Defined by Trauma

Yesterday the United States awoke to the news of a horrific shooting rampage that took place in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater shortly after the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight. The most recent reports confirmed that twelve people were killed and nearly 70 total injured.  While these kinds of events are sadly too common in recent US history, the scale of this crime rivals some of the worst massacres in this nation’s history. This weekend, Americans are collectively spending time trying to comprehend just how this kind of horrendous crime could take place. But as much debate over those issues that takes place in the next few weeks, the majority of people will have moved on in a rather short time.  Our culture has a generally short attention span, and new stories will overtake headlines sooner than later. Closer to Aurora, though, those who were directly impacted by the tragedy will continue to deal with the overwhelming realities. They will begin to make sense of how their lives are forever changed, and how they will be defined moving forward.

I am all too familiar with the process that they are about to begin. As a survivor of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, I was thrust into the center of an event that defined my childhood, my friends, and my community for years to come. At the age of seventeen, I lost friends that day to sensless, brutal violence. I saw many more wrestle through the darkness that followed such a traumatic experinece. We were collectively knocked over. Life was simply not the same.  And we learned a gratitude for each new day we had in our young lives.  Without sorting into too many details, I should note that the losses on April 20, 1999 may have been exponentially greater if the intended plans had fully succeeded. Propane tank bombs that never ignited in the school cafeteria would have likely killed hundreds, myself included.

More than anything, I remember believing that while that day had marked my story forever, it also shouldn’t define me.  I heard a similar sentiment yesterday expressed by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper at a press conference in regards to the Aurora shootings.  “We are not going to let this community be defined by such an act,” he stated confidently. That’s the thing about experiencing trauma- we can clearly see the power it has to reshape our entire lives, but we generally refuse to give it permission to control who we will become. But such a conviction is one that those who suffer trauma have to wrestle with deeply, and often for a very long time. (see: PTSD)

As our organization The Children of the Nile works directly in a post-conflict region (northern Uganda), we are regularly directing programs that reach a population who has experienced severe trauma. Over nearly twenty years, around 100,000 people in this part of Uganda were killed, approximately 1.7 million people were displaced, and more than 30,000 children were forcibly abducted. (source: Resolve Key Statistics) Our mission is to facilitate sustainable change by providing women and their children in this region with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. We have certainly done this in our agricultural intiatives that we have invested in nearly 150,000 women since 2005. But our progress is always seen against the backdrop of the enormous upheaval and loss the people here experienced. You really can’t deny the things that happened to them. But you also can’t let it define them.

My brother, who also graduated from Columbine High School, but now lives in Brooklyn, New York, called me yesterday to talk about the Aurora massacre.  Among other topics, he expressed the idea that events like this can begin to define a city or a region.  Denver might gain a “wild-west”, violent kind of reputation.  It may in fact be an aggresive place with violent people… or so people might be led to believe.  Those of us who live here know this isn’t true, and statistics would confirm our assumptions. But sadly, geographical stereotypes like this can and do emerge.  And Africa has been no stranger to them.

Ugandans themselves have been fighting for control of the storyline about their own country.  Atrocities committed by war criminals like Joseph Kony are a reality, but Ugandans would also like the world to know the hopeful things happening in their country. They (like Denver residents!) are not inherently violent, nor are they prone to wars. But many of them (like the victims and witnesses to Friday’s shootings) experienced and were exposed to horrors no human should have to endure- albeit on a much larger scale. And they have had to contend with life beyond those events. Despite recent history, many Ugandans are working hard to become successful farmers, entrepreneurs, journalists and more in order to contribute to the progress of their nation.

(follow a few inspiring Ugandans on twitter: @echwalu @eristaus @maureenagena @RosebellK @enamara  )

Emerging from trauma in healthy ways is a process that we should support and celebrate both at home and abroad. (my collegue and friend, TCON Program Director Shauna Gauthier, is a wonderful example of somebody who is working on both fronts!) While we can more readily imagine the impacts of exposure to war violence or gun crimes, we should also be honest and agree that everybody experiences emotionally distressting events or seasons of unexpected suffering. These chapters mark our story.  But surely they shouldn’t define our humanity. Let us hope for healing for those who were directly affected by this weekend’s tragedy. And let us reflect on where we, too, can be authors of hope.