A ukulele, a murder, and the shadowy road to trauma-informed compassion

Lately my soul has been inviting me on walks through some distinctly uncomfortable territory, through the valley of the shadow, the shadow of death as well as the shadow of disowned emotions and wounds, both personal and collective.

As a mystical idealist, I believe that to care, accept and have compassion for anyone is to embrace part of myself. To revile, judge and condemn anyone is to reject part of myself. This is my radical love-your-neighborself gospel, the good—and challenging—news of unity in practice, with no exclusion clauses. Have I perfected this? Hell, no. Again and again I have to remind myself—as often as necessary—that the light I see in you reflects my light and your shadow mirrors mine as well.

This ongoing spiritual practice was put to the test recently when the news broke that a beloved regional personality, Tanya Tandoc, had been murdered in Wichita. I instantly felt the rupture in the community as an uncomfortable physical sensation centered around my heart. Like thousands of others, I had eaten at Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, knew her by sight and reputation, and been within a few feet of her magnetic persona on several occasions.

As I read the preliminary reports and watched intense reactions ripple across social media that first morning, I felt strongly led to seek a point of peace within myself and find words to share as a gift toward community healing. I offered this:

The only thing I’ve ever found that makes sense of such a senseless situation and offers the possibility for healing in my spirit and in the community is this: every situation is either love or a call for love. 

As more details of the situation emerged, I realized with a conflicted pang that I had a direct connection to the person who’d turned himself in to police and confessed to the killing. Curt Mitchell once sold me a beautiful Riptide ukulele at his music store. My niece still plays that ukulele out in the mountains of Colorado. Somehow this humanizing connection invited me into direct dialogue with the shadow, challenging me to integrate my own ideals by practicing compassion for this fellow human, this person my beliefs and deepest intuitions tell me is part of me, uncomfortable as that may be to consider.

Love, unity and peace were the themes of my 2012 Christmas card featuring the ukulele Curt sold me.

I watched my own reactions as well as those in the community in recent weeks. We are quick to choose sides, I noticed, to align with the victim and divorce ourselves from the perpetrator. The ego’s first instinct is typically to join in reviling anyone who could do such a thing. I hope he rots in hell, said commenters on news articles. He should get the death penalty. I saw a couple of different articles posted on social media about the characteristics of a psychopath, an invitation to an armchair diagnosis that puts more distance between us and the killer. He must have been mentally ill, we might conclude, and comfort ourselves with all the ways in which we are not like him.

But what about all the ways in which we are like the killer? I am willing to consider that Curt and I might have more similarities than differences, starting with a love of music and a history of abusive self-medicating for emotional pain.

I started this post a week ago, without knowing exactly how to carry it to resolution. Then, this morning, I awakened to the news of the Charleston shooting that took nine lives in a church: a white killer and black victims, a weapon at a Bible study, a hateful act in a loving place. Now I have another name on my heart, Dylann Roof, age 21, inviting me to linger a bit longer in the valley of our collective shadow.

When people seem to lose their moorings in consensus reality and break laws and social codes, we rush to answer the question: What is wrong with you? This reductionist approach is abetted by over 300 handy, but subjective labels from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

An emerging alternative is called trauma-informed care, which is based on the notion that we are complex products of our experiences. Our feelings and behaviors are messages containing clues about our hidden wounds. The more meaningful and potentially-redemptive question becomes what happened to you? The search for the traumas that underlie diagnostic labels is the deeper work that can lead to hope for reclamation and restoration.

I cannot imagine killing anyone, but I can imagine myself sitting face to face with Curt Mitchell or Dylann Roof and caring enough to wonder what wounded their spirits, what led to such a grievous breach in their connection to the sanctity of life. To sit with them in the valley of the shadow, even at this distance, is troubling and uncomfortable, yet I cannot turn away. If I want to live in a healed world, I cannot afford to disown any part of myself.

My bias is that we are all born beautiful and innocent, and this makes me think of a massage therapist who once answered my curious question about how she coped with the variety of bodies that ended up on her table, not all of which might necessarily be particularly attractive or naturally lovable. I imagine them as newborn babies, she answered thoughtfully, and I offer up a little prayer: “May I have the privilege of facilitating healing.”

“I imagine them as newborn babies.” Me welcoming my niece Claire to the world in 1998.

I wish I knew how to share the depth of my discomfort here in the shadowland of these issues. I have no desire to sound glib or holier-than-thou. I didn’t even want to write this post, but there are stones of despair on my heart and I am listening to my intuition about how to lift them. I am sitting uncomfortably with ethical conundrums like how we justify punishing killers by putting them to death or how we rationalize sending human beings out to kill in the name of the republic, but don’t support them when they return home with invisible wounds. No wonder the steps of this dissonant dance are confusing in our culture. No wonder victims often recycle as perpetrators.

With a heavy spirit I went out to play ukulele with my friends at our monthly jam this evening. As I played and sang and sensed myself as a secure strand interwoven into the strong fabric of my community, my spirit felt sweetly repaired—as I knew it would—soothed by the balm of caring and connection.

Perhaps it is too little too late, but this healing and life-affirming community embrace is what I broadcast symbolically to all who feel isolated and estranged—this is the gift I offer to those deeply disenfranchised aspects of myself I see reflected as if in a broken mirror—this is my answer to the call for love. May my willingness to confront the shadow with compassion make a difference.

Curt and Dylann, what you did touched me. The idealist in me dares to believe that what I do touches you.


4 thoughts on “A ukulele, a murder, and the shadowy road to trauma-informed compassion

  1. Dearest Marva, Thank you for being willing to bring your light into the darkness. Yes, this is how we heal the planet. I resonate with every word you have said here. There was a period of time in my life when I met up with the darkness inside me. The events of my life triggered something I would never have believed possible from this “good” little girl, this kind-hearted, cheerful woman. In intermittent moments of horror and rage, I wanted to destroy, to hurt, to kill – anything! I wanted to lash out in the vilest way, in order to escape from my inner hell. I had only the minutest speck of consciousness (grace, in fact) that kept me from acting on my feelings. The Pain-Body, the collective accumulation of deep emotional pain, from millennia of trauma and fear, had taken up residence inside of me. When consciousness returned, I understood everybody and everything. There is no judgment that does not touch the possibilities that lie in every human being. Thank you so very much. Your courage to see beyond the ego’s deepest wishes to separate and condemn, is such big love in the world. I might just have to come visit you someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you SO much for your heart transmitted to me through your words, dear one! I appreciate you sharing so forthrightly. I really resisted writing this post because I realize it represents a controversial position, but it was clear that I was called to find words for what was happening in my heart and I would not find relief until I had honored the impulse. Your affirmation means so much!


  2. Powerful! This inspired me to truly examine my own output. Yes, if I can be touched by the actions of someone I have no direct contact with then I should be able to send out my own message. I choose to send love.

    Liked by 1 person

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