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If It’s Not “Trauma”, Then What Is It?

By October 4, 2023No Comments

Having now delivered a public lecture that, because of the internet, is now relatively “immortal”, I am now on record as having spoken about “big T Trauma” versus “little T trauma”. In the weeks since that lecture and in the introspective pools I’ve been wading in since then, I still stand behind the vast majority of what I said that evening. Being a somewhat obscure therapist in the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver means you don’t get many kicks at the can when it comes to teaching, so I poured as much of myself as I could in preparation for it. The nice thing about having that kind of run-up time is that even if you’ve said something controversial, you feel reasonably able to stand behind what you’ve said based on the research you’ve done.

One thing I spoke about was my increasing affinity for the use of the term, “little T trauma” when it comes to the kind of upset that does not come from life-threatening, abusive, or life-changing (i.e., illness or injury) events. But even after a few years of using the term, it’s never sat well with me. First, it borrows from the reality that many people have faced dire circumstances for which the term “trauma” was originally coined. Speaking of “trauma” to an emergency physician will elicit a very different reaction from that of a comfortable therapist in their office. But even in the psychological sense, once you see someone who has gone through and has been traumatized by life-threatening or abusive situations, it’s difficult to apply the same word (even in a grammatically different form) to people who, while suffering, don’t have the same level of symptomology. Second, “trauma” is an insufficient term for those whose lives and expectations of it have been upended by unjust circumstances and events. We may have had our regulatory systems seized and held captive by some of the things we’ve experienced, but it’ not the same. I have disturbing memories of kids repeating their parents’ racisms that sometimes crop up, but they’re not the same as the flash and bang of being T-boned or the sudden horror of being covered in your buddy’s gore.

And yet, there is a tremendous sensitivity to the way non-whites are treated. The other night, I teared up while reading Alex Tizon’s Little Big Man. Why? Because his struggle was not his struggle alone, but our struggle together to not only be thought of by others as fully human, but to think of ourselves as God thinks of us.

So what is it then? What term might we use to adequately describe the tremendous sadness I felt when my body and my loved one’s bodies and my whole people’s language, food, dance– my very culture— became an object of exploitation and ridicule? What might I call it when anger rises up in my gullet, not from remembrance of my own pain, but the pain by way of subjugation and belittlement of the people who look, act, and think like me?

It has to be a term that incorporates the idea of peoples, because the people are the ones enduring the suffering. It also has to be a term that tells us what has happened continues to haunt us, even down through the generations. And, as befits one who has spent too much time caring about etymology, I confess I’ve wondered about appropriate Greek terms to pair with “peoples” (ethnos). Baros (burden)? Desmos (chain)? (And this would be a confession because why would one, except under the auspices of a colonized mind, look to the way terms become official in the Western lexicon except by way of Greek? “Orthopraxy”, anyone?) The psychological struggle that has been given to Western non-whites has something to do with recognition of ourselves in the suffering of ones like us, and it does feel like a load we bear. Silently, at times. But something that quickly comes to the fore whenever our more vulnerable ones are sucker punched, pushed down, or singled out for abuse because of their ethnic background.

Why do I think it feels like a load? Because I have noticed in myself a certain relief in being around people whose language, food, manners, and outlook on life mirror my own. I no longer have to stretch to accommodate people who don’t understand. I can relax, taking as givens and assumptions that what I say will not be examined through the lens of my particularity. It’s true that this sounds like ingrouping/outgrouping– the basis for xenophobia and racism– but you feel it differently when you constantly have to navigate interactions as a consistent minority.

And so, what can I call it if it’s not trauma?

I have circled and landed on the idea that this kind of wound is related to grief, sorrow, and shared pain. In other places, I would call it “lament”, but that word in itself is too gentle for the way my body electrifies when I contemplate centuries of suffering; first by way of actual physical domination, and second, by way of cognitve/emotional automaticity (Fanon’s “colonized mind”) that those of European descent are “better.”

But that ache, that sorrow. If I intend to speak of people groups, I cannot think of a better way than to use the language in which the Second Testament was largely authored. And so, “ethnos” (“people, nations”) would seem apt. So would “algia” (“pain, sorrow, grief”). So, perhaps, “ethnalgia”?

It doesn’t roll off the tongue, but new terms never do. I don’t expect the term to gain much traction, but it’s better to use a new term to describe a “new” phenomenon rather than shoehorn an old one into an ill-fitting box.


Where is your pain?

In my people.

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