The healing journey for trauma

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Many of us have experienced trauma and how the danger of unhealed trauma can keep us from connecting with one another and with God.

In this episode, our new cohost Crystal Caviness speaks with the Rev. Dr. Ron Bell about his book that teaches us how, step by step, to tackle the important work of healing, how to move us from victim to survivor and explains why the childhood song, “If you’re happy and you know it…” may offer clues to how we heal.

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The Rev. Dr. Ron Bell

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This episode posted on August 13, 2021.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

Before we get to the interview today, I want to introduce you to our new co-host, Crystal Caviness.

Crystal, you and I have been working together for a couple of years now and I’m very excited to have you join Get Your Spirit in Shape, and be the conversation partner for our guests.

Crystal Caviness, host: Thank you, Joe. This is so exciting for me. I’m excited as well to share the stories. We have so many good ones within the United Methodist Church, and to get to be a part of this podcast is a real joy for me.

Joe: Today we’re going to share your conversation with Ron Bell. What did you and Ron talk about?

Crystal: The Reverend Dr. Ron Bell is a United Methodist pastor and author of a book about healing from trauma. And what Ron talks about is how we all experience trauma at different levels, but how not healing that can really stand in our way of connecting with one another, can stand in the way of connecting with God. Something that really was interesting to me was…as he explained in his book, of working through this trauma. And he does so. He lays it out from a spiritual place. He talks about the science behind what trauma does to us. But he brings up this point that the childhood song that many of us know, “If you’re happy and you know it’ actually offers clues to how we heal.

Joe: That sounds fascinating. So, we’ll get to listen along to Crystal’s conversation with the Reverend Dr. Ron Bell.

Conversation

Crystal: Reverend Dr. Ron Bell, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape. You have a new book out, The Four Promises: A Journey of Healing Past and Present Traumas. There’s a lot to talk about there. So I want to start at the beginning. In the introduction, you provide a definition of humanity. And what you said is what makes us human is our capacity to live in connection with one another. I thought that was so powerful.

Ron: Well, I think it’s where we are right now. Right? In order to see all the destruction and chaos going on around us, there is a certain level of de-humanizing that has to take place. Right? Because we’re so separated, because we have chosen not to live in connection, not to be together, that de-humanizing creates a destructive self that we see. And so as we learn to live together, learn to be…learn to be community, all those other exterior pieces begin to mend, and begin to heal. That’s why it’s important to realize that my humanity is connected to you. It’s a part of you just as much as it is a part of me.

Crystal: One thing I really like about this book is that it’s for all peoples and addresses all forms of trauma. But yet there was one specific event that really was the catalyst for you writing this book that you talk about in the introduction. Can you talk about that for just a minute?

Ron: Sure. It will live in my mind forever. It was the morning after George Floyd was killed…was murdered, and having to sit with my 2 sons and figure out how to articulate to them what had just happened. We live here in St. Paul-Minneapolis. And so we were right in the middle of protests and rioting and armored cars and National Guard and helicopters and, you know, buildings bombed out and fire. So we were right in the middle of that. I’ll never forget my 6-year-old coming to me asking if we were in a war zone, and having to explain to him (at 6) what happened and why, and just watching his body respond as I talked about George Floyd, as he saw the images, as they smelled the burning buildings in the air…tear gas in the air, trying to have those conversations watching their…

I’ve got 2 sons, a 6 and a 9 year old. Just watching them hold onto that trauma. And as a parent recognizing that I was gonna have to help walk them through that while still carrying my own piece, right? I really saw on this journey of looking at trauma and beginning to find ways of healing and moving through on-going trauma.

Crystal: One thing that I found so interesting. You talked about this term racialized trauma. And I wasn’t familiar with that phrase. Can you define that for us?

Ron: Racialized trauma is this piece of terror that sits on the inside of each of us when it comes to the possibility of being exposed, or being harmed because we’re simply different. Right? And so you think about myself. A couple of weeks ago I was looking at buying a house here in St. Paul. So a great day, excited. We’re gonna go follow the real estate agent and look at some properties and you know, the kids in the back of the Jeep. Wife was in the front of the Jeep. You know, all of us excited. And while we were driving and I realized I left my wallet at home. It had my I.D. And so immediately I’m thinking, if I get pulled over this can go a whole lot of ways. That’s racialized trauma. Right? It is this thing that sits on the inside of us that must be reconciled, that must be dealt with. And there are so many different layers of that when it comes to different folk and different places. But it’s this idea of there’s a harm, there’s a possibility, there’s a piece that we have not begun to connect with.

Crystal: Yeah. And that definition of humanity is saying that…you know, the book is really a workbook. You know, just start off page one and work your way through it. And it’s all work that we need to do, right?

Ron: Yes. And I wrote it just like that. I wrote it to be a workbook. I wrote it to be Bible study. Get your group together, all of you start on page one and go through. Learn how to breathe. Ask yourself the questions around where you’re at relevant to traumas, step by step, quiz yourselves and then end with the 14-day devotion.  I wrote it to be used as a workbook, to be used as a Bible study, to be used in a collective.

Crystal: You mentioned the promises, and the title is The Four Promises. So let’s just start with number one: I promise to give myself permission to be fully present in my trauma. That seems so counter. We don’t want to be present in our trauma. We want to run from our trauma. So, please, talk about that.

Ron: I know it is so counter. But it’s what has to happen. In order for us to heal we have to be present. The thing about trauma is, whether you acknowledge it or not, is happening inside of you. Right? When we experience trauma, when we experience grief, those blood vessels are being sent from our nervous system out to our extremities. Right? We’re exposing our organs where our brain is trying to figure out what to do. We stop breathing; our heart is beating fast. Our palms are sweating. All those kinds of indications that we are in an unsafe zone. And so our body is reacting. So whether I acknowledge outwardly that it’s happening or not, it’s still happening internally. And so until I deal with that my body stays in that traumatic episode. That’s why it’s important specifically for leaders to acknowledge, you know, I’m going through something right now. I love the Olympics to see all these brilliant athletes step up and go, You know, I need a minute. I need to deal with what’s happening internally. I love seeing people take responsibility and mention to be fully present. We’re all dealing with stuff. We’re all struggling. I’m working on a second book now looking at Jesus. I’m calling it Take Two. And I’m looking at conversations he’s had with folk. And if we lean in with an ear of trauma we might have heard something different. Right? For example, I’m looking at a conversation he has with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane before he’s to go to the cross. When he comes out to them several times and says, ‘Can’t you just stay awake?’ Right? But if you listen through the ear of trauma what you really hear Jesus doing is coming out saying, I’m scared. I need some support. I need someone to just connect with me.

Crystal: I need you here by my side.

Ron: Yeah, I need you here by my side. I need a friend right now. And so when we give ourselves permission to be fully present it changes everything.

Crystal: That’s such an interesting lens because, you know, not to get off on your next book because maybe we’ll talk about that again, too. But, you know, we hear it kind of as a chastising. ‘Can’t you stay awake?’ Rather, you know, can you be here with me.’ Boy, that…that sounds like really powerful…powerful things. One of the things that goes with this first promise, this promise one, is this idea of sitting in the pain, or existing…learn to exist in the trauma. And I really thought that was interesting. You’re not saying, you know, we could snap our fingers and it all goes away.

Ron: No.

Crystal: But what you’re saying is this is how we learn to live in this place with this going on inside of us. Could you tell the story, please, of your aunt Emma’s church? I loved that.

Ron: I would love to. I would love to. Let me say about that first piece first. And so what would I do marriage counseling, any kind of counseling, couples counseling, we talk about conflicts. Right? And what I say is that when we also see conflict as a pastor, we’re trying to get to solution. We’re trying to get a solution. We’re trying to get to solve it. Right? But instead, we ought to view conflict and we ought to view trauma as a geographical location, as a place that has a language that has a culture that has a history that has all the kind of things that make up a place. Right? And so what we need to do is spend time in conflicts, spend time in trauma so that we can learn the language. We can learn how it affects us. We can learn how to be still, to be comfortable, to be present in this place so that we can learn what it has of value to teach us because even trauma, conflict, has something of value to teach us. But if we’re just running through to get to solutions we’ll miss the work in the middle. And so it’s important to just simply be still and see what’s being unearthed here? What’s this stuff coming from, right? Trauma, grief. Conflict is a place that has a language that has a culture that has a history that has something to teach us if we’re willing to just be still long enough to listen and hear. Right? So my Aunt Emma’s church, the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ. Growing up I was a musician. I played saxophone. So when I went to college in Baltimore City I stayed with my aunt Emma. And she was the head evangelist there. So I would go every Sunday to play for her church. And I just was amazed at the testimony service and watching all these people come with such horrible, I mean, just horrible, you know, stories. But somewhere in the midst of telling their stories there was just this engulfing of joy and excitement and the possibilities of what God could do, I mean, just shouting, singing just surround them in the midst of what would seeming to be a sad moment they were able to be fully present, able to be engaged. And there was a transformation that happened because of their ability to be transparent. And so that’s what I learned out of my time there at her church.

Crystal: Well, and that story, that experience, really informed these promises, too, that you wrote about. Promise number two is: I promise to find and/or create rituals that allow me to begin to heal while still in my trauma experience. And it occurred to me that this time in church was a ritual for these folks. They could come in and share that story. It didn’t change the circumstance. But I hope it helped change them.

Ron: And I think it did. I think if anything it gave them fuel to go, to continue to go through. That’s what rituals and practices do. That’s why it’s important to create those. I’m not teaching on post-traumatic stress. This is present traumatic stress. This isn’t going anywhere. This is every day when we wake up. This is the life we are given, the things we have to deal with. And so having rituals and practices helps us to have fuel to continue to get up the next day and go through. Right? Sometimes the importance of rituals and practices.

Crystal: Number three. We just get this wrong. But promise number three: I promise to find and/or create circles where I can heal while still in my trauma experience. We just want to hide when we’re in trauma. But you’re suggesting we need to find places where we can be vulnerable.

Ron: It’s so critical. You cannot heal in toxicity. If I were to cut my hand and place it in mud, my hand is not going to heal correctly. You’ve got to create spaces that are healthy when you…. And here’s the thing about toxicity, and here’s the reason why it’s important to have friends, ministers, family, folk around you because oftentimes when you find yourself in that traumatic space, that toxic space, not only do you feel like separating but you also feel like creating circles that look like your toxicity. Right? And so we end up almost in this trauma bond of these spaces where everything is wrong, everything is negative. And wonder why we can’t be restored. And so it’s important to have folks who can pull us out, who can show us hope. And so that’s the only space where we can begin to heal. And so I remember last year when we were going to the Derek Chauvin trial and I was working with Ramsey County, and at times trial was on 24 hours a day. And so one of the things I was saying to the crew was, you know, you’ve got to turn the TV off. You’ve got to turn the radio off because what you don’t realize that you’re doing is you’re creating unconscious circles of toxicity. The more I listen to the news, the more I listen to negativity, the more I engage in conversation about everything that’s wrong, the more I am creating unhealthy toxic circles. And I cannot heal in that space. You need to go for a walk. Go for a bike ride. Go for a run. Do something. But you need to create circles of healing, circles of peace so that I can move outside of this experience I find myself in.

Crystal: That’s so important because I think sometimes we don’t even realize the background noise that might be interfering with our very ability to heal.

Ron: Yeah.

Crystal: It’s just on or we’re just hearing conversations or we’re just, you know…it seems casual enough, but yet it is going into our subconscious minds. That’s really powerful and such a great realization, just to say that’s part of this, too.

Ron: Everything we experience, right? And here’s the thing. When we experience the world it’s our brain that’s experiencing. Right? So our brain is first experiencing the world in their reptilian piece—that fight, flight or freeze. And then it’s experiencing the world in that limbic, how do I feel emotionally? Then experiencing the world in that neo frontal cortex where I put it in relationship to other things that I learned or saw. And so everything we engage, whether it is the radio, whether it’s friends, whether it’s TV, whether it’s families, everything we engage our brain is sifting through it in that manner. And so it’s traumatic if it’s reinforcement toxicity our brain goes up I know they’re doing this. It just creates a circle that keeps us up in that loop simply because we’re engaging and imbibing in something that our brain has already identified as something unhealthy for us. That’s why it’s important for us to be careful of our circles, to be conscious of what we’re doing and how we’re engaged.

Crystal: I really appreciated, Ron, in this book how you told us the science behind why this was happening. You know, it’s like this is what your brain is doing. This is what your body is doing. It just…it help…for me it helped it all make sense. It pulled it all together. Promise number four: I promise to take authority over the telling of my trauma story from a position that promotes my health, the narrative piece. Man, this is powerful. I’d love to hear you talk some more about that.

Ron: Sure. We have often tell the stories of our pain, of our past, of our experiences, of our realities from the lens of our trauma. Right? And that is a valid lens. That’s a valid lens. I don’t want us to discard that. I don’t want us to get rid of that. That is a valid lens. But there’s also another lens. There’s a lens of the victorious self. There’s a lens of the one that survives. There’s a lens of the one that conquered, the one that did not die, the one that did not get taken away. And so what we want to do is begin to retell our stories from the lens of our victory, not the lens of our trauma. And so that young man I was doing some counseling with and, you know, he had lost his father at a very young age. And so he’s a grown, an adult now. But he’s talking about ways, if my dad would have been here, I wouldn’t have done this. I wouldn’t have done that. He’s talking about it from the lens of the child who lost his father. He’s now an adult. And so part of our conversation was to help him move so that the adult him, who survived the child who was missing a father. And to retell the story of his missing father from the adult version of who he is today versus the child. And so as he began to move from that perspective and to talk about what it means to have survived and what it means to be a man and have his own children, those pieces, I watched his affect change. I watched him sit up straight. I watched the pride begin to swell because he was now retelling his story, not from the trauma, but from the victor. And all of us have… If you are still breathing. That means that God’s grace and mercy is on you. Right? And so there’s a story from your grace and your mercy. You can spend time all you want on your trauma. But if you’ve got a breath in your body, that means that there’s a victory and you can tell the same story from. And so helping people begin to work from that aspect, begins to complete those four promises.

Crystal: In the book you said it’s moving from victim to survivor, and just the change in that word. It’s that victory you’re talking about.

Ron: That’s it.

Crystal: I want to ask you…. One thing just kind of caught me by surprise. You talk about six basic emotions. And they are anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust and surprise. There were emotions in there I didn’t expect to be basic emotions. The word disgust caught me…that surprised me, another basic emotion.

Ron: Disgust is an important…. It might be the most important basic emotion. Think about our ancestors and having to decide whether something was coincidence or not, and having to eat it, having to smell the air, having to sense their surroundings. Is this dangerous or not? And so disgust as a full emotion helped keep them alive.

Crystal: Yes. And I loved how this childhood song…. I loved how you said that was…maybe had more meaning than we even realized when you sing ‘if you’re happy and you know it…’ how that unleashed and gave us permission to really tap into what those core emotions are.

Ron: We have to do more of that. We have to do more of that. We have to be willing to be transp…. One of the things that happens when leaders are transparent, when pastors are transparent, when those who are in charge are transparent, is it gives permission for others to do the same. Right? Often we don’t realize that people are watching you hold your breath. People are watching you not react or respond in a human manner to the travesty and chaos you see arou…. They’re watching and they’re making notes in terms of how they will follow you because of that. And so it’s important to be able to say it’s okay to be you. Right? For me as a parent to model in front of my children, you know, I cry also. I cry, too. It’s okay for you to cry. I cry. I’m sad also. I know you’re sad. I’m sad also. I remember when my father died back in 2018, it was important for my sons to see me cry, to see me weep, to see me go through that trauma and see me struggle with that because they needed to know it’s okay to be human. You don’t have to be hard core or tough. There are so many other emotions that have to be unleashed and accessed so that we can be live out our full self.

Crystal: And you know, you talk about how crying…that’s a…that’s a pathway to healing because of what it chemically does in our body. I found that so interesting, too, because of the endorphins that are released.

Ron: It’s so amazing how God made us, that God put those chemical hormones in our tears so that when we begin to get sad and weep we are made to heal. We are made to heal. Right? I have seen countless folk as a pastor over the last 12 years on the edge of life’s door. I’ve watched them transition. I’ve been there countless numbers of times. But I can tell you the body is designed to survive. A body is designed to fight. I watched people have with no cause to know anything, I’ve watched their bodies fight through that, push through that ‘cause we’re designed that way. We were designed to heal, to restore when all hope seems lost. Right? We were made well. We were made to get through this. And so it’s in our tears. It’s in our blood. It’s in our skin. God has designed us for this world. And we’ve gotta access to pieces and emotional in all those things that come along with that.

Crystal: Well, I have a few more questions to ask. So, we talked about, you know, a lot of things today. And, man, there’s so many pieces to this book. I have really have enjoyed reading it so much. But is there something, Ron, that we didn’t talk about that you wanted to be sure you mentioned, or that you wanted to be sure that you wanted to talk a little more about.

Ron: So, I get asked to do a lot of conferences and conversations with university churches wherever else. And it’s usually around this intersection of race from…and the church. Right? And the principle question I get asked a lot is, what do we do? Right? What do we do with this uncertainty? What do we do…? How do we move through this intersection, or angst, this conflux moment? And so my response is always this: If we can spend the time and work on accessing and unleashing our own emotions, giving ourselves permission to be fully present, and we can spend the time and energy on learning how to breathe…. In the front of the book I’ve have 3 sections on how to breathe and the importance of breathing. But if we can do that work on ourselves it will put us in the best state to be available to others. Right? When we learn how to be human, we can begin to see others as human as well. So, as I think for me providing space for that work on our emotions, space for that work on our breathing, doing the time of going back and looking at when did stuff came from and how we got to this place, doing that work on ourselves puts us in the best position to be able to be available to others. That’s why Jesus had to go away. That’s why the first part of the ministry wasn’t healing people. It was 40 days in the desert. He had to come to the realization of who he was with himself. He had to be challenged by his own temptations, challenged by his own fears, challenged by his own assumptions, challenged by his own desires before he could go and be anything for anybody else. So it’s that work that we’ve got to start with.

Crystal: Which really leads us…transitions right into our last question. There’s always one question we ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape: how do you keep your spirit in shape?

Ron: So, I am a Jeep Wrangler fanatic. I’m on my fifth Jeep Wrangler. And so a spiritual practice of mine…and I know I’m using that word loosely. But I like to get my Jeep washed every week. I need Frankie Beverly and Maze on the radio. I need a big gulp of water, some ice water, something, and just a long drive. For me at some time in the week that’s what I’m gonna do. That’s my bag. And so…that kind of gets me in position, going, getting…you know, of course, the manicures and the massages and the haircuts, and maybe a good cigar or something. But just those pieces that kind of keep me grounded, keep me connected. Like, that’s my…. At some point in the week I’m gonna do all 5 of those things.

Crystal: Those are your rituals that you…how you fulfill promise number two.

Ron: Yes.

Crystal: I love it. That’s great. Well, I thank you so much for being a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. It was just so interesting. And I just appreciate your ministry and you writing this really important book. So thank you so much.

Ron: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It’s been an honor. It’s been an honor.

Epilogue

Crystal: That was the Reverend Dr. Ron Bell, Senior Pastor at Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and the author of The Four Promises: A Journey of Healing Past and Present Trauma.  I hope you enjoyed the conversation and learned as much as I did from it.

To order The Four Promises and learn more about Ron’s work go to: UMC.org/podcast and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. As usual, we put some helpful links there and a transcript of the conversation. My email address is there also. So you can chat with me. Thanks so much for listening.

We’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Crystal Caviness.