Reflections on the “Wisdom of Trauma”

Emotionally stressed woman with head against window, eyes closed

I have been deeply moved by a documentary entitled The Wisdom of Trauma by world-renowned author and speaker Dr. Gabor Maté that was briefly available for free online. In it he offered viewers opportunities to appreciate the depth of pain, loss and desperation that are hallmark symptoms of trauma. His compassion was especially moving towards those who have been impacted by trauma and have attempted to mask their pain through addiction. 

He made so many powerful observations, so I decided to share a few of them with you in this blog. 

He said that working through trauma can teach us so much wisdom. When he sees human beings, he sees beauty, enormous suffering and the potential for transcendence as a result of addressing our unresolved trauma. He states that in mythology it is said that the Greek gods created us so we can suffer into truth. He adds that our job as human beings is to learn from our suffering. 

A drug addict in a hood sits in an abandoned house after taking drugs.

When it comes to understanding addiction, he says that all addiction has trauma at its roots. Our focus should not be on why someone is addicted but rather on why someone is in pain. He chastises societal views of addiction as something someone chooses. It is not a choice. He also condemns punishing those who are addicted because he does not see addiction as their fault.

He continues that addiction is a way to escape suffering. Without addiction a person experiences profound emptiness, and they are desperate to cover up their pain. All that is suppressed in childhood by necessity; things like anger, fear, loneliness, physical pain, abandonment, and the requirement to stop feelings and behave in artificial ways, results in a level of suffering that requires relief. And this comes in the form of addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling or any other destructive behavior that numbs the pain. 

In showing some of his group therapy sessions, he makes it clear that he does not condemn families for the ways they might not have been able to fully nurture their children because he appreciates that they too were victims of trauma, of loss, of the freedom from their own suffering. He talks briefly about how parenting practices that are promoted as healthy and acceptable, like letting children cry it out when they are upset or distressed, create the very beginnings of the trauma that affect someone later in life. 

Backlit of a woman at sunset breathing fresh air raising arms, freedom

I think there is great encouragement in finding wisdom in trauma. It’s a remarkable way to frame, nurture and support others and also ourselves. Maté is very transparent about his own trauma story. He is humble and deeply compassionate towards others. I have shared the link with many people this past week during this limited window in which the documentary was available and have gotten back so many comments. It seems others also found his foresight about the wisdom of trauma deeply moving. 

I am hopeful there will be a way for others to see this documentary sometime in the future. Meanwhile I hope these little bits of wisdom in this blog give you pause for thought and an encouragement to be compassionate towards anyone who displays any of the symptoms of unresolved trauma, especially those caught in addiction. Each of us has within us the capacity to grow in compassion, understanding, patience and love and to recognize the ugliness of self-righteousness, contempt, criticism and condemnation regarding things such as trauma resulting in addiction. 

Invitation for Reflection 

  1. Which of the bits of information from this documentary offer you new insights on the wisdom of trauma?  
  2.  To what extent can you appreciate that there is actually wisdom and trauma? 
  3.  What are some of your perspectives on suffering? Does this information offer new ways for you to appreciate what suffering is about? 
  4.  What are some ways you can grow in your compassion, understanding, patience and love and monitor any tendencies to be self-righteous, contemptuous, critical or condemning when someone you know shows the symptoms of unresolved trauma, especially those caught up in addiction? 
  5.  What are some ways you can grow in your compassion, understanding, patience and love toward yourself? In what ways can you check that you are not unfairly critical or condemning of yourself?