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Healing in the Face of Trauma

An interview with Luke Renner on his personal journey of working through trauma.

Luke Renner, used with permission
Source: Luke Renner, used with permission

Resilience is not being invulnerable to trauma—we are all vulnerable in some form or fashion—it is the ability to weather the storm and begin the long journey of healing when it is done. Working through trauma is painfully difficult and unique for every individual; Luke Renner understands this journey very well.

Luke A. Renner is an award-winning director and Hoosier filmmaker. After college, a successful career in television production would send him on a great many adventures around the globe until, in 2009, he would move with his wife and three of their children to Haiti with the dream of opening a film school that would afford a handful of people the opportunity to learn the craft that Luke had grown to love.

As fate would have it, on January 12, 2010, Haiti's cataclysmic earthquake triggered a series of events that would eventually require Luke to forfeit his plans for the film school and return to Indiana to heal from PTSD. Shortly thereafter, Luke committed himself to the task of making his first feature-length documentary—What Lies Inside—chronicling his unexpected and unpredictable journey toward wellness from a lifetime of hidden trauma.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define trauma?

Luke Renner: We all experience difficulties in life. When we are able to bounce back, those difficulties may not ultimately amount to much. However, things sometimes happen to us that overwhelm our ability to regain a sense of normalcy or equilibrium. These can be single events (perhaps catastrophic in some way), collections of smaller events that build up over time, or a combination of the two. For example, a childhood filled with traumas that may seem insignificant to an adult can lead to vulnerabilities that predispose that child to be more susceptible to experiencing a debilitating response to trauma later in life.

In many ways, I think of psychological trauma like a story problem. If we can make sense of what happens to us, we are able to heal and move on, a little wiser for the wear. However, if we are unable to make sense of it, we can become stuck in our heads and in our bodies.

One thing is for certain, while the concept of trauma seems relatively simple on the surface, the realities of trauma can be incredibly complex, both in the ways that trauma forms and in its pervasive effects upon our lives. Because of this complexity and our sometimes shortsighted ideas about what trauma is, many people are caught completely off guard when trauma finds them. This shocking mismatch can lead to shame, fear, and a sense of being “different" that pushes us to isolate and shut ourselves off from our own ability to heal.

JA: What are some ways that a deeper understanding of trauma can help us live more resiliently, especially during COVID-19?

LR: As it turns out, while the concept of trauma and traumatization seems rather basic, there are a variety of ways that people experience trauma differently. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of experience. In many ways, our particular experience of trauma has everything to do with why we become stuck in the first place.

For example, some people cannot fathom healing from their trauma because to do so would seem to imply that what happened to them wasn’t that big of a deal in the first place. For others, healing may feel like saying that what happened was somehow OK, like forgiveness that they may not want to give.

For me, I went through a period where I became addicted to my trauma because it made me feel special (albeit for negative reasons). During childhood, I felt that I was a bad person and grew up with an inability to love myself. When I became traumatized, I received an enormous amount of attention from the people I cared about most, which made it difficult to consider shedding my problem and becoming ordinary once more.

Because a person’s specific trauma response is connected to their own particular view of themselves and how they fit (or don’t fit) in the world, understanding trauma and how it relates to our self-understanding is absolutely critical in both healing and attaining some level of resilience.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope viewers will learn from watching your documentary?

LR: It never occurred to me that my early love for the craft and discipline of storytelling—making ideas work—was an unconscious attempt to solve the greatest mystery I had ever encountered, my own past. This film is the result of a lifetime spent solving for symptoms, feeling my way through the darkness, and unconsciously pursuing the truth that could finally set me free.

As you might expect, while making the film, I ran into some curious themes. One of the more common themes was the average person’s tendency to discount their own suffering as being insignificant or “no big deal,” especially when compared to the suffering of others. Comparison is a huge problem and also a common reality that keeps many people from addressing difficulties in their own lives.

If this film does nothing else, I hope that it leads people to take their own suffering more seriously, no matter how it stacks up against the suffering of others. It is my sincere desire that this film will spark or support the healing journey of others, in a way that is ultimately affirming, comforting, and filled with hope.

JA: Do you have any stories about resilience from your documentary that you would like to share?

LR: Bessel van der Kolk really opened my eyes when he winced at my initial use of the word “resilience” and explained that it’s a tricky term because of its inherent implication that trauma can absolutely be prevented if only we are somehow strong enough. Such thinking ultimately leaves the blame of traumatization on the one who is traumatized, and that really isn’t appropriate or fair.

The simple truth of trauma is that everyone can be traumatized under the right set of circumstances. Certainly, there are things that we can do to be as resilient as possible, but accepting the fact that no one is above being traumatized is perhaps the most important first step in building resilience, as it affords us the compassion needed to forgive ourselves and others when, despite our best efforts to be strong, we are still taken down.

JA: Any advice for how we might support a friend or loved one struggling during COVID-19?

LR: Connection is everything. While there are many limitations on the kinds of connections that we can make under COVID-19, we have not been rendered entirely powerless to connect. I encourage people to think of their loved ones and reach out in ways that make them feel truly seen.

Work to avoid interactions that feel stilted or perfunctory. Instead, consider how you might interact with people like never before. Handwritten letters, moments of public celebration, and even a willingness to ask questions that require deeper conversation are just a few simple ways that we can improve the quality of our interactions. No matter how you do it, the important thing is to keep the other person’s feelings and needs in the center of your mind. And if you find that you don’t actually know what the other person’s true feelings or needs are, then asking them about that might be a great place to start.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

LR: My next project is a book I am writing that was born from the process of making the film. As it turns out, there were a lot of little ideas I encountered along the way that I found helpful, which simply couldn’t be included in the film.

While I am confident about the writing of that book, I have no idea about the world of publishing, so I am writing with a fair amount of uncertainty and subsequent fear over what will come when I finish it. Nevertheless, if making this film has taught me anything, it’s that, generally speaking, you can solve each little problem as it presents itself, and there is often time enough to do so. I guess that’s definitely been a takeaway from healing that I find myself returning to often, the ability to just keep moving forward with a renewed sense of trust that, at least most of the time, things will be just fine.