A Bridge of Stones: Trauma, Memory and Imagination

This week we attempted to integrate concepts of memory (from Bessel Van der Kolk) with imagination and art therapy (from Stephen Levine), weaving back and forth across the deep and uncertain void of trauma. We discussed at length the way memories can be traumatic (the trauma is concretized and repeated in action without meaning) or non-traumatic (the reality of suffering and trauma remains, but it can be worked with) and how Levine’s concept of imagination connects to these memories: it is through therapeutic remembering — unfreezing a frozen memory, ‘breathing life’ into it — that change occurs.

After zigging and zagging through wide-ranging territory (how does trauma get encoded in the body, how does the body remember [scents, sights, etc.], the value of psychological splitting as means of survival), including our own stories of trauma that came of their own volition, as if needing to be heard, we moved away from the purely psychological considerations and began to attend to theology.

Considering traumatic memory as a concretization — both protecting and maintaining the pain — we considered the idea of Ebenezer stones as representative of these two realms. Trauma, as we thought about it, gets frozen or ossified into a kind of ‘stone’. We have options of how to deal with these stones: bury them (internally), throw them (project) or manage a difficult but healing middle ground in building an altar with them.

To put the Ebenezer’s of trauma outside of us, to build an altar meant for worship, changes the meaning of the trauma and allows imagination for what these memories both mean and can be. From Levine’s viewpoint, this imaginative, creative act of altar-building, can take many forms: making meals, singing songs, dancing, painting, etc. It is in our creative imagining that we make new meaning out of past trauma, that we use the medium of our suffering to offer goodness to ourselves (internal) and the world (external), building a bridge of stones.

This was really the core of our discussion: not can we remove suffering or trauma, but what meaning can we make of it? How can it be changed (redeemed?) in order to inform us of who we were, who we are, who we might be?

It’s tempting to end a high point, but it’s worth noting we also hit on the critique that this way of talking about trauma and suffering assumes a certain privilege: the ability to get help and healing, to step back and look at suffering in this way. It is not available to all, nor can all benefit from it in the same way. That said, the critique was not that we should avoid engaging trauma and memory from this hopeful vantage point, but only that it is important to recognize our inherent privilege in attending to it this way.

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