PTSD Spirituality: Finding Redemption in Our Stories and Our Art

I read a powerful essay by a Marine Corps Captain who reflected on his service in Afghanistan. CPT Timothy Kudo notes the apparent disconnect most Americans have between what happens in the States and what our military must contend with in Afghanistan.  While his observations are certainly true concerning how “normal Americans” (whoever they are) can’t grasp the trauma, fog, and deadly uncertainty of war, his observations also apply to victims of rape, abuse, and medical catastrophes in America.

Timothy Kudo’s essay, “On War and Redemption,” published in today’s New York Times online edition begins with

When I returned from Afghanistan this past spring, a civilian friend asked, “Is it good to be back?” It was the first time someone had asked, and I answered honestly. But I won’t do that again. We weren’t ready for that conversation. Instead, when people ask, I make it easy for everyone by responding, “It’s fine.” That’s a lie, though. It’s not fine.

Protecting Others from the Truth

Often when people ask a trauma survivor how they are we learn the hard way that most people cannot stand the truth. 

Both in the context of my military service, and my present context as a guy who is physically disabled and who has PTSD, I discover most people don’t really want to know how I am (let alone who I am). 

It would probably take 20-30 minutes to say how I really am at any given moment – and that only has to do with my physical health.

In my discussions with rape survivors and clergy abuse survivors, two categories that can easily overlap, they mention that people will insist on being told how they really are, but when told they cannot handle it.

So, we learn to lie.  We learn as Timothy Kudo has learned that we have to tell people we are fine, when we are not.  Kudo mentions that they “weren’t ready for that conversation.”  All too often people want to plunge into our traumatic history and they, and we, discover they cannot handle it.

Why Can’t People Handle the Truth?

Two Reasons, Really:

Reason #1: They can’t imagine it happening.

Many people don’t want the truth because they cannot handle the details.  They cannot fathom the amount of emotional and physical pain we contend with every day.  They cannot grasp the wounding of our spirits that the trauma and the subsequent PTSD has inflicted upon us.

This is why some people call us liars or insinuate that we are exaggerating or faking about what we experienced.  If our experience and subsequent PTSD soul wounds are this bad, then their quaint, “get over it, you’re safe now,” slogans fail with us.

Reason #2: Denial that these things happen.

If people recognize our trauma and our PTSD, then they are recognizing that we have experienced a huge injustice.  This applies to the military trauma and traumas experienced as a civilian. 

Many folks don’t want to admit that such horrible, out of control, injustices, physical and moral outrages, can occur.  If they admitted it, then they would be obligated to do something about it.  Easier to deny the severity of the trauma and that it could wound our souls.

Easier to Tell a Lie and Avoid the Toxicity

Thus, we often tell lies.  People ask how we are and we say we are fine. 

We realize that so many people perpetrate “Drive-By Caring” where they ask how we are, but they don’t really care or want to hear a truthful response.

Sometimes we are beset by “Limelighters,” Those who want to be in the Lime Light at our expense. These are the ones who want others to see they are caring, but will not help us if they don’t have an audience to observe their acts of mercy and kindness.

When we are accosted by Limelighters and people who do Drive-By Caring, we simply find it less vicious to tell a lie and say we are fine.  We don’t get humiliated.  We don’t get patronized as much by someone who refuses or is congenitally unable to understand what happened.

Important to Find a Real Listener

This is why it is crucial to find someone who you can trust.  Find someone who is more interested in you than staring at their Blackberry (Crack-Berry?) or iPhone every 3 minutes.

We can heal through the telling and acceptance of our stories. 

We need to write our stories down, write poetry, songs, craft paintings, plays and sculptures to help us understand what we went through and how it has affected us. 

If an honest person listens to us, we can heal.  If a selfish person hears us, they will further wound us by offering denials, comparisons to others, judgments, and interruptions.

Fortunate is the person who has a conversation partner who respects their humanity so much that they actually listen to us.

One of those Conversation Partners is God

If we feel we cannot talk to God directly we can still speak our experience and seek truth in our actions.  These actions become a form of worship and healing.

Any form of art, craft, writing, or music can also be a prayer.  Art and craft heals wounded souls. 

Unlike a talk-radio host, God wants to hear you.  God wants to help you heal.  There are dozens and dozens of ways to pray and talk to God – some even involve words.  But God is the ultimate conversation partner. 

In the telling of our stories and subsequent PTSD journey we realize we are not alone.  We realize that all life has value and is created in the Image and Likeness of God. 

Don’t let the Limelighters and Drive-By Caring fools harm you.  Your trauma is real, it is yours, it has affected you, and you can share it with the right people and you can always share it with God.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z


  1. May I recommend that you read Dennis Prager’s essay in response to Timothy Kudo’s article. The simple fact is that Mr. Kudo – and those who applaud his ideas – are frighteningly misguided. Rather than elaborate here, I point you to Dennis Prager’s article, which intelligently explains why. But I will explain my use of the word ‘frighteningly’. When a nation as a whole embraces pacifism, it sets itself up as an easy-target for the evil bullies of this world – such as Hitler – who unfortunately manifest from time to time. If you know your history you will know that, with barely a second thought, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium and Holland. Why? Because they were weak-willed pacifist nations. He enslaved them – which is ALWAYS the fate of pacifists. But Hitler then hesitated to invade tiny England. Why? Because it projected a clear image of being a nation willing to fight – and kill – to the last man. Hitler hesitated and lost – and the world was literally saved. Such is the differences between nations that embrace pacifism and those who, with their morals in the right place, know that it is morally correct to kill wrongdoers. All of which is why people like Dennis Prager and myself correctly identify people like Timothy Kudo and yourselves as being morally confused.

    • Hi there! Hey! Thanks for the tips! Speaking of pacifism, my students are often surprised to discover that there is more than just one kind. Indeed, there are quite a few different types of pacifism: Mark Allman, in his book, “Who Would Jesus Kill?”, explains the wide array of the different types of pacifism – as well as the different types of Just War Theory. I am guessing that Mr Prager may not have an interest in Allman’s book. Since you kindly offered “Hitler” up in your comment, there is also a nice study titled “What About Hitler?” which seeks to examine some of your concerns (The author is Robert W. Brimlow, in case you are interested). That said, I am glad you came by the website and felt compelled enough by my essay, and the work of Mr Kudo, to offer me instruction in ethics and history both. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. Dr. Z,
    Thank you for keeping me in prayer. Your kindness is valued greatly. Sorry to hear the classes take such a toll. The challenges of accepting limitations is one I’m beginning to learn myself – the emotional side often the hardest. I pray for the “Wisdom to Know the Difference”, and hopefully the Dr. will give some good feedback today.
    Yes, I admit some measure of cowardice in looking back; wishing God had given a sign, allowing me to “run and hide”. But alas, no burning bush, not even a smoldering sagebrush.
    Working on an animation of The 23rd & 1/2 Psalm….
    Thank you for the support you offer to those around you.

  3. Dr. Z,
    Sorry it’s taken so long for me to form my thoughts. Haven’t seen much from you for a while, and am keeping you in my prayers.
    Thank you for all you share. Your writings help tremendously to understand my symptoms, triggers, as well as other’s responses. I wished we had a drinking “test” like God gave Gideon, (Judges 7:4) to identify who had the “ability” to venture forth.
    Your writings, help me realize my friends aren’t intentionally being cruel. They are convinced playing “devil’s advocate” is helpful, even when they clearly don’t know the facts.
    Since age 15, I’ve been confidant to many Vets and former POWs (most Viet Nam era), and am shocked to hear some of the questions asked of Vets (or others) these days. Is it just the video game influence? or something else? I always considered it an honor to be trusted by a friend/Vet enough for them to open up. It never occurred to me to challenge the facts, their decisions, their emotions, or to pry with voyeuristic questions. Hopefully, I’ve been mostly supportive.
    In retrospect, I acknowledge other situations / conversations when I’ve been caught off-guard and responded to a friend’s vulnerability less healthy than I’d like. Thankfully, God has allowed me to make some amends, and will hopefully continue to guide me, in humility, to be forgiving of those who respond to me from their own fears.
    Sending a conceptual art piece on “Terror Management” via email, to avoid offending anyone with my “dark humor”. Hope it finds you well.

    • Hi Russ, Good to know you are hanging in there. I’ve had you in thought and prayer. I finally finished one of the physically hardest semesters of teaching. Been sick a lot, hurting, and run down. Also trying to help folks one on one as I can. I look fwd to a few weeks of rest before I am back in the classroom. I love the act of teaching and exploring theology with undergraduates, but it wears me down quite a bit. Indeed, 2011-12 will probably be focused on adjusting to even fewer physical abilities…insert my violin music here! Not sure which is harder on me, the lack of the actual abilities or the frustration at the lack?
      Speaking of Gideon, I don’t wonder, by the time it was all over, if some of those guys did not wish they had drank directly from the stream. I’ll look fwd to reading the TM piece tomorrow when I pop into that email…the yoga poses were quite funny.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  4. Hi Dr. Z.
    I really hear you! I just had an unpleasant experience with an old friend (friend for 30 years) who really couldn’t hear me talk about my past traumas. She seemed interested, then said that what I was telling her was upsetting, even though it was pretty toned down and not, as far as I could tell, sensational. I was simply trying to be truthful with a friend I thought I could trust. In the end, she told me that listening to me talk about the traumatic things that happened in my past, made her stomach hurt and she didn’t know what to say. So, yes, all too often we censor ourselves or lie. Still, I have been silenced for so many years, both by myself and others, that I treasure friends, family, and my therapist and doctor who do not silence me. Yes! We need to tell our stories and to find ways to do that, that are safe for ourselves. That’s why I blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important subject.

    • You have a nice website.
      Finding people who can stand our whole package as a person can be difficult, especially when our whole package includes a history of trauma and PTSD. It took me two and a half decades to find a handful of people I can be that open with. Writing, drawing, painting, music, and prayer have all been ways for me to express PTSD and how it ravages the soul. Indeed, this website also serves that function now and then. Many people will express an interest in the details of our story and then prove unwilling and/or unable to hear it or, in some cases, even believe it. Prayer and craft always allow us to tell the whole story in ways that do not destroy us further. Our co-sufferers can see our craft and know of what we speak, but most others will not get it at all. It is key to not allow others to cause us to suppress our story and seek isolation because that is what PTSD wants. Yet, so few are able to really listen and understand. Thank you for taking the time to visit and commenting. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  5. Thank you!

    Thank you, so very much for this timely posting. It describes very well my entire family. Especially on this trip I’m on. Yet I am slowly learning that I always have one to whom I may go to for a listening ear and assuring comfort – my God. On the surface this may sound trite and superficial, and yet He truly does provide a peace that surpasses all understanding. Including mine. And it does not come in the pretty, simplistic packages that so many (too many) offer. It comes in a plain wrapper, which at first, in the dark moments, has often seemed impossible to open. But oh what a comfort when He opens it for me. 

    Again, thanks for the posting and blog. It has been a great encouragement to this one. 


    • An interesting thing about risking ourselves on God is that often only in hindsight do we see how far God has brought us. While God does not cause us to experience trauma or suffer from PTSD, God does allow us to sort out the tangled skein of meanings wrapped up in the initial events, later symptoms, and all of the questions, awe, and wonder we have intermixed throughout after the trauma occurs. That journey out of trauma and its subsequent confusion is made survivable by letting God walk point for us. It often sounds like lunacy to people who don’t have a faith, or experiences that really demand a risk of faith; yet, as we suffer we can still learn to find where authentic peace lies. I find that when I rely on my own strength and will power I will usually be frustrated, if I allow God to walk point, then even if I am in pain I can still be at peace. Thank you for visiting, reading, and commenting…I appreciate it. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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