Many people who have witnessed, experienced or participated in horrible things feel uncomfortable talking about these events to anyone who has not experienced them, often because listeners inadvertently give off signals for the traumatized person to stop talking by:
- turning away
- changing the subject
- implying that the victim had more control over the situation that they had
- blaming the victim
- denying the magnitude of the experience
- cutting off the conversation.
This is a serious problem because trauma survivors need to express their thoughts and feelings about what happened to them. Some people may have resources that already exist in their lives – friends, family members and therapists who can listen and provide comfort and support. Others may not; and may need some time limited, structured opportunities to tell their stories and be heard. The Baha’i Network on AIDS, Sexuality, Addicitions and Abuse (BNASAA), a committee of the NSA of Canada, provides a safe place to do this during their conferences.
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No one should be forced or compelled to do anything, however. The more control the trauma survivor experiences in working through their own experiences, the better.
Listen with an open mind and open heart
Remember – God gave us two ears and one mouth; so He obviously wants us to listen more than we speak!
Those who’ve experienced trauma were most likely never given a chance to be heard; or to object; so the greatest gift you can give them now is to hear what they have to say with an open mind and open heart.
It is not only the right but the sacred obligation of every member to express freely and openly his views, without being afraid of displeasing or alienating any of his fellow-members. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p.177)
Don’t pressure them into talking but be available when they want to talk. Some people find it difficult to talk about what happened. Don’t force them to open up but let them know you are there to listen whenever they feel ready.
It’s helpful to ask “What happened?” instead of “What’s wrong?”
Give people the chance to tell their stories in their own time and in their own way.
While specialized trauma treatment is sometimes needed, having someone acknowledge what happened is often enough to begin a healing process.
Sharing the experience is not the same as confession
It’s important to understand the difference. Asking a person to forgive our sins is confession and therefore forbidden; admitting transgressions, seeking advice or sharing of experiences is not confession and not forbidden.
We are forbidden to confess to any person, as do the Catholics to their priests, our sins and short-comings, or to do so in public, as some religious sects do. However, if we spontaneously desire to acknowledge we have been wrong in something and that we have some fault of character, and ask another person’s forgiveness or pardon, we are quite free to do so. The Guardian wants to point out, however, that we are not obliged to do so. It rests entirely with the individual. (Explanation of the Supreme Body, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Notes, p.193-194)
The Universal House of Justice has also clarified that Bahá’u’lláh’s prohibition concerning the confession of sins does not prevent an individual from admitting transgressions in the course of consultations held under the aegis of Bahá’í institutions. Likewise, it does not preclude the possibility of seeking advice from a close friend or of a professional counsellor regarding such matters. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 26 August, 1986)
The sharing of experiences which the members [of Alcoholics Anonymous] undertake does not conflict with the Bahá’í prohibition on the confession of sins; it is more in the nature of the therapeutic relationship between a patient and a psychiatrist. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 26 August, 1986)
Get all the facts:
Avoid accepting the word of either party before a thorough examination of the facts and without obtaining the comments of all parties
In disputes between believers regarding personal matters, Assemblies should generally avoid accepting the word of either party before a thorough examination of the facts and without obtaining the comments of all parties. However, in situations of abuse, suspected abuse or allegations of abuse, the Assembly should, before taking any further action, refer immediately to Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence: A Supplement to Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies for information on how to proceed. (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 21)
Believe the victim:
Understand that disputes may involve manipulation or lying:
Occasionally, disputes may involve manipulation or lying. The Assembly must weigh each situation carefully, as skilled manipulators are often able to mislead others and get away with and continue their behavior by matching every true statement with a false allegation. Examples of this might be when both parties accuse each other of the same thing or when one party accuses the other of being a liar to confuse the Assembly. This may lead the Assembly to feel that it cannot determine the truth or that neither party is being truthful. (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 21)
Abusers are frequently successful manipulators and may seek to discredit victims or by portraying themselves as victims in the situation:
Assemblies must not allow themselves to be misled by abusers, who are frequently successful manipulators and may seek to discredit victims through accusing them of exaggeration and misrepresentation or may try to engage sympathy on their own behalf by portraying themselves as victims in the situation. (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 105)
Most abusers are in control of their actions and simply choose to act aggressively in the home:
Many of those who are abusers in the home do not think of themselves as abusers, do not usually have difficulty controlling their actions outside the home, generally have good work and social relationships and may even be pillars of the community, a pattern that clearly indicates that most abusers are in control of their actions and simply choose to act aggressively in the home. Unfortunately, this pattern often lends itself to disbelief in victims’ reports of abusive behavior by “good” or “respectable” Bahá’ís and may lead to unfounded accusations of backbiting on the part of the abused party. (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 105)
Don’t judge their response to trauma
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond to trauma, so don’t judge other people. Even Shoghi Effendi needed periods of time to heal when he was intensely distressed:
Many times when Shoghi Effendi was intensely distressed, I saw him go to bed, refusing to eat or drink, refusing to talk, rolled under his covers, unable to do anything but agonize, like someone beaten to the ground by heavy rain; this condition sometimes lasted for days, until forces within himself would adjust the balance and set him on his feet again. He would be lost in a world of his own where no one could follow. (Rúhiyyih Khánum, Priceless Pearl, p.45)
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Don’t minimize the experience
Just because we understand the importance of “not dwelling on the unpleasant things of life, does not mean we impose our limited understanding of the Writings on others. It is just as potentially damaging to encourage a “get tough and get back to work” philosophy as everyone’s path to God is different. The House of Justice has told us:
Advice given by well-meaning believers to the effect that you should seek to transcend psychological problems does not qualify as competent advice on what is essentially a medical issue. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 23 October, 1994).
Let them have their feelings
The way they’re reacting to the situation; and the beliefs they have about it may not be the same as yours. Be careful not to impose your ideas on them.
Concerning the attitude of some Bahá’ís, who seem at times to be insensitive and unsupportive, all we can do is to try to follow the patient example of the Master, bearing in mind that each believer is but one of the servants of the Almighty who must strive to learn and grow. The absence of spiritual qualities, like darkness, has no existence in itself. As the light of spirituality penetrates deep into the hearts, this darkness gradually dissipates and is replaced by virtue. Understanding this, and that the believers are encouraged to be loving and patient with one another, it will be clear that you too are called upon to exercise patience with the friends who demonstrate immaturity, and to have faith that the power of the Word of God will gradually effect a transformation in individual believers and in the Bahá’í community as a whole. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 23 October, 1994)
Trust that they know what they need
Listen to, respect and accept the person’s limitations and requests for help. For instance, if a woman has a history of sexual assault that occurred during the night and fears walking alone, she may request to have someone walk her to her car at night. She may even request not to attend meetings or drive after dark.
It’s not a spiritual illness
The soul is independent of all infirmities of body and mind:
In addition, we know from the Bahá’í writings that man’s soul ‘is independent of all infirmities of body or mind’, and not only continues to exist ‘after departing from this mortal world’, but progresses ‘through the bounty and grace of the Lord’. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 2 December, 1985)
Mental illness arising from trauma is not because a person is spiritually ill:
The statement that ‘only the spiritually ill experience psychiatric disorders’ is entirely without foundation. (Universal House of Justice, 2 February 1994 to an individual)
These illnesses have nothing to do with our spirit or our inner relation to God:
It is very hard to be subject to any illness, particularly a mental one. However, we must always remember these illnesses have nothing to do with our spirit or our inner relation to God. It is a great pity that as yet so little is really known of the mind, its workings and illnesses that afflict it; no doubt, as the world becomes more spiritually–minded and scientists understand the true nature of man, more humane and permanent cures for mental diseases will be found. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p.282.
Mental illness is not spiritual, although its effects may hinder our spiritual progress. For this reason, efforts to overcome them should combine sustained prayer with continuing effort:
…mental illness is not spiritual, although its effects may indeed hinder and be a burden in one’s striving toward spiritual progress. In a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to a believer there is this further passage: ‘Such hindrances (i.e. illness and outer difficulties), no matter how severe and insuperable they may at first seem, can and should be effectively overcome through the combined and sustained power of prayer and of determined and continued effort.’
What’s been your experience trying to be heard, or listening to others? Post your comments below!