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul." And loving people, listening to them, marching beside, holding their hand in the dark – these are actions that change the chemistry of our brains, change the way we tell our story, change the way we see the world and experience our bodies. And this is remarkable.
Listening is an act of political resistance.
We cultivate resilience by loving.
If you have spare time, please use it to listen to the stories around you.
If you can bear it, please allow your heart to remain open.
The greatest social change will happen when we approach it from an informed, intersectional approach. This begins by healing the wounds that we have inflicted on one another – something that can only be solved by loving well and listening hard.
You can find more of Hanna's writing at her blog: http://hannaheishman.blogspot.com.