When she was not quite 8 years old, Maya Angelou stopped speaking. Having endured racism and abandonment issues, she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother when her parents' divorce was final.
In what should have been a happy reunion, Angelou was sent back to live with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Soon, he began sexually abusing the young girl. Angelou later testified against him, leading to a conviction and sentencing. However, he was soon released. Four days later, he was found beaten to death.
Angelou believed her voice had caused this — that her words had killed a man.
Over time, Angelou found her voice again, arguably becoming one of the best poets of our time. Her story of survival led to the healing of many. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” she once wrote.
This is true of all of us.
Behind the curtain
In the weeks leading up to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, like me, you might have noticed Simone Biles’ face and image seemingly everywhere, from advertisements to magazine articles and sports commentaries. She had been stamped with the moniker GOAT (Greatest of All Time) and put on display to near-heroic status.
Only days into the Olympics, she sidelined herself, stepping out of competition with claims that she needed to care for her mental health. A trauma survivor, Biles has had experience dealing with past pain. She has even used her platform to speak hope to others who are victims of trauma and calling for justice to those who have done great harm. None of us would have guessed that she would hit the wall — where too much trauma and stress was simply too much.
This is true for all of us, too, and is not isolated to those who have been victims of sexual or physical abuse. Neither is it isolated to those who are in the limelight. Trauma is simply a wound of the heart. Too much trauma can happen to any heart, at any time, and in any space. There is only so much emotional pain that can exist below the surface before it simply becomes too much for us to bear.
There are wounds we can all see — the physical scars left by accidents and carelessness and deliberate harm. But heart wounds are often deeper, leading many to suffer in silence. These are the hidden wounds of emotional pain and trauma that ebb and flow sometimes as easily as the waves of the ocean. We’ve also only scratched the surface of realizing hidden wounds due to the rippling effects of the global health crisis and our own national fractures of the past year: a new Gallup poll reported that 2020 had officially become the most stressful year in recent history.
These hidden heart wounds are often the most isolating and painful. After Biles stepped out of the competition, some hailed her as a hero, while others stamped her as a coward. Her attempt at self-preservation was both met with acclaim and with criticism. Perhaps this is why so many of us remain silent. Because we will be called “brave” and “liar” in the same breath. Because “I can’t believe it’s that bad” is whispered by the crowd and “Why didn’t she do something about it earlier?” is beaten into our bones.
Recognizing our wounds and the resulting trauma is the hardest thing of all. Instead of feeling secure and steadfast and loved, when we are left to deal with our hidden wounds alone, we feel unsafe, unsure and unloved. Our entire sense of self slowly dies.
The good news is that the Good News speaks very clearly that our hidden heart wounds are never hidden, and that the very God who made us is the God who wants to heal us. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight” (Hebrews 4:13). “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:2). “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
When is too much trauma too much? Always, when we must deal with it without God and without others. Let me offer three practices we can engage in when the emotional pain we hold under the surface is simply too much.
First, seek God in Scripture
The very first thing we must do is run toward God. He is waiting for us. “Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely,” (Psalm 139:4). I am continually struck by how healing God’s Word is when I intentionally seek God in its pages. His love, I read, is higher than the heavens. His faithfulness, it continues, stretches to the ends of the Earth. There is nowhere I can’t go where He isn’t with me.
Sometimes it feels like trauma is like that too. We carry the heart wounds wherever we go. Sometimes, we manage them well. Other times, we are overcome. When we spend time in God’s Word, we find that He is the healer of these wounds. In the darkest and most secret places of our hearts, there He lives, and there He heals. Find a trauma healing Bible plan that can serve as a guide to you as you find your way back to God’s healing love that covers your wounds.
Second, break the silence
In Angelou’s silence, she suffered, believing her words had caused her mother’s boyfriend to die. In our silence, we are more prone to believe the lies that whisper to us: “unworthy,” “unfaithful,” “scarred,” “alone.” Coping with trauma looks different for all of us — some of us run away as fast as we can, others are swallowed up by anger and still others lean into addictive patterns that mask the pain. None of these work.
It is only when we allow another person into our pain that we can begin to shut down the lies that have taken root in our hidden places. Warning, though: We must be discerning who and where we share our pain. This might be a trained counselor or a spiritual director. It might be a support group or a church leader. It might be a friend or a stranger. The point is that we must find someone.
This will not be easy. Like Biles, we might have detractors who question us and, knowingly or not, cause us more pain. But, like Biles, we might have supporters who will walk with us every step of the way from this moment on. Psalm 32:3 can serve as a warning to us: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Ask God to provide you with a person or a community where you can begin to open up, and then go with Him there.
Third, engage in healthy practices
I quoted Angelou at the beginning of this article because I believe and have experienced how relevant her words are for us today: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” If we are to find healing from the hidden wounds inside of us, we must do something about it. Inaction is the most harmful action. Choosing to do nothing is choosing to do something that causes us increasing harm.
As we spend time in God’s Word and find a safe place to share our pain, we, too, can pursue healing as we find ways to let the pain out. This can take any number of forms — regularly spending time out in nature, consistently spending time journaling or in meditation, or frequently engaging in exercises and healthy eating practices. Note those words — regular, consistent, frequent.
Speak words of hope to yourself from verses like Lamentations 3:21-23: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Healing hidden wounds requires ongoing and often care for ourselves.
It also involves reminding ourselves we are whole, wonderfully made, and beautiful inside and out. By seeking God’s Word, breaking the silence, and practicing healthy care for your soul, God will bring healing in miraculous ways.
The time has come for us to stand firmly in the face of our hidden wounds and say with certainty, “It’s gotten to be too much. I’m ready to heal.” Once we can do that, the sky is the limit as to the wonderful work God will perform as we follow Him to become the renewed and restored people He meant for us to be.
The Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin is the director of U.S. Ministry for American Bible Society.