A friend and I were on his back porch, huddled up against the slight chill of the winter nights here in the South. The topic of love came up. Not romantic love, but “Love thy neighbor” love. Christ-like love, if you will. As two fellas with Christian background, we discussed 1 Corinthians 13 in depth. This scripture in particular has been on my mind recently since it was written on my back during a scene.
Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 7, Christian Standard Bible
My friend looked out at the canal behind his house, lost in thought. Finally, he said, “I try to show that Christ-like love to everyone I meet. I mean, of course I fail. I’m only human.” As I knew we had both experienced trauma, the topic came to mind, and I said, “One thing that’s difficult about loving everyone, loving my neighbor and all that, is that with my trauma, it’s so difficult to have that view of humanity.” He nodded in empathy as I explained that, for the longest time, I couldn’t trust people enough to love them.
“What I’ve learned, though, that really helps me, is Nonviolent Communication. One thing Marshall Rosenberg spoke about is that everyone has the same needs. We all need safety and need community and need fun, things like that. You, me, everyone. Everyone before us and everyone after us have the same needs.” He looked at my curiously, his face lit by the ember of his cigarette. “I don’t really understand how this relates.”
“Well, when I think of the people who’ve hurt me, either little bit or a lot, I think about how they were trying to meet their needs. They didn’t hurt me for no reason. They didn’t hurt me because they were evil. They hurt me because they didn’t know a different way to get those needs met.”
My friend shook his head, and looked pained. “I know this isn’t what you’re saying, but my heart says that you’re saying that my abusers needed to abuse me.”
Oh. Oh no.
Feeling that I was siding with his abusers, even if he knew it wasn’t true, was very challenging for him. We shifted to emotional first aid, and the topic changed. But that conversation has lingered with me.
I wanted to write this out to say everything I wanted to say to him, and to people who’ve been abused, especially those searching for a trauma-informed perspective.
See, my mistake with my friend was failing to mention this important ‘AND’ fact. This conversation (and healing in generally) is made of a lot seemingly contradictory ‘AND’ facts. We can humanize those who have harmed us AND condemn their actions. It’s not either or. Holding those two things in our heads at the same time is key to growth.
It’s easy to think of people as evil. It’s simple. You can see harmful acts as isolated and caused by an internal character flaw. Viewing people as complex beings ill-equipped for meeting their needs takes a systemic view. Maybe they were abused as a child. Maybe they didn’t learn other coping skills. Maybe they were taught this behavior by someone else. There are infinite maybes that affect the situation. That doesn’t mean they aren’t culpable for the harm they caused.
You may never know the reasons that someone hurt you. Perhaps you know the reasons all too intimately. I don’t think it’s helpful or effective to dwell on the reasons. However, knowing that someone had reasons, any reasons at all, can impact your understanding of the situation.
We look at those reasons. We turn to our own hurt, and we say “This person hurt me because they were trying to meet their needs AND what they didn’t isn’t okay.”
I make it sound simple. It’s not. It’s a very, very long process.
Here’s another important ‘AND’ fact. I truly believe that viewing those that hurt you as complex people is a vital part of your healing journey AND I believe that not everyone is ready for that.
This kind of work can bring up a very strong trauma response. My friend had one when we discussed it. I said something to him in the moment that could have been misinterpreted as hurtful or sarcastic, but was intended genuinely: “I thought you were at a different place in your healing journey.”
I’m at a place where I can think of certain situations and understand that the people involved where trying to get their needs met the best they could, and they hurt me.
I don’t feel a trauma response anymore. I don’t feel anxious or angry. I feel sad for the people that hurt me. I pity them. Sometimes I wonder what made them the way they are. but usually I leave it at that.
Then I turn to my own hurt, and acknowledge that. I hold myself, usually literally as well as metaphorically, and I acknowledge the needs that weren’t met in that situation. I think of ways I can make sure that those needs are extra met in the days ahead. Then I move on with my day.
It’s hard. It’s a process. It’s scary, and it doesn’t feel good when you’re in it.
But this is the way I can live with what I’ve been through, all the hurt and pain. And yet, always see the life and love in other people.