I’m thinking about ceremony this morning: ceremony for trauma survivors, for community, for reconnection, for an undoing of the isolation we take on as our burden to bear.
Mainstream American culture has few rituals – we gather for sports games, we chant USA! at the Fourth of July, we mark the passing of another year with drunken birthday celebrations. Some of us carry forth and build new traditions at holidays that are important to us. Some cultural communities mark rites of passage in a person’s life – coming into the world, coming into adulthood, passage into and out of parenthood, having a love partnership, making the transition into death. But most of us don’t participate in such rituals. We question the presence of this retro belief in our modern age. Who needs ritual? Isn’t it just representative of some old, repressive, likely patriarchal cultural construct, just meant to tether us psychically to a community and tradition that values conformity over individual expression and development? We may have many of us walked away from those rituals and traditions in order to find our own voice and full human expression. And yet the human desire is for some sense of deep connection.
Years ago, before I heard about transformative justice practices, I had this idea for a ceremony for survivors of sexual violence that would welcome the survivor fully “back” into their community of origin — given how many of us have the experience of being made, through this violence, into outsiders. In this circle would be folks of the survivor’s choosing: friends and family members (non-perpetrating), community elders and young ones, survivor’s advocates, and representatives from institutions important to the survivor: school, police, government, mosque/temple/sangha/church. In a comfortable room this group would gather to share good food. There would be conversation and embracing. Then the group sits in a circle on comfortable chairs, a mis-match of couches and overstuffed chairs. It’s not a perfect circle; this is a community room or a living room – no sterile concrete walled site with a circle of molded plastic chairs with no life in the room.
After the group gathers into their seats, each with a cup of coffee and maybe a small plate of food, there is a moment or two of silence. Then the survivor begins to speak. They tell their whole story – as much as they wish to share. They describe who they were before their assault/assaults, what the violence entailed, and how they have experienced the aftermath of this trauma. They are uninterrupted in this telling, though their community may make sounds of acknowledgement, sorrow, understanding, indignation. The circle listens closely even though these are terribly difficult details to hear – the community attends closely to this telling because they understand that this burden is not only the survivor’s to carry alone; the violence was done to the whole community, and the whole community has the responsibility to know and help carry the story.
The telling might take a half hour, it might take several hours. Maybe there are brief breaks. During the breaks, people might stretch but they do not make small talk or otherwise distract themselves from the process underway – this is difficult and sacred labor, and everyone holds the space.
When the survivor reaches a point of completion, there is another moment or two of silence. The eldest person in the room thanks the survivor for their generosity, their willingness to allow the community to share this burden and intimacy with the community. Each of the people in the room reflects back something that they heard or something that stays with them, to offer tangible witness and withness to the survivor. The eldest person in the room tells the survivor that they are welcome in the family and heart of this community, expresses sorrow for the survivors pain and loss feelings, for their feelings of loneliness and isolation, and reminds the survivor that they are not alone.
The survivor receives the message that they belong and are seen. They are not alone. The whole of their experience, of themselves, has been welcomed.
Then the people eat and drink and dance, they bring their whole hearts and whole bodies into the room. They dance in life and community — the survivor, too, event though they may have been told that telling would mean isolation and shame and death.
No one pretends that the work is done– the celebration is a part of the work of living and being in community. Holding each of our neighbor’s and loved one’s real stories is a part of the ongoing practice, the ongoing work of living and being in community.
Imagine if we offered this kind of communal witness to all those who went through terrifying experiences — war veterans, domestic violence survivors, ritual abuse survivors, refugees, folks living with illness, survivors of racist violence, and others. Imagine what our communities could look and feel like.
We don’t enact this kind of ceremony in the survivors writing groups, of course. But we do offer each other this kind of powerful witnessing: we listen with our whole selves, with no attempt to fix the pain being shared, and we respond with our appreciation for the writer’s artistry and creativity, and we tell the writer some of what we heard – their story now lives in our ears and hearts and mouths as well as in their own. The writer — the survivor — no longer has to carry that particular story alone. One more small piece of that great wall of isolation has been dismantled/dissolved.
What sort of ceremony would your inside, resilient, surviving self like to participate in or feel welcomed by? Could you write about that for ten minutes or so today?
Thank you for the ceremonies you offer others, the tendernesses of listening and the generosity of presence. Thank you for the ways you allow others to offer the same to you. Thank you for your words.