Witnessing from Wholeness

A Reflection on Trauma Stewardship

I recently read the book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky, which offers a deep exploration into the concept of trauma exposure response. While most of us are familiar with the term “burnout”, Lipsky unpacks the patterns in thinking and behavior that transpire when we are exposed to trauma, suffering or injustices as we seek to create peace and equity in the world. The language in the book so clearly articulates what has often felt like a complex idea to me, when experienced first-hand and when witnessed within the peers and institutions:

“[W]e are stewards not just of those who allow us into their lives but of our own capacity to be helpful, and that a mindful and connected journey, both internally and externally, allows us to sustain the work.”

On a personal level, I – like the author and many others – showed up to my vocational calling to dismantle the systems of oppression that surround us with immense passion and commitment, yet very limited internal resources for navigating the spiritual questions that arise when we witness trauma, suffering and injustice. When I reflect back on that version of myself, I realize how much I was leaning into the privilege and honor of being called to help and ignoring the sacredness and responsibility that accompanies the work of witnessing; I realize how I was exchanging my agency for an obligation towards the greater good; I realize how much I surrendered to others’ ideas of what it meant to be committed, to be enough.

On an institutional level, the book provided validation for so much of what I’ve experienced within my professional communities. When confronted by injustices, those of us working towards equity and peace tend to minimize ourselves – our privilege, our creativity, our power, our wellness – in an attempt to shield or equalize in the moment. Yet, in reality, all we are doing is diminishing ourselves and feeding into the systems of oppression that thrive on the notions of scarcity, on the notion that by stripping my power, my creativity, my wellness I might give it to others. Amidst this sense of ‘giving’, we are slowly giving away the core elements of what make us whole and able to show up to our work as the best versions of ourselves until we are completely burnt out because we are too busy doing to take time to reflect.    

How do we “witness trauma without surrendering the ability to live fully”?

In reading the book, I came to realize that this question has been ever-present for me... While I cannot remember a specific time when I first asked it, it has always served as an underlying framework when grappling with the injustices I witness in the world. Presently, as a spiritual director serving those who are working towards more justice and equity, this question is central in how I show up in accompanying others on their spiritual journeys.

When I reflect honestly, it is clear that my experience with and belief in this concept of trauma stewardship is what has led me to integrate spiritual direction into my vocation. Simply naming that my past experiences of trauma exposure response is part of what has led me to support others in grappling with their experiences of it feels really important because our experiences inform where we choose to show up and how we choose to show up there. As I seek to hold space for others to explore these spiritual questions, I want to honor that doing so is part of my journey in answering those questions for myself without projecting my experiences, opinions, and perspectives on others. 

I resonate deeply with Lipsky’s framing of spiritual direction as a fifth direction that leads us back home to our heart center, no matter where we are. Within the text, she offers resources and exercise to explore and engage in daily practices of coming back home in this way. In my experience, these practices invite us to pause, discern and take action that is informed by our truths; to live from the here and now; to give the gift of presence to ourselves and those around us – all so that we can witness from wholeness in our pursuit of justice, equity and peace.

I invite you to turn inward and explore this idea of witnessing from wholeness with these readings: