CHEWED PETUNIAS—Transforming Trauma

By on November 3, 2014
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By Susan E. Richardson

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, I was in college and had recently changed my major from geology to psychology. The switch hadn’t diminished my interest in geology, so I watched with fascination. Pictures of raw earth and devastated woodlands came out of the blast zone. Areas spared the direct explosion ended up covered in ash. The old Mount St. Helens no longer existed.

Trauma has a similar effect on our brains. We store thoughts in groups of neurons that wire together the more we use them. The cliché neuroscientists use is “neurons that fire together wire together.” When trauma bursts into our life, the established network struggles to cope with an overload of new material. Often, this flood overwhelms old patterns and cuts new channels into the brain. The old brain no longer exists.

In some ways, this is no different from how the brain works in general. Our brains change from the moment we are born until we die, processing all of the information that comes in and finding places to store it. Every experience we have changes something in the brain. If you’ve ever had that “aha!” pop when suddenly everything came together and you understood a new idea, then you’ve experienced brain wiring in action. With trauma, we receive more information than we can handle, leading to pain and confusion.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens didn’t end with the initial explosion, spectacular as it was. Ash spewed for days. Mudslides and other flows continued reshaping the area. Trauma continues working in a similar way. After the initial shock, we try to put the damage into old thought patterns that no longer exist. We struggle to find ways to put things into perspective.

The younger we are when pain hits, the more damage it leaves behind. We haven’t formed as many mental links, nor are they as strong. New sensations create their own paths without having to destroy old ones first. Young or old, repeated or not, the result has physically changed our brains, which in turn changes our thought patterns.

The metaphor may make the outlook appear as bleak as the pictures coming from Mount St. Helens over 30 years ago. Fortunately, God created us with the ability to heal, just as His created world recovers. We still don’t have the same brain—just like contour maps of Mount St. Helens before the eruption would be of little use now—but restoration is possible.

In Romans, Paul gives us a couple of clues about how this restoration can happen. The idea of being a living sacrifice can be difficult. We usually think of sacrifice in terms of giving up, or we imagine old Sunday School pictures of an animal on an altar.

Learning the roots of our English word “sacrifice” helped me understand in the context of recovery. The word comes from two Latin words that mean, “to make holy.” If we offer our wounded minds to God as a living sacrifice, we allow Him to replace patterns and thoughts that do not glorify Him and move closer to holiness. The second part, transformation by renewing your mind, shows us that healing takes place over time. Piece by piece, we yield to God’s transforming work in us.

Healing begins when we accept that we can’t heal these spiritual wounds ourselves. We may try to create our own defenses or find our own answers, but in the end we must allow God to make us holy. We sacrifice our understanding and our attempts to His restoration. Once we have done that, He continues leading us through the progression.

Current pictures from Mount St. Helens show a renewed ecosystem. The mountain isn’t exactly like it was before the eruption, but the scars have been covered and new life has taken hold. God will bring us to a similar place of restoration.”

Lord, help us understand that no matter how deep the damage, your love is higher, wider, and deeper. When the wounds are all we see, hold us close and remind us that this pain is not without purpose.