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Deprivatizing Suffering
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Recognizing Potential Solidarity in Surprising Places

This exercise was developed by Nichola Torbett and first used, in slightly different forms, in her Seminary of the Street classes "Practicing Intimacy and Solidarity with All Life" and "Toward Full Aliveness: Learning to Listen for the Still, Small Voice."

This exercise is designed to help you situate your own personal sadnesses, traumas, and wounds in the context of an inherited legacy of social abuse and trauma. In the process of doing so, you will find opportunities for solidarity and mutual support in places you may never have thought to look.

So long as we continue to view our own suffering as private, resulting from our own personal failings or the personal failings of our family members, friends, and partners, we are dissuaded from addressing the overarching systems of domination, violence, oppression, and exploitation that are brutalizing us all in one way or another (though certainly some more immediately than others). We also remain blind to the opportunities for struggling in solidarity with people whose lives may seem very different from ours but are actually being shaped by the very same social forces that have wounded us, for example, Iraqi civilians, victims of Rwandan genocide, or even people living on the other side of town who nonetheless, because of economic, racial, or ethnic factors, can too often seem worlds away.

First, call to mind some of the interpersonal wounds and traumas that have shaped your life—abuse, neglect, a family member’s addiction, family dysfunction of any kind. These are the kinds of suffering we typically think of as private or limited to the immediate family.

Then ask yourself how many of these wounds and traumas have origins in social traumas. Consider how the perpetrators of these abuses were shaped by any of the following, whether they themselves experienced it or whether they were raised and taught by people who had:

  • military service in a war
  • life in a war zone
  • slavery
  • oppression based on race, ethnicity, gender, physical or mental ability, or sexual orientation
  • violence against oppressed peoples
  • immigration
  • sacrifice of ethnicity to become a “white” American
  • survival of the Great Depression or another economic crisis
  • movement from one economic class to another
  • torture
  • genocide
  • religious or political persecution

Keep in mind that dysfunction comes not just from being on the receiving end of oppression but from becoming an agent of oppression one’s self. (Oppression brutalizes the oppressed and costs the oppressor her or his humanity.)

Consider not just the physical violence of oppression but the emotional and spiritual violence as well, the ways in which people are coerced into accepting limiting beliefs about themselves based on who they are told they are. How, for example, was your mother’s behavior toward you shaped by her own view of herself as a woman, as well as the limits placed on her external life as a woman?

Can you see how your own life has been impacted by myriad social traumas? To whom does your suffering connect you? For example, if you were abused by someone who fought in a war, then you are now connected to the children of veterans returning from Iraq, to children of military men and women all over the world, and to the children of guerrilla warriors and freedom fighters as well.
 
The purpose of this exercise is not to excuse any kind of interpersonal abuse or to let the perpetrators of that abuse off the hook by blaming social factors. We each remain responsible for our own behavior, no matter what we experience. At the same time, it is naïve to ignore the legacy of suffering that affects (but, thank God, doesn’t fully determine) human behavior.

My hope is that, as more of us begin to unearth these kinds of connections, we will begin to recognize the need not only for personal healing (which while essential can too often take the form of learning to accommodate one’s self to an unjust and brutal world, which actually isn’t healing at all) but for social healing and that we can begin to approach our social change work in terms of that healing.

If you would like to use this exercise in your teaching, coaching, or therapeutic practice, please do so with our blessing, provided you cite Seminary of the Street as your source. Please do not reprint this exercise in any publication without our written permission.