For over a decade, I have provided pro bono clinical examinations of asylum seekers to determine if there is objective medical and psychiatric evidence of torture.
As a physician, I have worked with countless men, women, and children who have suffered through unimaginable forms of abuse – people who have lived through indescribable violence simply because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political opinion, or social group.
Whether we meet in a clinic examination room or an immigration detention center, I measure victims’ visible scars and carefully document their location, texture, shape, size, and color. Far more time is needed to gradually unravel invisible wounds, which are often more severe than scars seen by the naked eye.
But – as I’ve learned – people who live through torture are not only victims, but survivors. Through them, I’ve learned where strength is born and resilience lives.
Today is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. About 500,000 victims of torture live in the United States. Though I’ve learned many profound lessons from survivors, here are 7 lessons that I carry with me every day:
1) We are all deeply vulnerable beings – even the strongest among us.
We fear. We feel pain. We break. And we suffer. Merely being alive leaves us with wounds and scars.
Torture does not discriminate. Torture occurs in almost every country around the world – probably about ninety percent of countries, according to a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. Anyone can be a victim of torture, and many torture survivors never figure out why they were targeted and tortured.
Torture takes advantage of our bodies’ most basic needs, vulnerabilities we acquire at birth.
2) Suffering is much deeper than physical injury.
Although each story is unique, there is a thread of commonality among victims of torture. Psychological trauma is deep and pervasive. Frequently, survivors struggle with chronic psychiatric disorders, especially posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
3) We can be deeply empathic.
Sometimes our empathy is used against us. Without exception, the torture survivors I have met and cared for are far more affected by witnessing the torture of family, friends, colleagues, and strangers.
4) Violence – particularly toward the most vulnerable among us – renders us all more vulnerable.
Violence is a slippery slope. Violating our moral commitment to reduce suffering and promote justice leaves us all more vulnerable.
As with disease, the most severe forms of violence can only be eliminated by eradicating their root causes. If we fail, we all remain vulnerable to the infectious nature of prejudice, oppression, and violence.
5) We are strong.
Our visible and invisible scars slowly fade with time, despite our vulnerabilities. And sometimes our greatest strengths, and our capacity to heal, emerge from our deepest vulnerabilities.
6) Primary prevention is key.
There is no formula for predicting who suffers, or how much they suffer. There are many lessons here for how we treat all sentient beings. It isn’t enough to refine practices that appear to reduce pain and suffering. We need to stop acts that lead to suffering in the first place.
7) Vulnerability and resilience live on a dynamic spectrum.
Our minds and bodies do not alone determine our vulnerabilities. Our innate vulnerabilities can be exploited and deepened, or cradled and lifted.
Social, political, legal, and cultural factors can leave us more or less vulnerable, stronger or weaker, resilient or resigned.
In many ways, learning how malleable our minds and bodies are has given me hope. At the same time we are vulnerable to physical and psychological suffering, we are also extremely resilient creatures searching for opportunities to build strength.
But we must also ask ourselves: How does our treatment of most vulnerable among us mark our progress against the deepest roots of violence and vulnerability?