Washington University, St Louis, 2002. We sit on the floor, friends and others, each of us holding vigil.
I wonder if I will even be able to find the words if I choose to speak. There are fewer facts than I wish for—more self-judgments and denials than cohesive narrative.
It is the story of a date gone bad—broken but intrusive memories, tainted, tamed, and tortured by reoccurrence and repetition.
Heavy, loaded, and strange, the words that come out feel foreign on my tongue as if the story were not mine.
There was the taxi cab, the woman giving herself a pedicure in the living room, my hurrying down the stairs and out the door only to realize I was locked in. There was having to go back inside to ask him to let me out of the gates.
There was, if I let myself feel it, the sensation of watching my body on the bed from far up above where the wall met the ceiling by the doorway to the room. There was voicelessness and fear—the shame of knowing that I did not yell or fight.
There was my wandering of the streets not knowing if I would find my way home or if I even wanted to. There was the feeling of a disorienting sense of safety or freedom in those dark, foreign streets—he was not there.
For the first time, that night I give voice to the words: “I was raped.”
I wonder if the sentence will ever feel real. I do not cry. I just sit in the room, on the floor, where we have all come to share our stories. I stay still and listen to others after I speak. The candles around us seem to offer some comfort of illumination and the darkness in which they flutter holds the safety of an emerging connection to myself and to something else unfolding and unseen.
Daring to break our silences, even those that have kept us safe, is vulnerable work, no matter when or where or how we make the choice. Giving voice to stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault carries with it uncertainty, fear, and the possibility of re-traumatization. Those of us who have experienced the trauma of sexualized violence run the pros and cons of whether to tell people in our lives or offices or communities a million times over.
Times may be changing. Our societies may be ready to receive these stories without questioning them or us. #MeToo has given us a sense of solidarity and togetherness. But even in this watershed moment we are left with the question of collective healing; of how to be in relationship with one another, grieve together, and rebuild a society without such ubiquitous violence.
The only way I’ve found even a glimmer of hope for answers to these questions lies in the practice of dialogue, through which we come to understand ourselves and others, and from that understanding create the relational trust that’s needed to re-imagine and rename how we want to live together.
To give voice to our deepest experiences is to cultivate connection. I have come to believe that sharing personal stories invites us to enter into transformative dialogue with oneself, with others, and also with the sacred. I have come to see much of my ministry as opening up spaces for people to be with one another in solidarity and dialogue, much like the one I experienced in St Louis that night.
It is hard for those of us committed to working for peace, justice and healing to find safe places to honestly explore our stories. As the demands for outcomes, impact, and measurable change drive us toward easily quantifiable, transactional engagements, we are devaluing the power of sitting together with the simple task of naming the world as we have experienced it.
As we practice giving voice to our experiences and listening to those of others in non-transactional environments, it is impossible to ignore the presence, understanding, and insight that emerges personally and collectively. Such spaces, I have found, are schools of healing, reconciliation, awareness, and spiritual growth.
Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, discusses this power: “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Some may think that to affirm dialogue—the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world—is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans.”
To engage in dialogue requires that we surrender the desire to control ourselves, others, and outcomes. Such a practice requires that we remain firmly and faithfully committed to the cultivation of an abiding and unconditional love, humility, faith, and hope—essential qualities of both our spiritual and practical co-existence. Speaking the story of my rape aloud for the first time back in 2002 did not heal me or free me from my pain and fear. But as I look back, I realize that in the moment I opened up and people listened. I unlocked the possibility for change within me, and maybe outside of me too.
Whether sitting with an individual in spiritual direction, leading a leadership development effort or designing a community healing program, I’m consistently struck by the fragmentation of relationship that comes with suffering. With the wounds of trauma, we all crave a concrete path to healing—if only there were the equivalent of surgery and sutures. But trauma is different. The suffering following trauma can be as multifaceted as the wound. Often one’s connections to self, others, and the sacred cease or change so dramatically that they feel chaotic and meaningless.
If relationship is to be a path to liberation, we must understand the nature of what it means to enter dialogue from a place of pain, loss or trauma. All of the people and places that have offered me something of healing—whether therapists or spiritual teachers, community healing events, 12-step programs, meditation halls or activist groups—have honored the power of dialogue through pain, discomfort, and uncertainty. They have allowed me to name my experience freely and openly, listen to myself and others, rename my experience, and embrace the interconnected nature of all life.
This dance of dialogue has taught me what safety in relationship means. It has helped me to honor the depths of myself and others, and has enabled me to trust again. Slowly, I have realized that I am not alone, that the highs and lows can co-exist. I have realized that I can show up fully to life as it is.
As I pay these gifts forward I am reminded of how much people yearn for spirit-filled opportunities to begin healing with others as a complement to their mental health care and other supports. At my organization Still Harbor, we remain committed to accompanying communities as they discover the power of dialogue-based approaches for healing together. We have offered such experiences in many ways over the years.
In Boston, for example, we’ve trained trauma-informed ‘companions’ in the art of spiritual listening to offer peer support to their neighbors in a community that experiences chronic violence in its streets. We’ve hosted monthly events and small group dialogues that invite people into an open, creative, and expressive space to share their stories of loss, fear, hardship, suffering and hope. This program has unlocked a powerful, transformative energy and a felt sense of connection for all involved.
The profound simplicity of these principles is challenged only by people’s collective fear of the unknown, the fear of what might unfold when we invite people to show up and share their past, pains, and prayers. It can be hard to see others struggle. It can be hard to struggle ourselves. It can be hard to cultivate enough faith in our own spirituality to allow for the kind of authentic dialogue that leads us together toward healing. But I have discovered that in this, as in so much of life, it is well worth the effort.
I used to say that suffering was my teacher. But in truth, I learned very little from mine until I started to name it for myself and in relationship with others. It was the naming and renaming of my suffering that set me on a path towards healing, growth, and happiness.
My hope for all of us is it that we find the courage to create more spaces for this kind of dialogue. As we recognize and enter such places I am confident that we will begin to free ourselves from the oppressive silence of realities unnamed, unheard, and un-integrated. This, I believe, is the power of wholeness, relationship, and community.
A longer version of this article appears in Anchor Magazine.