A Story of Resilience in the Highlands of Guatemala
One day during the worst years of the Guatemalan counterinsurgency, soldiers arrived at a small Indian village in the Department of Sololá, not far from Lake Atitlán. They murdered all the men in the village, leaving a community of grieving and traumatized widows and children in their wake. The women had no idea how to support their families. They’d relied on their husbands to generate income through farming, while they raised the children, prepared meals, and took care of their homes. They spoke little or no Spanish; they never needed to, because their husbands travelled into town to conduct any business that required Spanish. The massacre left the women feeling helpless and despondent. It was unclear how they were going to survive.
As it happened, they all knew how to weave. In fact, they were excellent weavers, but they all wove alone at home, and had no experience selling their products in the marketplace. Gradually, however, they began coming together to weave, breaking the isolation that had haunted them since the deaths of their husbands. As they wove, they shared their experiences, supporting one another and creating a new sense of community. The loneliness and depression began to lift.
At some point, however, their weaving supplies ran low, and they needed to go into town to buy more materials. This was a new and intimidating experience. Undaunted, they ventured into town together on a public bus, and managed to communicate what they needed to the shopkeeper. The trip was a success, and it was surprisingly empowering. They discovered that they were capable of doing tasks they’d assumed only their husbands could manage.
Their sense of empowerment only went so far, however. They desperately needed a source of income to feed their families. That’s where the organization Debbie worked with stepped in. It served as a go-between, helping to market the women’s weavings to an international customer base. The income this generated allowed the women to meet their families’ basic needs, and to grow their collective weaving enterprise. No longer despondent, the women had discovered their capacity to not merely survive, but actually thrive despite the loss of their husbands. The way I heard the story, one of the women laughed when asked about the development of the weaving cooperative, saying, “Before our husbands were killed, I could never imagine doing these things. Now we can take the bus, buy the things we need, and feed our families without our husbands. I would never have learned these things before.”
Psychologist George Bonanno has written extensively about the tendency of clinicians to underestimate people’s innate capacity to heal from tragic life experiences. It’s an occupational bias that probably stems from working exclusively with the minority of trauma survivors who don’t naturally recover from the painful or terrifying events they’ve lived through.
I think Bonanno would like the story of the women in Sololá. It’s a wonderful reminder that while people may be deeply wounded by the hardships they’ve endured, their spirits or psyches are seldom irreparably broken. In the immediate aftermath of any trauma, many people develop at least some symptoms of PTSD or depression. We don’t diagnose these disorders right away though, because the symptoms often fade away naturally with the passing of time and the availability of good social support. For most people, such symptoms aren’t really “symptoms” at all; they’re simply natural and transitory reactions to deeply painful or frightening events. There’s a temptation to rush in with psychiatric diagnoses and professional interventions, but research has shown repeatedly that clinical treatment in the immediate aftermath of traumatic experiences offers little benefit, and may even interfere with the mind’s natural capacity to heal itself.
The Sololá story is a humbling reminder that healing can and does take place in the absence of mental health professionals. We tend at times to overstate our importance, forgetting that survivors of armed conflict have been coming together for generations to reassemble their lives and heal their wounds without the benefit of professional assistance. That doesn’t mean we have no role to play, or that our methods of healing have no added value. It’s simply a reminder that just as our bodies have evolved to heal from illness and injury, so too have we evolved a powerful capacity to recover from painful life events. There’s no question that for some individuals, stuck for months or years in Escherian loops of unhealed trauma or grief, professional treatment or traditional healing rituals may be essential. But for many people, the passing of time and the support of loved ones will help them find a new equilibrium, or to borrow from Wallace Stegner, a new angle of repose. Their healing may be imperfect, the scars thin, and their sense of the world forever altered. And yet that may be enough to allow them to live lives of meaning, their dreams and daytime thoughts only occasionally haunted by ghosts of the past.
Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience (Larson Publications, 2016).
 See, for example, George Bonanno, “Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive after Extremely Aversive Events?” American Psychologist 59, no. 1 (2004): 202-208.
 I.V.E. Carlier, “Disaster-related Post-traumatic Stress in Police Officers: A Field Study of the Impact of Debriefing.” Stress and Health 14, no. 3 (2007): 143-148.
See also JonathanI. Bisson and Martin P. Deahl, “Psychological Debriefing and Prevention of Posttraumatic Stress: More Research is Needed.” British Journal of Psychiatry 165, no. 6 (1994): 717-720. Also see Scott O. Lillienfield, “Psychological Treatments that Cause Harm,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 2 (2007): 53-70.