Paying Attention to Abuse

It is not easy to pay attention to ourselves and what has happened to us. There are distractions, powerful ones. There are lots of reasons to look away. And there will be people who will reinforce our fears that the slightest effort at self-focus is just narcissistic navel-gazing. I suggest memorizing this biblical text: “Pay close attention to yourself.” Timothy 4:16 (New American Standard Bible). In the end, the sustained effort it takes to “pay close attention” to ourselves and the abuse we have experienced is a lot less exhausting than the relentless and ultimately doomed quest to avoid what can’t be avoided.

There are a lot of reasons why paying-close-attention is difficult. But the bottom line is that a sustained focus on abuse comes with an emotional price. Here are some reasons why it is so difficult:

1) Abuse is unspeakable.

“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.” Judith L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books 1992)

Reasons not to talk about this stuff:

  • Silence is golden.
  • If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.
  • Be careful little mouth what you say. . .
  • Loose lips sink ships.
  • It won’t make any difference. No one will listen.
  • Go to your room and don’t come out until you have a smile on your face.
  • It’s just your imagination.
  • It’s just your feelings that got hurt.
  • Don’t air the family laundry in public.
  • This is a private matter just between the two of us.
  • You’ll ruin everything.
  • None of the rest of us feel a need to expose our private concerns.
  • This isn’t the Jerry Springer show.
  • All you ever do is complain. You are so negative.
  • Children should be seen and not heard.
  • A wise man holds his tongue.
  • Don’t be such a gossip.

The unspeakableness of abuse has implications at several levels. At a personal level it has to do with breaking family ‘don’t talk’ rules, finding a voice etc. So, anticipate that you may experience some anxiety about speaking or about paying attention as you work on this material. Anticipate some internal resistance to a sustained focus on these issues. Expect distractibility — plan for it.

2) Unnecessary suffering is confusing and disorganizing

Most training in pastoral care focuses on helping people who struggle with various kinds of ‘necessary’ or ‘unavoidable’ suffering (e.g. the death of a loved one by natural causes, tragedy, natural disasters, an unfavorable medical diagnosis). As a result the emphasis tends to be on grief-work. Grief in these circumstances can be painful and difficult but is usually relatively uncomplicated. But what if the suffering is unnecessary? What if it didn’t have to happen? What if the event is not a disaster but an atrocity? How do you do pastoral care when someone chose to do this? How do you care for both the person harmed and the person who did the harm? Well. . . it’s a lot more complicated. And it can be profoundly disorganizing and confusing. Things that seem like helpful things to say in situations involving ‘necessary’ suffering often seem empty of meaning or inadequate when the situation involves ‘unnecessary’ suffering.So, anticipate some confusion and disorganization when working on these issues. It probably can’t be avoided.

3) Evil is terrifying.

It is very difficult not to speak about evil when dealing with abuse. I don’t mean the evil-lite of political rhetoric (e.g. “axis-of-evil”) which explicitly rests on a reassurance that we have found the source of evil and it is not us. And I don’t mean the evil-abstract of many theological discussions. The fact that we live on a fallen planet will be a powerful, recurring, unavoidable theme here. There will be no way to get through this thinking that “the problem” is not my problem. We are all implicated.

So. . . expect some fear. Plan accordingly. How are you planning to deal with the experience of fear related to the content of this course? If you have no answer to this question, it is your first assignment. If your support system needs to be reinforced, do whatever you need to do to make that happen.

4) Abuse is controversial.

There is disagreement about almost everything we will cover here. People fight over this stuff all the time. The resulting sense of uncertainty, ambiguities, lack of clarity can be frustrating — or it can feel unsafe.

5) Abuse is personal.

There is nothing abstract about abuse. It is close to home. Up front. Personal. It can be objectified. Studied. Quantified. And we will do some of that in this class. But objectivity in the presence of abuse is not an unqualified virtue. Education usually invites students to view course content from an ‘objective’ position, to view things from a dispassionate distance. Depending on where you are in your own personal journey, this valuing of “dispassionate” and “objective” experience can be quite triggering. It might seem like the intense emotions you sometimes experience are being ignored. You will probably know that this is not the case. . . but knowing may not make much difference. Anticipate this dynamic. . . how will you take care of yourself and be kind to yourself if it feels like something important in your experience is being ignored?

6) Abuse is systemic.

Abuse is systemic in several senses. First, it is systemic in the sense that the consequences of abuse impact lots of people. It is not just one person who has been harmed. Everyone in a family is impacted. Sometimes the impact can go on for generations. And sometimes you can look backwards and see that a family system has been working its way toward this abuse for many generations. Secondly, abuse is systemic in the sense that sometimes it can be so common that it is unrecognizable. It can be like water to fish. The fish doesn’t notice the water. The water is just “the way things are.” Many people in abusive relationships can’t image how things could be different. And thirdly, abuse is systemic in the sense that it requires a systemic response. This is particularly true in a pastoral context. In ministry situations it is common to need to respond to both the abused and to the abuser–and sometimes to children, parents, friends, the congregation as a whole, government agencies etc. Navigating complex situations of this kind in way that is helpful to all concerned is not easy.

7) Suggestions for students who have personally experienced abuse

  • Remember that this is a class — not a therapy group, not an intensive, not a counseling session. It is primarily an exercise in education. It may be a rather more personally dangerous educational exercise than some of the other classes you will take in seminary but this is still fundamentally ‘education’.
  • An important goal is to find some personal boundaries that you can live with during this class. If you protect yourself personally from the content of this class — if you try to ‘hold your breath’ for 10 weeks — you may miss an important opportunity for growth. On the other hand, if you do not protect yourself personally from the content of this class, you may get so entangled with your own subjective experience that you will miss out on an important opportunity for growth. Only you can decide what kind of personal boundaries will be most helpful to you during this class. Pay attention to this. Talk about it with people you trust.
  • Journal after each class session. This is not a requirement. Just a suggestion. In most classes you don’t need to pay quite this much attention to your subjective experience of the course content. But this material is rather ‘closer to home’ than most. So take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself.
  • Use your resources. Keep talking. Ask for help. Tell the truth. Be kind to yourself.
  • If you have never talked about your experiences of abuse with another person, if you don’t feel like there is anybody with whom you can safely talk about the abuse now, or if you find yourself immobilized with anxiety just thinking about this class. . . seriously consider not taking the class. You do not have to take this class. You will remain a precious, lovable, valuable child of a grace-full and loving Parent — who is committed to you for the long-haul — whether you take this class or not. If this is not the time to take this class. . . then wait until it is the time.