‘I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.’ (Malala Yousafzai)
I once had a secret meeting with the political wing of a revolutionary group from Central America, in a dark basement flat in London. But my story doesn’t start there. This was my moment. As I flicked through the pages of a UK newspaper, an article leapt out at me about the brutal civil war in El Salvador. I don’t think I’d heard of El Salvador before yet it reminded me of accounts I had read of horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis in WW2. I couldn’t change that terrible history but I could do something now.
I quickly did some research then set to work straight away, creating flyers and posters and circulating and sticking them up anywhere I could think of, hoping to raise awareness and to spur others into action too. I talked incessantly to family, friends and colleagues about what was happening in El Salvador. Most responded with a bemused look: ‘Why get so wound up about a situation on the opposite side of the world and over which we have no control anyway?’ That didn’t deter me. It was my time to speak.
I heard of a demonstration for El Salvador in London so I went there with a friend, both wearing our anti-war combat jackets. On arrival, we were approached by the organisers and invited to carry a banner. To our surprise, they asked us to march at the very front, directly behind a row of children who were carrying a banner too. Some 20,000 people assembled behind us. We raised our voices in safety – while human rights activists in El Salvador were having their throats cut and their bodies dumped onto the streets.
Driven increasingly by vicarious trauma, I joined the El Salvador Committee for Human Rights, a team of 3 activists based in a small room, armed only with a manual typewriter. I had the privilege of volunteering alongside a humble legend, Mike Gatehouse, who had previously been captured and held by the military in Chile during the violent coup that had overthrown its democratically-elected government. My role now was to hitch-hike around the UK, encouraging and resourcing local activist groups to amplify their voice.
As I look back, I realise that I didn’t have sufficient personal resilience to handle the stress, and I came close to burnout. My efforts were driven more by pain, empathy and instinct than by strategy and I’ve learned, since, the critical value of supervision. Yet Greenpeace’s profound slogan expressed our motivations too: ‘The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.’ There are situations in which we have to act, not because we have any guarantee of success, but because somebody has to speak.
[See also: Revolution; Protest; Words; Smoke; Nika; I did try]
'The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not 'get over' the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it.' (Kubler-Ross & Kessler)
At 15, I was fatally wounded. At 18, I died. That’s how it felt and, at times, it still feels now. There are some scars that never heal. A trauma of unwelcomed loss is being forced, harshly, to let go of an imagined future, a hoped-for dream. This tearing experience can leave our hearts, our bodies, bleeding. I was a shattered romantic who spent day after day, year after year, pleading with God to take my life. I slid into a heavy, dark dysthemia. Nothing could bring healing, happiness or hope.
It's fertile ground for addiction, to search for anything that will make us feel alive, provide even momentary relief. We may immerse ourselves in whatever distracts and enables us to avoid having to face again, all too wearily, those severe memories and tortured feelings. My own torment was that searing-painful images would surface over and over in my dreams, as if trying to reconcile the suffering at some deep subconscious level, yet leave me waking the next day in suicidal mood.
I wish there was a simple answer, a miracle cure. I live in a culture that holds out delusional promises and expectations of a pain-free, pleasure-filled possibility of a life. I live in a world where hurt and damaged people, more and more, seek solace and escape in drugs or other diversions. I find my spiritual hope in Jesus who (to me surprisingly, yet in a strange way reassuringly) carries the scars of crucifixion after his resurrection. Whatever I may go through now, this will not end in death.
Over the years I have learned, and am still learning, how to live with my own scars rather than to attempt to bury, hide or erase them. I’m still, at times, ambushed by grief. It takes me by surprise and leaves me temporarily reeling. I’ve learned to be thankful and, gradually, to allow people and relationships to drift away rather than to cling so hard. I’ve learned to discern how pain triggered from the past can reveal someone or something important that I’m not noticing here and now.
How do you deal with your scars? How do you help others to do so too?
(Nick is a change leadership consultant and trainer for trauma-informed practice agency, Rock Pool)
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
Like what you read? Simply enter your email address below to receive regular blog updates!