If you have read any of my past blogs or looked around my website, you might have noticed I often use the terms crisis and trauma interchangeably, sometimes together as crisis/trauma. Our societal understanding of crisis and trauma varies, sometimes to the extreme. We assume a crisis or a trauma is caused by different circumstances, we respond to them differently and judge them to be severe or minor. Generally, crisis and trauma are not considered to be on the same plain or level, depending on your perspective, which is true, some of the time.
Our language further confuses the issue when we hear descriptions like “head trauma” because of a car accident versus “childhood trauma” caused by neglect or abuse. Another example, “crisis centers” for women and children fleeing domestic abuse versus a looming “economic crisis” because of inflation. When we talk about specific circumstances, as I have here, even I have set it up in a way that incites judgment. My guess is that most of us would happily donate money or time to a crisis center for women and children but are probably wary of the rising interest rates and might not be quite as happy discussing the matter with Tiff Macklem.
What I would like to do here is set aside these perceptions of crisis and trauma and simply focus on the human response. Let’s suspend our judgment and zero in on the human experience of crisis and trauma.
Webster’s Dictionary defines crisis as “a crucial time” and “a turning point in the course of anything.” A crisis is a disruption in a person's normal baseline level of functioning. This means they are temporarily less able to cope with increased anxiety, depression, and/or tension caused by the crisis. The key to understanding crisis, no matter the circumstance, is that crisis and loss go hand in hand.
What causes crisis? It is a problem that is too great or overwhelming to the individual (or group). For some people, it might not be a problem at all but to this person/group, it is significant. Maybe you’ve seen this before, this meme of someone’s life and what we know about it. There’s a lot of truth in this simple drawing. Sometimes crises can come in the form of the proverbial last straw. In a time of heightened stress, a person's coping mechanisms are already taxed and all it takes is one more thing. Crises can also happen like a tsunami, sudden and unexpected. This meme effectively captures our limited ability to rightly judge someone else’s experience of loss.
Crises are not always bad. They can be an opportunity as well as a danger. The Chinese character for the word crisis is aptly expressed by two symbols, one for despair (danger), the other for opportunity. This does not express a toxic positivity that tells us to see the silver lining in all things. It has nothing to do with that. What it points to is this pivotal moment in a person’s life, where they can choose a path that leads to despair or instead, discover new and better methods that lead to Life. Despair or opportunity.
Despair and opportunity stand like a fork in the road. Experts agree, and in my experience, when some form of positive intervention does not take place, no matter how small, the path to despair is the default response. The path to despair disguises itself as quick relief, an escape from the painful reality. The path to despair can also look like a legitimate solution but requires people to continue to carry their pain, dangling relief like a carrot just out of reach. The path to despair restores nothing and increases the likelihood that another crisis is just around the corner.
The main reason I use both crisis and trauma when describing Butterfly Way comes from this next realization, often a crisis is just one step away from trauma. The word trauma comes from a Greek word that means wound. This wound or trauma leaves a person feeling overwhelmed, powerless and effectively destroys their sense of safety. It sounds an awful lot like the path to despair, doesn’t it?
Have you ever considered the multitude of crises experienced by the Ancients throughout the bible? You won’t find the word crisis in the bible but you will find its relative: suffering, hardship, adversity, and pain just to name a few. Are you familiar with the story of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus?
In the Christian bible, you find his story in the New Testament, in the book of Acts 9:1-19. In brief, Paul (formerly known as Saul) inflicted pain and suffering (crisis) on many by persecuting and murdering those who followed the Way of Jesus. On his way to a city called Damascus, he encountered Jesus, rendering Paul blind and helpless. This encounter describes well the characteristics of crisis, it was a pivotal moment in Paul’s life, in this case for the positive (as it turned out). This crisis affected him physically and emotionally, he was blind, and he didn’t eat for three days. It also affected him spiritually. He became a believer, stopped persecuting Christians, and became one of the most influential leaders of the early Christian church
What strikes me about Paul’s story aside from this pivotal moment where he experienced a significant change of heart, are the people who were there to help guide him to strength and wholeness. The men he was with on the road to Damascus didn’t know what was going on, yet, they led him by the hand to the city to find a man named Ananias. In a vision, Ananias was told by the Lord to help Paul. Now, like any honest person, he protested because Paul had a reputation and Ananias had every right to be afraid of him. But Ananias did what the Lord asked of him and intervened in Paul’s crisis. The story goes on to explain Ananias went and found Saul. He told Saul he came so that he could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit and “no sooner were the words out of Ananias’ mouth, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, he could see again! He got to his feet, was baptized, and sat down with them to a hearty meal.”
Paul’s traveling companions and Ananias were there at the fork in the road at the moment of crisis. They literally took Paul by his hands and walked with him toward opportunity. Had they not, it’s easy to imagine what might have happened next. Paul’s companions could have run away and left Paul at the side of the road to die. Ananias could have said forget it! Where would Paul have been without the healing actions of Ananias? Surely on the road to despair.
Coming alongside people who have experienced crisis or trauma in loving and supportive ways means meeting people at the fork in the road, extending a hand to lead them toward opportunity and away from despair. This can be as simple as a text or phone call to say, “hey, I’m thinking about you! I’m so sorry you’re going through this difficult situation.” Often people who are experiencing a crisis wonder if their response is normal. By acknowledging the difficulty of their situation, you will validate their experience. Seriously, even a little validation can go a long way.
You might not be able to do anything to fix the situation. The person in crisis might need a greater intervention than you can offer but simply letting the person know you care, is sometimes the only thing needed to help shed light on the pathway toward opportunity. Like Paul’s traveling companions, you could be the only help they have to get them to their Ananias.
*Source "The Complete Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling" by Dr. H. Norman Wright