Handling Trauma Consciously Gives Peace a Fighting Chance: What Have We Got To Lose?

Photograph Source: Marko Kafé – CC BY-SA 4.0

“Action has meaning only in relationship and without understanding relationship, action on any level will only breed conflict.” – Krishnamurti

“The lens of trauma interprets our world for us.” – Gabor Maté, Interview

“It’s absence of truth, not of facts, that creates suffering.” – Ibid

In a YouTube interview with Soren Gordhamer focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian war, physician, “trauma doctor” and author Gabor Maté calls “identification” a major factor in conflict. Once identified with a group, he says, the sense of victimization comes easily.

We who are among the privileged, are not necessarily free from self-identifying as victims. We are not automatically “above” the sense of victimization that seem so senselessly to fuel the world’s major conflicts. Reading famed spiritual teacher Krishnamurti’s words, the victim identity is de facto in place for anyone who does not know Truth as relationship. Rich or poor, man or woman, black or white, transgender or straight, Palestinian or Israeli, the sense of victimhood, our identity as victim, and thus the instinctual need to defend or fight back, is always potential. It cannot be otherwise except by means of an alternative identification. For most of us in the spiritually empty confines of global corporate liberal materialist reality, there is no alternative identity. Thus when push comes to shove, we’re victims.

Quoted in in the NY Times, an Israeli woman speaking about the post-Oct. 7 reality says, “Before Oct. 7 I was an Israeli, now, for the first time, I am a Jew.” Unless she means an Isaiah or a Jeremiah-type Jew, who identifies with a higher, inclusive value than state, soldiers or self-interest she has decided to identify with her historically victimized group. Her identification, although completely understandable and what any of us would do were we in her shoes, means there will be no stopping the slaughter of innocents.

Furthermore, the woman’s lifelong identification as an Israeli meant not that atrocities were not occurring in the state of Israel in her lifetime, next door, so to speak, but that she remained unaware of them, just as Poles or Germans living next to concentration camps were and could be honestly unaware, just as educated Americans like me were honestly unaware of our genocidal history, of the reality of slavery, of atrocities done to indigenous children at government schools, etc. So awareness – having the facts in front of me – asking and seeking to know – is an important first step. But the causes of conflict and war-making go to a deeper place in the psyche than can be addressed by reason and facts alone. The decisive component on the side of peace is the basic identification that informs one for life, a spiritual matter. Further, I would argue, since a person can be spiritual but still be uncritical of the liberal totality, spirituality alone does not change a person’s identification; for that, a kind of religious conversion is necessary.

In practice, religions, as we know them and as they normally are practiced, end up being an identification, a basis when chips are down for victimhood, retaliation and revenge. However, religious understanding is not that. The deeper, all-connected understanding, the basis for all religions, goes beyond identification with a religion or with religion’s secular substitute in our day- the dominant liberal free-market totality. Peace-making is a rebuilding of society from “the bottom-up,” based in a different identification. It begins with restoring local living, with our most intimate and familial relationships, to the community and outward. I advocate for it despite that I mostly fail at it myself. It is the way every person can live prophetically counter to the dominant liberal reality that can do nothing to resolve and in fact thrives upon the inevitability of war and violence.


I write this at the New Year, a time when the horror in the world is being magnified by the mass deaths of the innocents in Palestine. Unlike the mass industrial deaths of the Holocaust, this genocide is taking place as we look on, or at least, as we are conscious it is happening as we go about our lives. But how conscious are we, really? As long as it’s not my child being slaughtered, does this not give me the tiniest ray of hope that allows me to go on with my life as if my life made sense in such a context?

Currently I’m reading Lincoln in the Bardo, a work of fiction by George Saunders, in which President Lincoln ponders this very problem. Not until his beloved son Will’s death has it occurred to him what he has done in sending thousands of young men off to be slaughtered on the battlefield. His wife, made of weaker stuff, has already succumbed to mental illness under the loss. Citizens have begged the President to stop the killing, for different reasons, but the loss of their sons is one; the support for Lincoln’s war to save the union was far from unanimous. But now he knows first hand the reality, the terrible unassuageable grief over loss of a deeply beloved son.

Thus, within our closest relationships may be the place to start for understanding the abomination that war is. However, what happens to consciousness, as in our case in white liberal America, when it is highly unlikely one’s child will be lost to organized violence or structural racism, that he or she will suffer like the children in Gaza, or in Iraq under U.S. sanctions, or indigenous children sent to government schools in Canada and the U.S.? Is imagining grief the same as experiencing it?

In a very different way, it has always seemed to me the place to undertake peace-making – to learn what it is beyond a slogan or a process of “peace negotiations” between warring entities – is within those closest relationships as othernesses. Not with the lucky, harmonious ones, but those relationships that are difficult, that strain every effort to keep creatively productive, those made of irreconcilable differences, those that present us, over and over (short of physical abuse), with the insufferable wrongness of the other person. In Catholicism, there is a sacrament of reconciliation just for addressing the human proclivity toward conflict and intolerance.

The sacrament reflects the profound truth, also expressed in the epigraph in Krishnamurti’s words, that action outside of relationship can only be conflict and is without meaning, without the power to make connection that is meaning. The sacrament reflects as well the profound truth that peace without the recognition of its antithesis in oneself is denial and meaningless. Human psychological development has not kept pace with the relational need to be able to tolerate othernesses, almost as if there were active“forces” that work to keep relationships asunder.

The church has something else that’s necessary for the connection to meaning, which is a story. As indigenous people know, storytelling is connecting. But modern secularists – Orin and me for instance – have no such story binding us to Truth. Though we have the same need as our religious forbears for a spiritual identification that makes the demand of relationship upon us – we have no way to make that connection. For us who live in privilege, it is nearly impossible to shake our unbelief.

Luckily for us, there is one human factor that alters the situation of spiritual hopelessness. Those of us seeking a basis of meaning in the secular liberal wasteland, must defy “best of all possible worlds” liberal identity in a fundamental way. Trauma and traumatic soul injuries, are the powerful counter-story to that identity. Everyone, including those whose who would not venture to the jungles of Peru to take ayahuaska or to New Mexico to join an indigenous peyote ceremony, etc. can learn a process of ongoing story-telling that reminds us of and respects each one’s traumatic origins that are as intrinsic to one’s own mythic story as captivity in Egypt is to the Jewish story or Jesus’s betrayal, trial and suffering are to the Christian one.

The dangers of such an inward journey are real – the shattering of one’s accustomed identity is a risky undertaking. But, as a social healer, the meaning one finds through entering the “pain portal” is unequivocal – Truth is relatedness, all things connect. To maintain such belief still demands faith, but now faith is in what I myself experienced and in my choice to understand it as Truth, as my true story.

Conflict in close – and therefore intensely identity-threatening – relationships between trauma-wounded people is like walking into the cage with the lion. For Who am I to say your injuries are not the Truth, determining the limits of relatedness, and my story just a cover-up for my flawed being? The purpose of one’s story, though, is not like the gospel story read in church; it’s not told so that the other will or can agree with its Truth. It works shamanically to keep my soul alive which is not just my obligation but my sanity. That is, my story reassures me I’m not insane against the power of an other’s unintended “evil eye” (unconsciousness) that can make me feel unsafe and insane! Insanity is precisely feeling myself to be worthless, failed, wrong, bad, the collapsed identity of a dead soul.

Moreover, my story removes me from victimhood. It makes me strong enough to keep my heart open to the impossible occurring – that the “lion” will, though in a trauma-dominated, regressed state, wake up again to the sunlight in his own soul, and lie down with the lamb.


My knowledge of intimate peace-making – such as it is – comes from my own experiences in the lion’s cage, in marriage. This year has brought an especially severe case of Orin’s holiday depression. Possibly the trauma we experienced this year in relation to our failing coffeeshop business made a bigger space in him for the old identity. As long as the depression remains in place, we are prone to impulsive and reactive behaviors, unrelieved by higher frontal cortex brain functioning. Until/unless relationship is “understood.” that is, until, in relationship, we achieve a sense of mutual safety we can’t escape the destructive belief that you – in a godlike way – hold the power over my happiness and are unnaturally withholding it from me.

Besides being usually the one of us who suggests the need to use techniques for safety building learned in psychotherapy, I also depend upon the storytelling action of my writing to free myself from that self-defeating belief in my victimhood. The act of listening for the words to come to me, what I mean to say, connects me again with relational Truth.

I do not know – but have many times wondered – why this relational, “shamanic” burden fell on me. I have told myself perhaps it is particularly the woman’s part to keep this connection alive. Not just because she is pathetically dependent, as conventional wisdom might diagnose it, but because she has something to say in relationship that is not being said, which is the truth of relationship. Would one say it if one’s partner were a violent psychopath? No. What about someone with an especially severe case of the PTSD which, some prophetic voices are now saying, is endemic in modern industrial alienated society? You mean compromise my non-negotiable freedom to remain loyal for better/for worse? Hmmmm. I need to think about that!

The in-common universally upheld liberal reality – the “myth of the normal” – that was my identification through over half my life is the common enemy; its a conspiracy denying the reality of the trauma I actually experienced. To this day, since there is no living witness, even my brothers do not have this consciousness of the near fatal soul wound of being insufficiently mothered – held, fussed over, hugged, cherished. Depressed, my mother had no energy for the “excess” affection that mothering is! Caught in the myth, underneath whatever social personality I can muster, I can only self-nullify, be a misfit, wrong, worthless, at war with myself. Caught in victimhood, in PTSD shame and unwantedness, when I lose that larger identification (Truth), I’m weak, lacking the excess energy to make peace.

Feminism went part of the way in rebelling against the hierarchical arrangements that held patriarchal social reality together, but as a movement, feminism stubbornly resists rebelling against liberal reality itself in order to find the identification necessary to be an unqualified peace-maker.

If we are to identify with something other than relative truth (i.e., the myth of the liberal free-market normal), and given upbringings in liberalism’s triumphant relativizing of truth, educated middle class white people, the people of privilege, are in position and must be pioneers in faith building. It is our obligation if we are to be valid voices for peace, to build connection between antimonies, between incommensurables, between enemies who must yet make peace. This work depends on creativity and art, and it is the burden of those who are creators and artists to use their special insights to make peace.

The persistent dream of peace cannot survive the denial of trauma. We live in a context that traumatizes. Only love is stronger than trauma, than the fear and anger motivations coming off our deep, original disappointments and the scars we carry from those. It’s possible that, realistically, what can be overcome through our different identification – our otherness – is not more than the terrible feeling of unsafety; two people – and two peoples – can be convinced the space they share together is safe for their souls and this may be all of heaven we may rightly expect on earth!

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.