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Institute explores spiritual dimension of survival
Institute explores spiritual dimension of survival

By Anne Bromley

Some steps in healing are spiritual –
a matter of getting one’s sacred bearings.

Sacred Bearings journal
Institute on Violence and Survival

Think of the way you can always remember how to ride a bicycle. That’s a body memory. You don’t have to tell yourself how to balance, or to pedal, or brake. It’s just there.

Roberta CulbertsonSimilar memories are not always pleasant. The experience of violence, and a person’s 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 doctor’s white coat.

After violence, such a small detail can precipitate a frightening flashback that plunges the survivor back into the physical sensation of the original experience. The victim’s heart suddenly beats faster. Stress hormones overload the body. It’s 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.

For 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.

“Violence 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.

“If 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.”

Culbertson 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.

An anthropologist who earned her Ph.D. from U.Va., Culbertson knows violence firsthand, but doesn’t 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.

Survivors 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 of death.

Afghan 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.

Orr believes poetry can promote spiritual healing, an idea that attracted him to Sacred Bearings. Whether a victim hears or reads someone else’s writing or writes her own, poetry can connect her to the community of survivors, he said.

In 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 one’s world apart like so many children’s 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 editorial letters.

She 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.

The editorial board recently broadened the journal’s scope to make it more approachable and expand its reach to survivors of other forms of trauma.

“Whatever 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.”


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