Art as resilient practice

The arts provide time-tested techniques for recovering from the stresses and wounds of trauma. Through the arts we access and process our emotions, both individually and collectively. For longer than recorded history, art has been part of human negotiation of life experiences—more of a sacred rite than a spectacle or commodity. In this article I discuss how art functions to support trauma healing while describing my experiences with particular arts-based trauma healing projects.

Healing properties of art
In order to begin healing from traumatic events, we need to reach a sense of safety and stability. We need to stop the harm, examine and clean the wound and provide conditions under which we can heal from the deep pain of trauma. We possess an amazing ability to cope when the pain is too great, but coping is an emergency instinct, not a long-term solution. The arts can offer a sense of security by temporarily transporting us to a ritual world that transcends pain and fear. Sharing art with others also reconnects us to sources of support and security in our communities.

Dissociation and other coping mechanisms inhibit emotions, sensory processing and memory functions so that we can continue basic daily functions needed to survive. Traumatic events remain emblazoned in memory, yet our brains can block these memories and leave us feeling distant and disconnected. Simply acknowledging a traumatic experience can be a powerful step toward healing.

The process of finding the roots of our stress often requires deep self reflection and soul-searching. The arts support this process by stimulating and integrating numerous regions of the brain simultaneously. Memory is linked to senses and emotions. Creating art is like coming home to oneself: it incorporates body, mind and spirit so we can access and address hidden emotional wounds.

The arts help us to engage our emotions and to relish what these emotions teach us. Art calls us back to our bodies and invites the most difficult emotions into the open where they can be examined. Art invites us to play with what we most fear. Poetry, in particular, allows the imagination to weave words together with feelings. Likewise, visual arts employ symbols, colors and textures to integrate aesthetics with rational thinking. Music, too, uses non-verbal expressions through rhythm, melody and sound to engage not only the mind, but also the body. This kind of holistic coordination is inherent in the expressive arts.

The arts can thus be extremely therapeutic. They can help us mourn—and celebrate—by expressing things viscerally. Thus art, music, movement and drama therapies have all become effective tools for practitioners working with traumatized individuals and communities to engage brains and bodies in regenerative processes.

Healing through song
For me, songwriting is therapeutic. When I release inhibitions, I allow emotions to find voice. The best songs come with minimal conscious interference. While the logical, rational and literal brain functions are aware and active, they allow the body, spirit and environment to lead. Various programs enable those suffering with post-traumatic stress to use songwriting as part of their healing. In some programs, military veterans or inmates use their musical abilities to write songs or partner with professional songwriters to collaborate on compositions. Other programs, such as playback theater, involve artists listening to stories of traumatized persons, and then offering those stories back to them in art forms, allowing them to view their stories from different perspectives. I have experimented with playback songwriting. One song, “Hole in Her Heart,” represents my mother’s story of grieving following my father’s death.

Healing through storytelling
Traditional cultures recognize the need for community support and provide rituals to bring individuals back into the community after traumatic events. Such rituals offer safety, belonging, permission to mourn, mentoring, accompaniment and meaning-making structures. Storytelling is one such ritual.

Storytelling is an ancient way to communicate both positive and negative experiences. Recounting our narratives is an important part of navigating the trauma landscape. Sharing painful stories is difficult, but it can bring validation when we feel heard and honored. Story sharing fosters a sense of connection between the protagonist and empathetic listeners. The telling and retelling of our stories can also be self-revelatory.

Music-making can be a form of corporate storytelling. Singing or drumming together creates and strengthens bonds among participants in music therapy groups. Creating music in collaboration calls for participants to engage personally and communally in the music: stating an idea, listening to the ideas of others and responding to each other, be it in unison, harmony or countermelody, expressing either dissonance or consonance. Through such collaboration, we model and practice desirable relationships.

Gradually, the stories we hold for ourselves make more and more sense to us as we regenerate our narratives. Storytelling through the arts helps us finds new meaning for the past, within the present and the imaginable future. Through art we reimagine and reintegrate worlds fractured by trauma and in the process we grow more resilient. As pain subsides, we can turn our attention beyond ourselves and perhaps support others on their journeys.

Art and resilience
My own commitments to the arts and to trauma healing converged in my involvement with the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program in Haiti, known in Creole as Wozo. Wozo is a reed that grows wild throughout the island. It offers a wonderful metaphor for resilience. Haitians say that wozo can be knocked over by wind or flood, yet still right itself; wozo can be broken off, yet a new shoot will grow; wozo can be cut down to the ground and burned, yet come back stronger than ever. A Haitian proverb captures this resilience: “We are wozo. We bend, but we do not break.”

With support from MCC, STAR-Wozo began in Haiti after the earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. Jhimy St. Louis, a participant in a Wozo seminar I attended, composed a poem about Haitian resilience that he recited on the final day. He and others encouraged me to set the poem to music. The resulting song, “We are Wozo,” has become important in my collaborations with colleague Frances Crowhill Miller. (Listen:

Frances and I, as Sopa Sol, are currently offering a project called Wozo—Songs of Resilience, in which we explore the journey from trauma to recovery through our stories and songs. Each presentation includes space for participants to enter in through their own stories of trauma and resilience. The project is customized for each group of participants and is continually transformed by the feedback we receive. This confluence of songwriting and trauma healing work seems to be an ongoing part of my story, and I am eager to find out where it will lead.

Daryl Snider is a songwriter and a graduate of Eastern Mennonite
University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Conscientious objection: a U.S. veteran’s perspective

Since the U.S. military moved away from a policy of conscription, several generations of Mennonite pacifists have become somewhat apathetic on questions of conscientious objection and military service. The issue of conscience in war—once a key ethical matter central to the Mennonite faith—has lately been labeled as political, a marginal and somewhat irrelevant distraction from the other pressing needs of an active congregational life.

The challenges of war and conscience in war, however, are still very real to many Americans. Many soldiers are struggling and suffering for their new-found beliefs against war and military service. The Mennonite community should not be indifferent to their struggles. Not only does the pacifist church have an opportunity to unmask the ideology of militarism by standing with recent COs, but in helping to secure the rights of supposedly-volunteer soldiers in the present day, Mennonites will be securing those same rights for a time when the draft once again comes knocking to take their children off to the army camp.

The plight of the Iraq War CO

In late 2006, my friend Amy was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. army. She was a sensitive and educated person, but she was also a good soldier and a professional linguist. While in Iraq, Amy experienced the soul-crushing violence of military occupation and war. Like many thousands of fellow soldiers in the supposedly “all volunteer” U.S. military, she began reading in her spare time, and she knew deep down that the occupation she was participating in was wrong. In 2007, Amy wrote an essay on why she was considering herself a conscientious objector to war, and turned it in to her commander in an attempt to be recognized for what she was: a CO.

Because Amy had never once loaded her weapon in the war, and because it was a prop required for passage on the base, she did not immediately turn her rifle in to the commander, who then used this fact to deny Amy her conscientious objector status. In effect, the military told Amy that her deep convictions against war and militarism were just passing feelings. She was then punished for daring to waste the army’s time with her frivolous feelings. The day Amy’s unit returned from the war, she was told that she would be re-deploying in six months for another year-and-a-half in the occupation. Soon Amy showed up at the peace center where I was working, AWOL: a fugitive from the military. Based on my own assessment as a soldier in the war, the vast majority of the soldiers who applied for conscientious objector status between 2004 and 2008 were turned down like Amy.

Pacifist appraisal of modern conscientious objection

So what does it mean for Mennonites that during the middle stages of the occupation of Iraq, hundreds or even thousands of American soldiers were ready to jettison their careers and explore the nuances of conscientious objection? A lesson to religious pacifists who want to monopolize conscientious objection: that someone like Amy should come to a world-altering conclusion about violence and militarism without a traditional religious conversion demonstrates the universality of nonviolent truth. The nonviolent God moves in a theodicy of grace through the experience of brokenness, war and violence to renew the covenant of wholeness. By failing to engage those soldiers who struggle in a conceptual language different from ours with the transcendent truth of God’s nonviolent way, Christian pacifists share in the guilt and sin of the world that forces young people to do violence against their will and better judgment. War is, after all, really a failure of human imagination. Human violence is a demonstration of humanity’s unwillingness to trust the will of God the Creator, to suffer-with and to love enemies.

Comfortable Mennonites, whose children go unthreatened by conscription and war, sometimes talk of peace as if it were some distant eschatological fairy-tale, and not an urgent, vital need. To people like my friend Amy, peace is tangible and present, what some pacifist theologians have called the “moral grain” of the universe. My deep and abiding hope is that Mennonites will embrace veterans and military personnel in the spirit of Christian love and peacemaking, partnering with us to explore the realities of the God of peace. Together, let us worship the Lamb who reigns nonviolently, and let us proclaim God’s peace.

Evan K.M. Knappenberger is an Iraq war veteran and a Philosophy and Theology major at Eastern Mennonite University

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

For a timeline of peace church and broader efforts to obtain provisions for conscientious objector discharges from the U.S. military, see:

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Lettini, Gabriella. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

Center on Conscience & War:

GI Rights Hotline: