Responding to the Trauma of War

Responding to the Trauma of War

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel began the day after the 2023 Mill Valley Film Festival began here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was immersed in watching 20 films in 10 days, films of the struggles of people around the world caught in poverty, hunger, oppression, violence, extremism. I saw clearly that what was unfolding day by day in the Middle East is what also occurs in many other places in the world, much of the time. The conflict between Israel and Gaza put front and center the existential dread that the regions’ Jews and Arabs alike live with every day. As do billions of people, of all faiths, ethnicities, nationalities around the world as well, much of the time easier to ignore elsewhere.

My NeuroDharma group met last week to explore what an effective moral and action-oriented response to such universal human suffering could be. And, since many of the group are psychologists as well as deeply dedicated spiritual practitioners, we quickly realized that the human nervous system, which responds to perceived threat reactively and instantaneously – fight-flight-freeze – can become so dis-regulated and stay dis-regulated that no rational or moral thinking is possible until a person, a group of people, a nation, feel safe again. The anger-fear focused amygdala gets hijacked into rage, aggression, even violence, and the higher rational brain is riding a bucking bronco until it can “tame” the amygdala and bring it back into any useful functioning about survival. 

[P.S. An excellent Trauma Resources guide arrived in my inbox last week. Please do check it out for a host of practices effective in calming down your nervous system or anyone close to you that you care about.]

We returned again and again to the ancient as well as contemporary wisdom that it’s really conscious, compassionate connection, whether from a psychological or spiritual perspective, that does the calming, for individuals, for nation-states, for dispossessed groups. Very bottom line: conscious compassionate connection is how human beings recover the sense of safety and trust essential to navigate the horrors and tragedies of war and senseless death. 

James Baraz shared this quote from Marting Luther King, Jr that evening:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” 

And so I offer my own understanding of the power of conscious, compassionate connection to dive deep into our shared humanity and reach across what divides one human heart from another. From my newsletter archives: Compassionate Connection Deepens Resilience. May the reflections, stories, poetry and quotes, and exercises prove useful to you and yours.