Fierce Embrace: Dialogue as a Path to Healing

Fierce Embrace: Dialogue as a Path to Healing
By Rev. C. Perry Dougherty

2002, Washington University in St. Louis

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.

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ANCHOR

by Still Harbor

 

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To give voice to our deepest experiences is to cultivate connection—relationship. Indeed, 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 (mystery, truth, or God). 

I have come to see much of my ministry as opening up spaces, much like the one I experienced in college that night in 2002, for people to be with one another in solidarity and in dialogue.

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 evermore toward easily quantifiable transactional engagements, we are collectively 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 deeply listening to the experiences of others in such non-transactional, non-doing environments, it is nearly 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 the power of naming as I have begun to express it: “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.” And he discusses the power of naming together—or dialogue—as a transformative agent: “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 such dialogue—naming and listening—requires that we surrender the desire to control ourselves, others, or outcomes. Such a practice requires that we remain firmly and faithfully committed to the cultivation of an abiding and unconditional kind of 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—the hope—for change within me, and maybe outside of me too. Speaking aloud in the presence of people sitting together in solidarity and connection lightened the secret load I had been carrying for nearly two years. It gave me permission to name a truth I had been fighting for too long: “I was raped.”

These days, now fourteen years later, I still have times when those difficult words feel nearly impossible to acknowledge and share. I have moments in which I cannot remove my sense of self from the pain of feeling broken and the label of having been a victim. I know with certainty that I am a survivor, but that label simply means that I am still here. I do not get a cape or super powers as many survivor myths might have once suggested to me. What I have discovered, however, is that within me exists a deep well of awareness out of which stems the fierce embrace of a spirit that is always (and has always been) with me—the spirit of love, humility, faith, and hope that I believe connects us all to one another, to life, to our earth, to the universe, and to God or awe. This—my deepest awareness—holds the wholeness of my experiences without judgment, without labels, without suffering, and without fear. It also holds the wholeness of the human experience, I believe, even when I cannot see, know, or understand it. 

This discovery, and my ongoing experience of it, informs my interspiritual ministry. Since I joined Still Harbor in 2010, I have worked to develop our approach to spiritual formation and accompaniment—from vocational discernment to leadership development to healing and reconciliation—based on the principles of relationship with self, with others, and with the sacred. This spiritual notion of relationship is rooted in dialogue—naming and listening—much in the same way as I have described it here.

Whether sitting with an individual in spiritual direction, leading a leadership development program, or designing a community healing program, I’m consistently struck by the fragmentation of relationship that comes with suffering. With the wounds of trauma, in particular, we all crave the concrete path to healing—if only there were the trauma healing equivalent of a surgery, sutures, and a cast. 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 all feel chaotic and meaningless.

If relationship based in dialogue 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. As I have gleaned personally and have come to understand professionally, the impact of trauma is felt in terms of our sense of safety, identity (or personal narrative), and connection. As we seek paths to spiritual healing, we need to create spaces for grappling with each of these areas—safety, identity, personal narrative, and connection—in relationship to self, other, and the sacred. 

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. 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, has helped me honor the depths of myself and others, and has enabled me to trust again. Slowly, I have realized I am not alone; I have realized that the highs and lows can co-exist; I have realized I can show up fully to life. 

As I pay it forward in ministry, creating opportunities for others to name their experiences safely, be listened to, and reconnect with themselves, others, and the sacred, 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 Still Harbor, we remain committed to accompanying communities as they discover the simple power of such dialogue based approaches for healing together.

At the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that hit Haiti, events of remembrance were held across the Boston area for Haitian and Haitian-American communities and for first responders and volunteers. At six events around the city, Still Harbor offered a mobile participatory art exhibit—the Kenbe Fèm Project—intended to offer a ritual for sharing personal experience in a safe and affirming way. On small pieces of cloth—like prayer flags—individuals could write words, draw images, or create an offering to hang on the strings of the sculpture. Names, prayers, affirmations, and images lined the strings, creating a collective expression of loss and hope, as well as a shared story of connection to Haiti. 

One of Still Harbor’s latest collaborations is with a community in Boston that experiences chronic violence in its streets and homes. We have trained trauma-informed community companions to offer peer support to their neighbors, and we have 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 transformative sacred healing energy, noticeable connections, and profound processing for all of us involved—I have trouble even finding words for the noticeable healing gifts of the open, drop-in monthly dialogue events.

As we have built on these principles, we recognize their profound simplicity 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 to lean into the difficulties, fears, and hesitations with awareness and grit in order to cultivate deep and abiding compassion.

I used to say that suffering was my teacher. But, in truth, I learned very little from my suffering until I started to name it for myself and with others. It was the naming and renaming of my suffering that set me out on a path to healing, growth, and happiness.

My hope for all of us, particularly those committed to offering healing and to pursuing transformation, is it that we find the courage to create space for dialogue. As we recognize and enter the places where such sacred dialogue thrives, I am confident that we will, over time, begin to free ourselves from the oppressive silences of reality unnamed, unheard, and unintegrated. This, I believe, is the power of wholeness, relationship, and community—the power of “humans with other humans.” §


C. Perry Dougherty (Editor) serves as a facilitator, spiritual director, and writer in her role as Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation & Society of Still Harbor. She has a background in working with non-profit social justice organizations. Perry tailors her programs, workshops, and efforts to explore how spiritual practice and creative exploration can enrich leadership for social justice. Perry is an ordained Interspiritual Minister.