Institute explores spiritual
dimension of survival
By Anne Bromley
steps in healing are spiritual
a matter of getting ones sacred bearings.
Institute on Violence and Survival
of the way you can always remember how to ride a bicycle. Thats
a body memory. You dont have to tell yourself how to balance,
or to pedal, or brake. Its just there.
memories are not always pleasant. The experience of violence,
and a persons response to it, is a wordless memory. One
may not recall the components of what happened until something
similar triggers it, something as seemingly insignificant as the
color of pants or a doctors white coat.
violence, such a small detail can precipitate a frightening flashback
that plunges the survivor back into the physical sensation of
the original experience. The victims heart suddenly beats
faster. Stress hormones overload the body. Its as if the
individual is set on alert, ready to switch to the
natural response of fight, flight or freeze. Without relief, the
body becomes exhausted and numb.
survivors of violence from victims of sexual assault or
domestic abuse to refugees from war-torn countries retreating
from others, even from oneself, may seem the safest thing to do.
is so powerful. It structures reality, but it is limited in what
it lets you think, explained Roberta Culbertson, founder
and director of the Institute on Violence and Survival at U.Va.s
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. For instance, someone
might not enjoy the arrival of spring flowers because everything
is seen in terms of whether it is threatening or non-threatening.
There is no other reaction in their repertoire.
a survivor can learn to see and become aware of beauty, he can
get out of this fog of numbness, she said. Survivors
need to become aware of small, safe things in their surroundings
in order to find their feelings, good and bad.
decided three years ago to start a publication, Sacred Bearings,
to expose survivors to essays and poems that express or evoke
feelings they might recognize. The journal emphasizes beauty,
honesty and something more: a way to probe the spiritual dimension
of violence and its aftermath.
anthropologist who earned her Ph.D. from U.Va., Culbertson knows
violence firsthand, but doesnt dwell on it in conversation.
She has worked with refugees and other survivors for about 20
years. While living in Richmond during the late 1980s, she helped
resettling Vietnamese, Cambodians and Central and South Americans
navigate the maze of bureaucracy associated with trying to obtain
health care and mental health services.
of violence can become fearful, defensive or shut down without
realizing or understanding why, and often their children bear
the brunt of their silence. Many Cambodian children even
those born in the U.S. join gangs, some styled after those
of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled the country and killed one-third
of its people in the 1970s. The sight of their children wearing
folded bandanas often sends their parents into terrible flashbacks
refugee Ahmad Reshad Khaterzai wrote a poem published in the most
recent issue of Sacred Bearings. The former civil engineer, now
working in America as a house painter, was subsequently invited
to read his poetry at the Virginia Festival of the Book alongside
other journal contributors, including Gregory Orr, a U.Va. English
professor on the editorial board. Being in that company gave Khaterzai
a real boost, she added.
believes poetry can promote spiritual healing, an idea that attracted
him to Sacred Bearings. Whether a victim hears or reads someone
elses writing or writes her own, poetry can connect her
to the community of survivors, he said.
her work with refugees, Culbertson found herself stumbling upon
the spiritual realm over and over again. It was an area not addressed
by medical personnel and therapists. Violence knocks ones
world apart like so many childrens blocks. This has the
paradoxical effect of destroying faith and exposing one to the
roots of faith all at once, Culbertson wrote in one of her
and Marjorie Sunflower Sargent, who helps produce Sacred Bearings,
see the journal spawning cross-cultural discussions about this
sacred dimension of survival. Culbertson hopes the journal, published
five times over three years, and other institute programs will
enable survivors to say what they know so that we can better
understand violence and its effects. They are seeking additional
funding to be able to distribute the journal for free and to translate
it into Spanish and French, she said.
editorial board recently broadened the journals scope to
make it more approachable and expand its reach to survivors of
other forms of trauma.
their nature, traumatic experiences are isolating, life-altering
and impossible to address with only the tools of everyday life,
Culbertson wrote in the fourth issue. Survivors of violence
know this, but it is just as true for those grieving loss, suffering
a debilitating and painful illness, deep in depression or desperately
lonely. Often, sufferings overlap and so do the deep sorts
of comfort that must be brought to bear on them.