The Messages Communicated to Child Abuse Victims
As a trauma therapist, I hear daily how people’s spiritual beliefs can be a deep source of comfort and wisdom. However, sadly, in some instances, spiritual beliefs and messages can actually reinforce the messages of child abusers and increase the self-blame and the pain of victims and survivors. Abused and neglected children, and sometimes even adult victims, are often told:
• It’s your fault.
• You deserve this.
• You asked for it.
• This is for your own good.
• There’s something wrong with you.
• You are bad.
• The body is bad and shameful and a source of temptation to do evil
• If you tell, people will know how bad you are and will abandon you.
• You are powerless.
• You are making me do this to you.
• I am hurting you to teach you a lesson.
• You will thank me someday.
• Submit to me and give me what I want or I will hurt you.
• Don’t cry. Don’t feel. I will tell you what to feel and think.
• I will sometimes be loving and other times be cruel; this is love.
• This isn’t really happening.
• You dreamed it.
• Forget what I just did; it wasn’t real.
• Forgive and forget.
• Get over it.
• The past is the past.
A core spiritual belief that contributes to victim self-blame is the idea that God allows suffering, even child abuse, so that God can accomplish some greater purpose. Another is the insistence that victims should forgive and even be reconciled to their perpetrator.
In this article, I will share how I have grappled with this age-old spiritual and philosophical problem and my thoughts about how this problem can be resolved.
These reflections are a result of my own personal struggle with the question of spirituality, evil and suffering. I offer these thoughts humbly, with deep appreciation and respect for all points of view and my heartfelt wishes and prayers for well-being, loving-kindness for self as well as others, deep peace, and ever-increasing strength, courage, and comfort. Ultimately, what matters more than what we believe is how we live and love and serve.
Theodicy is a name for grappling with the problem of evil and suffering. If the word God is replaced by: Higher Power, the Buddha within, Allah, Brahman, Goddess, Higher Self, it is addressed in every belief system. Each “answer” to the theodicy question is an attempt to solve the often unbearable problem of how to live with hope in the midst of evil, violence, and suffering.
Theodicy seeks to explain how these three spiritual assertions can co-exist:
1. Evil and suffering exist
2. God is all good (omni-benevolent)
3. God is all powerful (omnipotent)
When people are struggling to make sense of suffering, they have to let go of or redefine one of these spiritual assertions.
In my opinion, some version of #1 is redefined most often. However, I believe that this often results in some form of victim-blaming or minimization of the evil people have suffered.
My standard, the center around which all my reflections about suffering must revolve, is this quote by holocaust survivor Irving Greenberg:
“Nothing should be said, theological or otherwise, that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.”
Years later, in need of a way to balance the nihilism this engenders (and reading too much Camus and Nietzsche), I added:
“Nothing should be said, philosophical or otherwise, that would make their deaths less tragic by insisting that life is absurd, meaningless, and not worth living.”
1. AN EXAMINATION OF THE SPIRITUAL ASSERTION THAT EVIL AND SUFFERING EXIST IN A WORLD WITH A GOOD AND ALL-POWERFUL GOD
How can the vast amount of evil and suffering in the world be compatible with an all powerful and all loving God?
To resolve this, evil and suffering are often explained as being an illusion, not real, or a misunderstanding of reality.
Here are the arguments commonly put forward:
A. “Everything happens for a reason”
In this argument, what appears to be evil is viewed as what is necessary to achieve a greater good; if it is necessary for greater good then it is not really evil. It is an “ends justify the means” belief.
Some people find it comforting to believe that something bad is happening in order that something good will come of it or that the suffering they are enduring is a temporary “pain” in order to bring about some greater “gain.” Sometimes this is true. The ability to endure discomfort to accomplish a goal is essential; it helps people exercise, practice skills, study, work, fulfill responsibilities, and save money. There is an enormous difference, however, between discomfort and true suffering, between pain chosen freely for a positive purpose and pain inflicted through violence.
Sometimes, even extreme pain can be transformed in remarkable ways. When suffering is responded to with kindness, skillful assistance, comfort, and loyal witnessing that support may help people gain many things including increased strength, extended resiliency, deeper compassion for others, and powerful self discoveries. It is not the perpetrator of the traumatic experience that that gave these gifts but the supportive allies and a survivor’s hard work.
Most often the reason traumatic suffering happens is because other people caused it to happen. There are people who intentionally inflict pain on others because they are sadistic, greedy, or otherwise broken. The victim is never responsible for the perpetrator’s choices.
If a woman is passed out at a party, rape is not inevitable; a man could choose to cover her up and protect her, or simply understand that he has no right to touch her. Interviews with batterers tell us that the decision to beat up his partner is made long before she has burned the dinner or otherwise displeased him. The decision to batter is also made before he gets drunk; in fact the alcohol is often a planned excuse for his behavior.
A victim is a victim because she or he is powerless and blameless for the violence done to her or him. Even so called “high risk” situations are only “high risk” because of the likelihood of a perpetrator being present; if no perpetrator is present, nothing bad happens. The vast majority of violence and abuse happens in the home or other supposedly “low risk” places and at the hands of people who are known and trusted.
Both painful and joyful experiences also happen randomly, being in either the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time; in life there is both randomness and causation.
B. “Suffering teaches us lessons we need to learn”
Perpetration is not instruction.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that suffering teaches us necessary lessons implies that the victim should send the perpetrator a thank you note on teacher’s appreciation day for teaching him or her a lesson.
Abusers are NOT being instruments of cosmic goodness but of destruction and harm. Any healing, growth, deepening of soul that comes out of that destruction is because of the love, the support, the inner resiliency, the courage, the hard, hard work, of survivors and their allies. The evil-doers do not get credit. They are not the in the service of God, Divine Love, Buddha Within, karmic energies, etc.; they are working against the evolving spirituality, light, love, and compassion at work in the world and within each soul.
It is important to distinguish between the necessary sorts of suffering that are inherently part of being human from traumatic suffering that is the result of violence, torture, and cruelty. Necessary suffering includes: growing pains, healing pains, the natural cycles of living and dying, creation and dissolution, mistakes and amends-making. This suffering is universal and embedded within it is the potential for the comfort of connection, loving memories, shared humanity, and even beauty.
Grief and loss, growing pains, humbling moments of mistakes and the painful vulnerability of amends, these sorts of suffering do indeed mature us and help us evolve spiritually. These are not “sent” to teach a lesson; they are the result of the laws of nature and human free will. How we choose to respond determines whether we grow, mature, deepen, increase in empathy and compassion or allow our pain to make us bitter, despairing, and closed-hearted.
Traumatic suffering is caused by abuse, neglect, violation, or tragedy. In my own personal experience, and sitting with clients describing unbearable horrors, I am unable to abide with any belief that suggests that extreme suffering is purposeful, to teach a lesson.
No child is born cursed to a life of suffering to learn lessons. All children are born blessed within, spiritually, (which makes the injustice of the global inequalities of our world all the more tragic). They achieve their fullest potential through being nurtured, taught, allowed to struggle, to safely fail, to make mistakes, to make amends, to experience both hurt and healing, and to know that all of this is part of being human. Shame, terror, unbearable pain, and traumatic suffering are not teachers; in fact, when the mind/body/spirit are overwhelmed, the frontal lobes, which are essential for learning, are shut down.
C. The Law of Attraction
The concept of the Law of Attraction puts forth that every positive or negative event that happens to you was attracted by you; your thoughts manifest/make your reality.
This idea has been around for a long time, but was made popular recently by the book The Secret. The law of attraction states that everything that happens to you, positive and negative, is caused by your thoughts; whatever you focus on will be attracted to you. Negative thoughts cause negative things to happen to you and positive thoughts cause positive things to occur. People are taught to ask the universe for what they want and think positively expecting these things to happen, including obtaining items of material wealth and cures for diseases.
The problem is that this often leads people to become phobic of the healthy range of human emotions and to avoid people who are experiencing suffering. This belief system often becomes a block to compassion, support, and intimacy.
It is normal for people have all sorts of thoughts, positive and negative, anxious and hopeful. Many mental health interventions are intended to help people understand that they are not their thoughts, that their thoughts are not magic, and that having a thought does not cause something to happen outside of their mind.
Human beings are not islands of isolation; we live within circles of community, of family, of relationships, and are even effected by ripples that past generations set in motion. There are numerous influences that have an impact on us at any moment, many of which are beyond our control. We live in an interdependent ecology where all aspects of creation are so interconnected that they cannot help but effect each other.
In my opinion, a more credible and healthy version of this can be found in almost every spirituality and that is the concept of meditating or praying on your goals and seeking to set yourself in the creative, spiritual flow that will guide you to reach them. This may include getting in touch with your deepest dreams and yearnings, writing down your goals and being mindful of choices that are in sync or out of sync with reaching them, seeking the wisdom of your intuition as well as your rational mind, God, spiritual guides, and people you trust, in fulfilling the purpose for your life and the goals which are part of that. The idea of setting goals for obtaining more material things than necessary is discouraged.
I love many aspects of Buddhism and am a grateful follower of many Buddhist practices especially Metta, the loving-kindness mediation. I believe the Dalai Lama is an embodiment of sacred compassion and wisdom. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of Karma as Buddhism teaches, but out of my experience, I reject the notion that whatever someone is experiencing in this life is because of what they did or didn’t do in a past life and that therefore the suffering they are experiencing is because it was needed to evolve their soul.
I personally cannot place this statement, “Whatever happens in this life is a consequence of what you’ve done in a past life,” next to burning children. To interpret the meaning of Karma in this way is to insist that the universe is “just” and “good” by saying that atrocities are necessary and even instruments of healing and purification. NO.
I affirm that there is always growth in the healing process, but traumatic suffering actually inhibits the healing process making it much harder. Those who heal from extreme suffering have to work incredibly hard to overcome barriers that prevent them from having full access to the innate healing resources within.
Survivors of abuse are often consumed with self-loathing. They may fear allowing themselves to experience positive emotions because these can lower defensive armor and cause them to become flooded with trauma memories. In cases of extreme abuse, many survivors were calculatingly programmed by their abusers to self destruct if they feel an impulse of compassion for themselves, or any self-affirmation that would undo their abusers’ control over their lives. All people are born with intrinsic healing capacities; in cases of extreme abuse the perpetrator not only inflicts suffering but tries to destroy these organic resources for healing.
For me, it is essential to affirm that all children are born good, full of blessings and potentials, innate compassionate capacities, brimming with light and love as well as the potential for aggression and cruelty. The triumph of healthy development, the achievement of their soul’s purpose, is best served when they are well cared for, fed, soothed, and celebrated; when they are supported to grow in resiliency through the naturally occurring difficulties and sufferings of life, the ebb and flow of pain and relief, tears and laughter.
We learn life lessons best when they are taught with love, with patience, and with a profound, unconditional belief that children and all human beings everywhere are meant to thrive, to have joy, to heal, to be comforted in grief, to gain strength and courage, and to overcome adversity. For me, it is essential to assure them that adversity is not being sent to them to refine them like they are metal in a fire but because that is simply part of being human. It is the warmth of loving connection and healthy self worth, hard, hard work and the courageous power of standing in the truth of one’s life, that may transform suffering, even extreme suffering, into infinite possibilities. Karmic destiny is fulfilled in spite of evil, not because of it.
Finally, I had a client who was very attached to her suffering as a way of achieving enlightenment in the next life. I suggested gently, hesitantly, with wondering and not without any investment in being “right,” if she might have chosen to become embodied in a horrific situation in order to bring healing and hope to others who suffered as she did. In other words, I suggested that she may have chosen her path, not because she had to experience horrific abuse in order to attain enlightenment, but because in her soul’s compassion, perhaps she looked upon the suffering of others and chose to enter into it in order to help transform it. This was, for her, a powerful and helpful shift for her depression. I’m not saying that would work for everyone, but perhaps it could change the experience of being “cursed” and the victim deserving their fate, into a more heroic story, which is much more accurate.
E. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
This premise is absolutely NOT true. Suffering often kills, if not physically, then mentally, spiritually, and morally. The Adverse Child Experience Study (ACES) proves a strong correlation between child abuse and neglect and both physical and mental illness. All too often, suffering breaks people.
I repeat: When people do emerge from hell and heal and are even, some of them, especially strong at the broken places, it is my experience, my belief, that it is because of the love, the comfort, the attuned connection, the listeners, the helpers, their own inner wisdom and healing abilities, their courageous hard work and determined, tenacious struggling to heal, NOT the atrocity that made them strong. The good at work in their lives: the care of others, the courage and the hard choices they make every day to live and to heal, those deserve the credit for their healing, NOT the perpetrators. Again, I REJECT anything that implies that they must someday thank their abusers for “helping” them.
2. AN EXAMINATION OF THE SPIRITUAL ASSERTION THAT GOD IS ALL GOOD EVEN THOUGH THERE IS EVIL
A. If God is all powerful and evil/suffering/atrocity happen, then how can God be all good?
There are versions of redefining the goodness of God in every spirituality by making God exempt from morality, outside of ethical standards. It is common in many religions to invoke an angry, vengeful even violent deity at times and tell sacred stories of the deity behaving in immoral and destructive ways toward humankind in order to either execute punishment or bring about some greater good.
Even the notion of hell, sending people into an eternity, forever and ever, of torture and pain, is considered an appropriate response to “sin” by a “good” God. Some religions have different deities which “destroy” or make war; some refer to different faces of the divine or that there is a “shadow” side of God. The message is that fear is part of faith and they teach followers ways to appease the wrath of God. This includes teaching that people should pray, perform rituals, make offerings, or otherwise cajole the deity into mercy. This is chilling in its similarity to the way abused children respond to those who hurt them, especially when they are being abused by people they are attached to, dependent upon, or love. It reinforces the distorted but common perspective that victims bear responsibility for abuse by insisting that the abuse could have been averted if only they would have prayed the correct prayer or performed some other placating action. When victims are able to connect to their anger at the abuser, to shift from appeasement to protest, there is healing.
I am an avid student of the novels of holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel; they provide a powerful description of this journey. In his first novel Night, Wiesel describes in excruciating detail his experiences as a child in a concentration camp. There is no hope, no comfort, no meaning-making. There is only a survivor’s speaking of the evil endured, telling the story, and asserting that there is meaning in telling the story if only to fulfill his promise to bear witness on behalf of those “turned to smoke”.
In the book Dawn, the character decides whether he will kill, take revenge. In The Accident, the character wrestles with the pull to commit suicide. In Town Beyond the Wall he takes on those who stand by and do nothing, the culpability of those who hide behind their “neutrality” as spectators and observers as if denial can keep their hands clean.
In Gates of the Forest living becomes a protest against an all powerful and morally corrupt God. There is a scene at the end of that book that I must have read 100 times. Holocaust survivors are ecstatically dancing, angry, defiant, pronouncing God as less moral than they are and that God is the one in need of forgiveness. In that moment of rage however, they are deciding to live if for no other reason than to protest against God.
There are no platitudes in Wiesel’s novels, no happy endings, no whitewashing of the agony of surviving and the ambivalence of living, but there are moments of human transcendence, courage, tenderness, love, compassion, and healing.
I will never forget the moment when I saw a newspaper photo of Elie Wiesel throwing out the first baseball in the 1986 world series. It is one thin moment of simple happiness that stands in profound contrast to the thousands of words he’s written that paint pictures of horror and evil. It is especially meaningful because he is not a baseball fan and initially declined the invitation; he agreed to throw the ball because when his son heard about it he was so excited that Wiesel agreed. I have a copy of the photo tucked away in our fire proof safe with our important papers. It sounds ridiculous, silly, but this little newspaper clipping showing a look on his face that is boyish and playful, connected to the happiness of his son, is sacred to me.
B. “God is testing me”
If this premise is true, then God is sadistic. Any parent or teacher who would cause harm to the student, inflict pain and suffering in order to “test” them, would be considered immoral. What exactly should infliction of suffering measure? If God is “all knowing” anyway, why is testing necessary? Profound suffering (as differentiated from growing pains) is not instructive but is destructive. Again, what transforms all suffering is love, care, support, compassion, comfort, and for me, THAT is where the Holy is found, as a Source for healing, comfort, and transformation and10 not as the source of the torment.
Once suffering has overwhelmed, has broken, the mind/body/spirit, causing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex PTSD, Dissociation, Dissociative Identity Disorder, it is not a test. Torture is toxic and cruelty is catastrophic. Sadistic hunger for the pain of others and the need for control over their minds, spirits, and bodies is an atrocity. All of these are evil. When inflicted upon children, these harm our very DNA and create cycles of abuse that corrupt generations.
If we do not heal our shared human potential for these kinds of extreme violence, for genocide, for war upon war upon war; if we do not protect all children and teach them how to nonviolently seek justice, and to make peace within and between, we will not survive.
3. AN EXAMINATION OF THE SPIRITUAL ASSERTION THAT GOD IS ALL-POWERFUL EVEN THOUGH THERE IS EVIL
This is where I believe lies the resolution of the mysteries of good and evil. The notion of an “all powerful” God is what I have had to let go, to redefine. I miss it. I often find myself inadvertently believing it again, seeking comfort from it again and I smile because that too is human.
For me the only spirituality I can credibly place next to Greenberg’s quote is Process Theology.
Process Theology offers that it is the TYPE of power that needs to be reconsidered. We are conditioned to imagine power as force, as domination, as combative. For Process Theology, divine power is love, compassion, connection, and collaboration. God and humanity, actually all creation, are interdependent. For Process Theology, at every moment God is actively, passionately, powerfully at work to bring about the best possible outcome and at every moment God is also but one power among many (human free will, natural laws) and is therefore necessarily limited. No matter what is happening, God is at every moment working with us to bring about transformation, peace, and healing.
I think of this as in line with Mr. Rogers’ message to children, that when bad things are happening, look for the helpers. Stories of helpers, of kindness, of courage, were true in the horrors of the concentration camps, in the barbarity of slavery, in places of genocide and epidemics. There are, everywhere, in all times and places, ordinary heroes and heroines acting with courageous compassion, self-sacrificial generosity, and quiet humility. That is how God works. What we do matters; we are co-creators of reality. God is at work doing what only God can do and we are called to do what is ours to do, where we are called to serve, to offer our presence, our abilities, and our labor.
Praying, meditating, performing rituals, making offerings, and other spiritual practices become ways of connecting more deeply to the presence of God, the energies of transcendent guidance and help, and of the power of loving connections within as well as between. The complexity of our human capacities for both kindness and cruelty, service and selfishness, are explored and accepted instead of denied; this reduces the need to project what we’re ashamed of about ourselves onto others.
• When we believe that the ultimate power at work in the universe is nonviolent then nonviolent resistance becomes our power too.
• If we believe that there is a power at work in the universe that is infinitely creative, then every moment is full of possibility and hope.
• If we believe that no matter what happens, our soul, the essence of who we truly are, is eternally part of, connected to, infused with, the Sacred (by whatever name) then everyone is equal and worthy of deep respect and we are all spiritually eternal.
• If we believe that everyone has a sacred path, a unique calling, special gifts and abilities to contribute, then we are pulled beyond competitiveness fueled by ego and instead instinctively encourage, support, and celebrate each other.
• If we believe that when bad things happen there is a Source working to create new paths and new possibilities, working for us not against us, there is comfort.
• If we understand that we are interdependent and interconnected with the earth and all living things, models of domination and exploitation fall away.
• If we believe that anger is a spiritual gift meant for helping and protection, not vengeance or violence, then we become empowered to seek justice and speak truth to power.
• If we believe that God is within and between us, is interdependent with us, then the question changes from “How could God let this happen?” to “How can I be part of the creative, compassionate, loving power at work in all that is and is to be?”
Process Theology can inform any belief system including secular humanism or others that do not believe in divinity. The power of love, of compassion, of collaboration within and between, is also sacred and transformative.
May the power of compassion and loving-kindness for self as well as others,
of courageous gentleness
and humble self awareness,
be yours in all that is and is to come.