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

Many people think that suffering is, in general, about 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? What do we do when someone chose to cause this suffering? How do we 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 this content? 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 here. 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.

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