Sharing trauma is hard. It is hard to be vulnerable and hope that the person one is sharing with is able to listen and understand the experience. It is hard to listen to someone expose a wound in their life and to maturely respond to it. It is hard to share and connect on an intimate level between individuals, but it is much harder to see your story watered down to be easily accepted by all.
There are certain emotions people don’t like to engage with, like anger, isolation, sorrow and fear. When sharing stories that involve or produce negative emotions, it is easier to gloss over the uncomfortable feelings and instead focus on the events themselves.
Sharing that 400 people lost their homes in a fire is more easily digestible for the listener than sharing 400 people felt hopeless, lost, angry, unsafe and scared after losing their homes. But empathy doesn’t come from facts, it comes from sharing honest emotion.
The Borderline Shooting and Woolsey Fire were terrible events that hurt a large community of people and changed the lives of hundreds. However, repackaging the story to be relatable to the masses does not make it easier on the listener or the storyteller. Instead it removes the weight of truth that makes the story worth sharing.
Pepperdine faces a unique situation as the community faced several terrible events last fall in close succession without a clear sense of closure. The one year anniversary provided a backdrop to readdress the hurt that came from November 2018 and to give closure that was neglected the year before. Directing this closure at a different student body presented challenges, yet instead of sharing authentically, Pepperdine chose to sand the hard edges of November 2018 to make it more comfortable for everyone involved.
The convocation chapel on Nov. 6 was a perfect example of this. Opening the service with an address to all who have ever lost anyone or anything ever is a great way to start an AA meeting, but a terrible way to affirm and support those trying to grieve a very specific loss that happened a year ago to date.
Instead of creating a space for those who needed to grieve and giving those who may not understand insight into what truly happened last year, Pepperdine glossed over the discomfort and focused on the growth. It’s much easier to smile at the wildflowers after the fire or the bubbling fountain in Thousand Oaks, but one cannot understand the sacrifice it took to rebuild if they do not understand the destruction.
Humans are much more capable of empathy than given credit for. One of the beautiful things about hardship is the way it brings people together. Individuals from different backgrounds are able to relate to a story, not because it’s sad or because they too have experienced something challenging, but because of empathy.
I have always loved musicals and the way lyrics can speak to a specific emotion or feeling you have, but did not know needed to be expressed. One of my favorites is “Waitress” and the song “She Used to Be Mine.” The song laments a waitress’ loss of self after an unplanned pregnancy and several other life events gone wrong.
Though “Waitress” is a fictional story, it’s a hard story shared authentically and vulnerably and because of that, I’m able to empathize with this pregnant pie-baking waitress who wishes she could be the person she was before many terrible things happened to her, though I can relate to none of her life events.
In the same way, the Pepperdine community has experienced very specific examples of hurt and loss and the best way for outsiders to understand that is through sharing authentically.
This year’s freshmen cannot understand the feeling of watching the fire creep slowly up the sides of the canyon, unsure of what will happen to their school. But they understand fear, isolation, denial and the crushing feeling they may not be safe.
The majority of the junior class did not experience Malibu on Nov. 8 and the emptiness that filled main campus. But they know how it felt to hope and pray for news from a loved one and the relief that came from knowing they were safe.
However, the community is unable to understand one another if they are not sharing honestly. They cannot empathize with facts and stories that present surface-level truth. The best way to grow and heal is to know how it felt and to hurt with one another.
Instead of panels and video recaps, Pepperdine should encourage vulnerable discussion and the sharing of unseen stories. Everyone affected by Borderline and/or Woolsey has a tough experience with important truths to share, the question is not how to make that story better or easier but how it can be shared, period.
Do not water down hard stories. Relationships die in the shallow end of sharing and empathy can only flourish when we choose to go deeper.
Email Ashley Mowreader: firstname.lastname@example.org