Sunday, November 27, 2016

Finding Your Worth

I have become something of a resident expert on Disney movies lately, having seen pretty much every Disney princess more times than I care to count. And although animated features are not really at the top of my must-see list, I find myself enjoying them *the first time* I see them in the theaters with my little ones.

Moana was a good one, in my humble Disney-expert opinion. It wasn't just that her hair was awesome and she sailed her boat like a girl boss, but there was such a beautiful message about finding your true worth and identity inside you, even when everyone else abandons you and it seems that you have failed.

This theme peeked out in three places: in Moana's response to Maui's story of abandonment by his birth mother, in her decision to continue the mission on her own even after it seemed that they had failed and Maui had abandoned her, and in her final encounter with the volcanic, lava-hurling monster who turns out to be the one they came to save and restore. In each occasion, there is a message that you are worth more than your circumstances, or what other people have done to you in life. Your worth is inside of you and there is still so much that you can become.

This message struck me because I have been mulling over an article about the rehabilitation of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and an unrelated article about Iraqi boys who were forced to become child soldiers for ISIS. It wasn't just that these children were abused and victimized. It's that they were forced to become victimizers; in some cases, they had to kill their own parents.

In these cases, the postwar question then becomes: how do you help these children to find their true selves after all they have seen and done? How do you help them find their true worth after their own actions seem to tell them and the rest of society that they are less than zero?

It would seem that there is no hope for such children... but interestingly, a Harvard scholar named Theresa Betancourt is finding ways to help former child soldiers in Sierra Leone navigate that internal hell and come out stronger on the other side.

Her research shows that the devastating effects on their psychology cannot be underestimated. They suffer profound guilt, shame, nightmares, and social exclusion. Girls who were conscripted as sex slaves also suffer PTSD and depression, in addition to unwanted pregnancies and the label of being "impure," even though they were forcibly raped.

But there are remedies that work. Betancourt emphasizes a community approach that teaches children their own worth in a stable social context: "Group interpersonal therapy is based on the idea that the roots of depression, and the mechanisms for healing it, lie in people’s relationships with others. Young people who have all experienced the same ordeal can share support, wisdom, and understanding," Betancourt explains.

"The key is being able to put a word to their feelings: sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, loss of energy, the sense that life is not worth living. We spend a lot of time trying to learn local terms for emotional suffering. Once intervention and problem solving begins, these young people no longer feel alone. Their symptoms start to lift.”

It is so deeply telling that the path to healing after abandonment begins with someone reaching out a hand and saying, "You are not alone" and "You have value." It seems that we cannot heal ourselves, and so much of what is most precious and valuable in us can only be drawn out by the gaze of another who truly sees us and yet still loves us.

Family and "normal" responsibilities are also crucial. "When parents openly embrace their sons and daughters and bring them back into the fold, it not only sustains the child but also sends a signal to the larger community that the boy or girl is worthy of acceptance and care. Going to school, doing homework, and graduating likewise foster a sense of normalcy and regaining lost time."

She contrasts her approach with that of the more typical Western strategy -- which some have tried to apply in postwar societies in Africa and elsewhere -- of bringing in a psychologist with no personal relationship to the children, having the victims recount their horrible experiences a few times (essentially reliving the hell), and then leaving them after a few weeks of "therapy." Betancourt says that this approach actually damages the children even more than having no therapy at all, because the effort of opening their soul to a total stranger is compounded by the fact that this stranger then leaves after a short time. It is a second abandonment.

The article about child soldiers for ISIS is even more painful, since the situation is ongoing, whereas the conflict in Sierra Leone has long died down. And the suffering of those children is just one piece in a much larger mosaic of anger, fear, atrocity, and revenge that has been poisoning so many lives. War does not end after the guns fall silent. It continues echoing in the minds and hearts of people burdened by nightmares, guilt, shame, fear, anger, mistrust, and isolation.

And then there are also the silent sufferers everywhere who have not lived through war in the strict sense, but who carry their own invisible burdens and who question the value of their own life. I think Betancourt's method also applies to them. Imagine what it would be like if people were able to find a community where they could open their hearts and be received with love.

I think that's what the Church should be today: basically a spiritual hospital where the walking wounded are the most welcome of all. The deepest healing comes from God, but it comes through people, and people of good will can be that conduit. We can't see God directly; we can only catch glimpses of him in the love of other people, and in the incredible lightness and joy of experiencing forgiveness.

But those little glimpses and experiences can be so powerful. And when the healed become healers, the vicious cycle of war and spiritual destruction is held at bay.

Betancourt, who has seen enough horror in the stories of former child soldiers, points to signs of hope. "When people think of child soldiers, they think of people who are terribly damaged in some way. But I’ve seen very much the opposite: tremendous stories of resilience, of acceptance, of love in families."

Bottom line: there is still always so much that we can become, but we will always need each other to find out who we truly are -- and who we are not.

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