A key focus of study this week in the Coming to the Table course I’m participating in at Eastern Mennonite University is the impact of trauma–defined as a deep wound that happens when something abnormally shocking, painful, or harmful occurs and leaves us feeling overwhelmed and threatened (physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually). It can be a major event or on-going hurtful experiences. It can be individual or collective.

It can be challenging to comprehend collective trauma (the Holocaust of WWII or the transatlantic slave trade) because the magnitude is on such a large scale. Coming to grips with healing from such large-scale trauma can feel overwhelming and unlikely. There are cycles of victimhood and/or aggressive-violent reactions to trauma that perpetuate the harm of trauma in the lives of victims and those around them (a child abuse victim becoming a child abuser, for instance).

One of the participants in our class, David Works (a descendant of Thomas Jefferson), has experienced–and continues to experience–a healing journey from severe trauma. On December 9, 2007–just six months ago–David’s family was leaving church in Colorado Springs, Colorado when a young man began shooting people. Two of David’s and his wife Marie’s daughters were killed. David was shot twice and survived.

David has shared with us how he thought of the response cycles of victimhood and violence that we were introduced to at our last Coming to the Table gathering in January 2006. David and his family used these principles, and their faith, to break out of potentially destructive cycles in order to heal. David says that the grief they experienced is messy, unpredictable, and may never go away. It is unique to each individual. David, Marie, and their two remaining daughters chose not to go to a place of anger, revenge, and insanity in order to break free of the aggressor/victim cycles.

David asks himself–and us–do we ever get over trauma that we experience as individuals? Do we “get over” a collective trauma like slavery? Should we?

There is a woman here at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute whose children were kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel guerrilla army fighting against Uganda’s government. Her family has been brutalized in ways most people will never experience, and is close to impossible for me to comprehend. One of her daughters was gone for years. She was repeatedly raped and gave birth to three children fathered by her captors before being released. This woman has forgiven those who perpetrated this crime against her family. She’s now helping to raise her grandchildren.

My two classmates this week are living examples of the ability of people to experience ultimate harm and grief and to choose grace and forgiveness on their path to survival and healing.