Writer Aminatta Forna is often asked if she was traumatized by personal tragedy and national turmoil. To Forna, the ability to shape your own narrative, rather than having others shape it for you, is ultimately what matters most; being told you are irrevocably damaged becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Forna offers her humble opinion on talking about trauma.
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Trauma is a word we hear used to describe a range of experiences, from fleeing a war zone to being bullied at school.
Author and journalist Aminatta Forna thinks the word is overused, and, in her Humble Opinion, it is time to find a new way of talking about terrible events.
My cousin Morlai once told me how he was nearly shot at a checkpoint after being mistaken for a rebel during the civil war in Sierra Leone.
In 1999, rebel forces invaded Freetown. Morlai was trying to reach home when he came upon the checkpoint. Men and women suspected of being rebel soldiers disguised as civilians were being separated from the crowd and taken aside for summary execution. Morlai’s life was spared when one of the soldiers in the firing squad turned out to be a former pupil.
I thought about the horror and relief of that moment.
And then I said, “Well, you must have been a better teacher than a lot of mine.”
I caught Morlai’s eye. We both began to laugh.
I have thought about that exchange many times. How did my cousin go from such a shocking experience to being able to joke about it? My family has seen what feels like more than our share of painful, you might say traumatic, events.
The murder of my father who was a political activist when I was 11, followed by 25 years of political oppression, 10 years of civil war and even an Ebola outbreak.
I’m often asked whether I was traumatized by events, and I have to answer, truthfully, no. Over the years, I have written a great deal about people who have managed to endure events with the power to ruin lives, and this is what I have learned. The more a society tells you that you are irrevocably damaged by what has taken place, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The ability to shape your own narrative, rather than having others shape it for you, is ultimately what matters most. The power of the story lies in the hands of the storyteller. As a writer, I know this to be true.
Almost any experience can be reshaped, any destiny re-imagined, if those who have lived it tell their own stories.
Today, I look at the survivors of the Parkland high school shooting in Florida, and I see kids who have begun to write their own narrative. They wish to be seen, not as the victims of a killer, but the kids who changed a nation’s gun laws, who transformed their vulnerability into strength.
People who frame their experience within a wider context are often most capable of withstanding painful events. They rarely ask, why me, But rather see the world for the capricious and unfair place it can be, and they have a vision of their role in it.
Individual temperament matters, but societal attitudes play a considerable role in shaping our responses. The suffering is real, but it may yet be withstood.
And so the story of Morlai’s life was never, “I am the man who nearly died for nothing.”
Rather, and in Morlai’s own words, it is, “I am the teacher whose student stepped forward to save my life.”