Fluency in tenderness

5 Questions for global facilitator and trauma expert Selena Sermeno

I met Selena Sermeno at a gathering when I was just out of college, full of naive idealism, and so impatient to make a mark on the world. When I think of myself in that time, I think of hunger. I was just flailing around, trying to make myself feel full (of accomplishments, meaning, friends, access). Selena, meanwhile, was Ph.D. in psychology with a focus on children who have experienced war, an M.Div., and an expert witness for death penalty cases in which she is called on to give the context for violence and healing.

Instead of meeting this hungry white girl and chuckling with seasoned recognition, Selena—who was about 20 years my senior and had never had to hunger for meaning, having survived war, immigration, and so much else—didn’t chuckle at me, as would have been her right. She listened, and watched, and her very presence changed me. She didn’t feed my hunger. But she didn’t make light of it either. I can’t even tell you what she did, exactly, because she’s sort of mystical in that way; it’s like just being around her made me see farther, breathe deeper, de-personalize, and settle into myself.

She’s been a gift in my life ever since. At so many critical moments, she’s been there—sharing a cup of coffee, helping me take the long and deep view. Her answers to these questions, as usual, are such medicine. I’m so glad I get to share them with all of you. There’s a lot here, but I promise it is well worth it.

Courtney: As someone who lived through civil war, among so much else, you've dealt with your share of crises. Any advice for getting through this time for those of us who have been sheltered from such moments? 

Metaphorically, I have had to rely on “every tool in the shed.” Touchstone principles continue to help me more than specific advice. I will focus on the more existential and emotional needs in my answers as the fundamentals of sleep, nutrition and movement are getting more coverage.

Be kind and accepting of our own speechlessness in the face of mounting unknowns. It is a wired evolutionary response to traumatic losses and fear, a built in pause, in most cases temporary. It is not a weakness.

Look to the universal and timeless language of accompaniment and consolation. Reach out to those fluent in tenderness, calm, generous listening, deep compassion, acceptance and hope. This is the communication we want our nervous system to record and will prevent bigger problems in the future. When the blows are hard, let gentle and caring communication be abundant.

Build a mutual team of compassionate allies. It is the fear of feeling our feelings, which often keeps us from moving along. Compassion allies, coupled with daily calming practices, will help us cross the unbearable. Feeling our scary feelings is daunting. With the right support, we can cross the threshold of terror into safer landing.

The grace and wisdom for the next step is often tucked within the folds of mundane routines. The trash still needs taken out, the child fed, the dog walked. Let the path unfold one light beam at a time as life is engaged. It is not about having a strategic life plan, but about doing what we can, this moment, discovering parts of ourselves we did not know existed. 

Consider expanding and/or redefining your concept of family. Not everyone is blessed with a functional nuclear family. Do not let the Hallmark card or romanticized commercial put salt in the wound. Give true love a work out and let it come through a variety of sources, the neighbor, the stranger, the co-worker, etc. We all have an extended family yet to be discovered. A crisis can lead us there. 

Reading has saved me. Literature has led me to the timeless wisdom of those who’ve survived other life’s tragedies and pandemics. I love autobiographies, essays and letters. Timeless books, such as Letters from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Romero’s biography, Victor Frankl’s Search for Meaning, many of the psalms, have given me perspectives which stretched my survival imagination and developed my coping muscles. They have also kept me company in the loneliest of times. Poetry and songs written by people in exile hold me to this day. Thank God for Maria Popova and Brain Pickings

It is okay not to want to talk about what we are feeling and to turn on the faucet of our emotions, very, very slowly, gently and gradually.  We may not have the space or bandwidth to process our feelings right when we feel them. It is the tender compassion for self and the commitment to keep seeking which matters. Tears may unexpectedly flow in the shower, when driving, etc. This is your heart speaking and releasing in its own timing, unafraid of others watching. 

My prayer at some of my most difficult times was in the form of journaling. I felt more focused in this format. There were also times when the fears felt a little too close to my face and staying with the quiet speechlessness was the most honoring. During periods when words could not be accessed, I found that reading someone else’s longings got me unstuck.

Avoid the “positivity cult” if being positive means not giving permission to feeling despair or throws you into comparison mode with those whose circumstances you perceive as better. Feeling despair is courageous and not the same as being negative. Being hopeful in our capacity to face what is in front of us is different from being magically positive.

Develop a reflective practice that safely transports you to your own “heart cave.” Ram Dass explored this concept as the place where we let go and realize our unity with all beings. It is wonderful for our bodies to feel this sensation. Your practice may feel mundane and not everyone can sit on a cushion for extensive periods. Simple walks, moments of quiet and poetry can be equally powerful. The point is to be curious and mindfully attentive to the moments when we relax into our own hearts.

Be willing to seek comfort in unexpected places.  If family or friends or a therapist are not available, consider a crisis line when you can no longer bear it. I accidentally came upon one while trying to find resources for a youth last week. It was like opening a wide door into the forgotten kindness of the universe.

It is ok to avoid people who trigger you into a downward spiral. Even those who love us can sometimes be so reactive that we become burdened by their intensity rather than comforted by their love. Calm, gentle, quiet, generous listening is what a crisis needs, again the language of consolation.

Remember your body and give it goodness even if your mind does not want to. Trauma impacts our health and committing to simple calming activities will make a big difference. This cannot be overemphasized.

The grief of the current pandemic is not a single event that will go away. We must learn to live along side of it and be patient while the steps for new ways are revealed. Minute and simple moments of joy can still be felt, even as things unravel. Tiny daily cracks in the storm cry out for recognition. Finding them must be our practice. It does not take away from the grief but it will offer a way to carry it.

You’ve worked with so many young people who have been through crises. What have you noticed about those who manage to experience trauma with the most resilience? Is there any pattern there?

They are good at seeking help. They do not carry burdens alone.

They have intergenerational relationships in place that step in to partner with them in the seeking of answers.

They are immensely curious and remain helpful of others in spite of their own difficulties.

They find a way to live alongside imperfection. They do not wait to give “their perfect offering.”

They are inspired, not defined, by their suffering. They are engaged in hands on service. 

They have diverse and generous friendship networks. 

They have practices for creativity and play. They find joy in the unexpected.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the mental health care needs of so many people that are being neglected right now, in part because of this Andrew Solomon piece that ran in The New York Times. If you could be president for a day (God would that be a different day), what would you do to ensure that people’s mental health needs were being taken care of?

I would not separate mental health from physical health in terms of coverage and rhetoric. They are one.

There is abundant science on the relationship between unaddressed trauma and long-term health. I would give space in the press to this knowledge and allow it to guide stimulus packages. Mental health scientists would be part of national crisis management teams.

Mental health professionals would be considered essential workers.

There would be a national public health educational initiative around grief management, consolation, trauma treatment, and prevention accessible to everyone through different media sources.  

Crisis communication would be a skill required of all leaders and press.

I would deliver messages that foster a sense of belonging and make interpersonal relationships a priority, especially in lock down.

Dignity and not further humiliation of the marginalized would be a guiding principle.

I would bring the brightest minds to figuring out ways to support those most vulnerable while in locked down, the terrified children, the abused. 

Tele-health, text messaging and phone support would be covered services by all insurances. Preventive care in different forms would be available to everyone, such as peer support, psychological first aid and actual psychotherapy to any one who wants it.

I would adopt a universal basic income to ensure everyone’s basic survival needs are met. Much of the anxiety is financial and this needs to be responded to.

You’ve lived apart from people you love pretty much your entire life. What is your advice about staying connected to those you love and worry about?

This is a hard one, as for those of us with elderly loved ones in other countries digital communications does not always work. It is a big gulp to think about it because I miss so many people in so many different places.

I have grown to accept that I can’t be in touch with everyone as much as I would want to. I have found that developing relationships with those who are around my far away loved ones has been an indirect way of sending my love. These people are often my voice when I am not there. They remind my loved ones of how much I care.

The last times I visited El Salvador, I have found myself leaving some of my clothes, as small suitcase, a book, my yoga mat, etc. as a reminder that I mean to be back. COVID-19 has shown us that overseas travel is beyond control, but the gesture is a concrete message that the rope is never broken. 

My loved ones often give me food to bring back. I will make the coffee or the tortillas last me as long as I can. I let them know how much this comforts me. I take pictures of myself enjoying their treats and share them directly with them.

I’ve been thinking about anger a lot, as you know, and its best uses. You have a million reasons to be angry, and yet you seem like one of those people who has really--in our mutual friend Parker Palmer's words, let it broken you open rather than apart. How do we do that?

I suspect individual temperament plays a role here, not just beliefs. I have always felt hurt, confusion, disillusionment, and sadness in a quicker and stronger way than raw anger. It is not that I do not feel anger but that staying angry for long hasn’t served me.

Reading extensively about those who’ve overcome has vicariously softened my heart.

I have been blessed with a strong network of friendships whose comfort and generosity mitigate my suffering. An indirect effect has been that in their presence anger feels smaller, falls in its proper place.

As a child and teenager, I had adults beyond family who protected me and validated my experiences of injustice and believed in my dreams. I had a minister who allowed me to be, feel and say. He was priceless in helping me move beyond anger.

Having an outlet for the injustices in my own life through meaningful work is priceless. I have made my education work towards my own healing. Knowledge has given me perspective.

I do not see anger as a bad thing. I just can’t dwell in it as a guiding force.

Selena for president, right? Wow, this woman’s wisdom continues to blow me away every time I ask for it. She’s not a big social media person, but you can follow her on twitter or friend her on Facebook. Or if you want to connect with her, leave a thought in the comments. She’ll be a witness, as always.