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Stages of Trauma and Brokers of Hope

My friend David Thomas tells me that folks who live in areas where significant tragedies occur (like tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes … and now pandemics) have studied the typical responses of those who live through them. Thy’ve noticed that people who go through these hard things that you don’t get over overnight tend to cycle through several common stages:

The first stage is shock. What has just happened to us? This is the punch of experiencing something traumatic, usually something we haven’t experienced before. We don’t know what it is or how to absorb it. Do you remember that early-on COVID brain we all complained of (and probably still have)? That was something like a shock effect. We just couldn’t think or take it all in.

The second stage is about morale and innovation. We can adapt! It is that get-it-done attitude that crops up after the initial shock wears off. We decide to pull ourselves up and make the most of a hard thing. This, too, has a familiar ring to it. Do you remember when we were all posting things like, “We’re all in this together!” And we were sidewalk-chalking each other’s driveways and zooming nine hours at a time? Yeah, I remember those days, too. We were all making the most of a very hard reality. We just didn’t realize then that it would go on … and on …

Then, the third stage hit us hard: despair. This is harder than we thought, and it is going to take much longer than we imagined. What happens emotionally in this stage is that we hit a valley. Folks tend to close down and pull back, become discouraged by the tyranny of more questions than answers. We are left with more of an edge to the anger, along with deepening distrust. You don’t have to scroll far down a social media newsfeed these days to find people in this stage. I suspect we’ve been stuck in this stage all summer, a stage that has been exacerbated and elongated by racial tension and an election year. It is unsettling to have no idea when this pandemic will end or how the national unrest will be resolved.

But listen: there is good news!

There is a fourth stage, and they say it shows up inside the third one. Even while the season of despair lingers, there are some who choose to look for signs of hope. They come to terms with the brokenness and are willing to persevere for the hope of something new. These aren’t necessarily garden-variety optimists who can’t take negativity, but those who have rehearsed resilience enough to trust that there is a process at work here and we are moving through it. We are not stuck; there is hope. Those who can find their way through the despair into pockets of hope are often the ones who emerge as leaders.

(Note to pastors and managers of people: Look for the hope brokers. They will be your best leaders on the other side of this.)

Of course, these stages are not science so much as tendencies that many people experience in the midst of trauma. And with something as long-lasting as this pandemic, we could well cycle through these stages more than once.

Does any one stage seem familiar to you right now? If you’re struggling with a lot of anxiety or an over-full plate and it all seems like “too much,” I get it. You’re not alone. In my conversations with folks, I definitely sense the strain of this season. Plenty of people are languishing in stage-three discouragement. If that’s you, does it help to acknowledge where you are and to know there is grace for the space you’re in right now?

And does it help to think there is hope to be had, if you decide to go looking for it? Wherever you are on this journey, would you be willing to begin praying for God to move you on toward those pockets of hope? Because hope is there. Jesus has not brought us this far to destroy us, and that isn’t just greeting-card cheeriness. These are more than words; they are a promise. We have a deep and dependable promise from Christ himself, who has told us he will not leave or forsake us. Hosea advises a holy response to that promise:

Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.

Hosea 6:3

Pick pretty much any section of the Bible and you’ll find an invitation and a promise just like this. That tells me God wants to show up, can be trusted to show up, and in fact is showing up. As only God can do, he is drawing up beauty from ashes and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:3). Our part is to go looking for him, to go looking for pockets of hope … and to channel what we find, like brokers of hope for a world in need.

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus.

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Holiness is at least this: a design of life that exposes us most fully to the heart of a good, loving and creative God.