Cycles of Humanity: When Do We Rest?
July 4, 2020


By Czeslaw Milosz

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills—

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things 

So that they stand in the flow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

(Housden, 2002, p. 57)


“Pit of the Belly” Mural by Sharon Gonzalez and Raysa Rodriguez (2019) Town of Murals Sheffield, Tasmania AUS

Photo by Kim Bennett (2020) Sheffield, Tasmania Australia.

When Do We Rest?

After studying and contemplating racism in the United States, the pandemic, the Shoah, Apartheid, Central American internal wars, Irish strife, and South American death squads, all I can say is: I still do not understand. Perhaps I will never fully understand. Maybe we will never fully understand the nature of evil and the way it permeates cultures and individuals in the most insidious and unconscious ways. Exploring the processes of healing which includes testimony, witnessing, truth and reconciliation hearings, and forgiveness, has moved me to ask the question: When do we rest? When can a traumatized culture and its traumatized citizens rest? When do we as individuals rest after a trauma? Is to live with and through an never ending range of trauma an inherent human event? Is ongoing trauma part of being human? These questions welling up from within each other beg for some kind of understanding.

Violence, torture, death, coups, political killings, religious killings, racial killings and unrest and the massacre of innocents, are daily occurrences around the world. All of these atrocities are part of the inherent cycles of humanity. The United States is at war in Afghanistan; a war based on revenge, control, religious fervor, and an enormous patriarchal complex which proposes that democracy is a good enough excuse for the killing and reorganization of the way an entire people should live. In this, our government is no better than the one run by Hitler or the apartheid government of South Africa. I do not understand. When do we rest? 

We, as humans, are only one tiny thing among many within the universe. As an integral part of the universe any amount of understanding may begin to facilitate healing. Acknowledging that as humans we will be traumatized is important because healing can also then become inherently human. We begin in early life with the trauma of stubbing a toe, losing a pet, or having a grandparent die. Some of us are traumatized by the abuses of a mate or parent. We might lose a child, be abused by a narcissist, be harassed or injured by police, become ill with cancer, or lose a part of our body through surgery. We could be in a car accident or have a child not return from war. All of these traumas are a part of the cycle of humanity. From a cultural level trauma is also cyclical. We watch as new events emerge daily in the news. A traumatic internal war subsides in Ireland while the United States attacks the Taliban. Genocide continues as the ego of one race, religion, or people, becomes so large it must consume another in order to maintain its perceived superiority; the ultimate in cultural narcissism. I do not understand. Since 1995, there have been approximately forty-eight truth and reconciliation commissions. Enormous amounts of testimony and witnessing have taken place in an effort to heal the catastrophic cultural traumas of our time. It seems that no matter how much work we do on resolving and reconciling the past it is destined to be the future. When will we rest? 

We will rest when the atrocities are not repeated. It is as if on an archetypal level, the repetition compulsion seizes on cracks in the culture and erupts, perpetuating the shadow cycles of humanity. “At the collective level, the big challenge is to overcome repetitions, to surmount silences and political abuses, to simultaneously be able to distance from and promote an active debate and reflexivity about the past and its meaning for the present/future” (Jelin, Rein, & Godoy-Anativia, 2003, p. 7) . We will rest when there is meaning making that feeds the hearts of mankind and quells the desire to conquer, manipulate, and own or manage another’s existence.  Meaning making in these cycles of humanity comes from several key moves: stopping, acknowledgement, grieving, testimony and confession, “engaged” witnessing, memorializing, forgiveness, and compassion. 


In 1994 the first free elections in the history of South Africa were held, denoting the stopping of apartheid (Krog, 1998). About a year later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to bring meaning making to the human rights violations that went on in South Africa for over thirty years. 

In 1996 a 36-year internal war that caused widespread death and destruction in Guatemala ended. After 150,000 deaths,  including over 580 massacres and the destruction of 440 villages, it stopped (Cabrera, 1996). Out of this stopping grew The Recovery of the Historic Memory Project (REMHI) that led to the Guatemala: Never Again Report. Even in the wake of all of this meaning making a sacrifice was made to this new growth through the death of Monsignor Gerardie, the project General Coordinator. This stopping was painful, but with this stopping remembering began. 

On Good Friday in 1998, thirty years of violent conflict ended in Northern Ireland. Over 3,600 people had been killed and 30,000 injured during that time (Watters, 2003). After a year of negotiation the Good Friday Agreement was born. This agreement marked the stopping of violence and movement forward towards an Ireland that could begin to reconcile and promote tolerance and trust in an effort to support human rights. 

The stopping goes on in Cambodia in 1994 after decades of strife, in Chile in 1990 after 17 years of military rule, in 1992 in Mozambique after fascist occupation and civil war that began in 1964, and in 1999 in Rwanda after internal and external battles beginning in 1916. While not all stopping ends in truth and reconciliation, it must happen for any further steps in healing to begin. The violence must just stop.



Acknowledgement on a world-wide level brings attention to the atrocities in each country suffering under terrorism, tyrannical rule, or inner discord such as racism. Acknowledgement of the stopping brings attention to the deflated ego of the particular country or people in question. It begins the accountability process in that it “outs” the collective evil and split off parts of the collective psyche of the region or country. In her book A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviews Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads under apartheid, in the prison where he was being held. She describes how in one unconscious moment of compassion she reached out to Eugene de Kock and touched his hand. Several weeks later he asked to see her and told her that the hand she had touched was his “trigger hand” thus sending Gobodo-Madikizela into a deep inner exploration about identification. As she looked at the manner in which he described his own “trigger hand” it became clear that he had “split off” the hand from his total being just as the split off parts of the collective cultural ego are the disassociated parts of the country or culture that had endorsed the persecution and violence perpetrated on the victims.

Whether or not this was the first thing that had come to mind for him, his way of communicating his anxiety about my gesture was to “split off” the hand from the rest of his body, to excise that part that did the killing, as if the ”trigger hand” had gone off on a killing rampage by itself. A well-known psychological concept that explains de Kock’s language is “splitting.” Splitting off parts of the self is a psychological mechanism that occurs at an unconscious level, but its effects are felt consciously, and help shift the gaze away from the individual’s direct role in evil deeds. “That cannot be me. It was my ‘trigger hand’ that killed.” Distancing himself from and casting away the evil part of his body was an effort at self-preservation. But it was also an illustration of how fragmented he was – a person broken into bits struggling to achieve some sense of wholeness. (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003, p. 41)

A country, culture or group of people can be split into unconscious bits. Acknowledgment is the second step in the beginning of integrating the split off parts. Each deflated part of the collective ego can begin to be retrieved in a public way, bringing accountability for the splitting. The parts cannot be dissociated if they are acknowledged and brought back or integrated into the whole. No matter how evil the split off parts, acknowledgement of their existence is imperative to having a dialogue which can facilitate the grieving, integration, and truth telling process. 

With acknowledgment, the collective is forced to develop  a level of awareness that supports owning the violent and catastrophic deeds on many levels. Dori Laub in her essay titled Truth and Testimony published in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, discusses the end result of integrating split off pieces by cultures and peoples from a personal perspective. She describes how integration helps complete the mourning process and gives those that are disintegrated some insight into the fact that they have been externalizing and projecting their shadow; both the perpetrator’s shadow projected onto the innocents they committed crimes against, and the survivor’s shadows projected onto the perpetrators. 

The successful completion of mourning, and/or the successful integration of one’s life brings one to the position of being able to own up to all of one’s living as his own, including one’s object representations. This state gives us a chance to discover that in ordinary living we maintain our object representations in a type of repression through externalization, in the sense that we maintain our mental representation of them in a nonself status. (Laub in Caruth, 1995, p. 87)

With acknowledgement the object is seen as a self rather than a nonself. It is no longer external. The object is not just something that is to be killed, maimed, or dominated, now it has a soul. At one point Eugene de Cock tells Gobodo-Madikizela that he no longer sees her as a “black person”(Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003). She is a person to him, not an object to be slain or looked down upon. He begins to integrate the objectification of her as black. He acknowledges her as human, as a self. Acknowledgement brings awareness.


Grieving and mourning the dead and damaged is a process. It is a major step in healing and it is a step that permeates all other steps. It is intertwined with stopping, acknowledgement, testimony, witnessing, forgiveness, and compassion. Grieving is suffering, and it is in the act of surrendering to that suffering that acceptance, if it is going to take place, can begin. Some grieving goes on for many years and there are some types of atrocities in which grief is all there is. Integration becomes difficult and rest is nearly impossible. “There seems to be an absolute limit to how much an individual is able to give up through grieving” (Laub in Caruth, 1995, p. 84). How do we honor the losses or traumas that cannot be dealt with or completed? Some events are simply too horrific to integrate and as Laub describes:

…we still come back to the simplest, most basic fact—that there are limitations to the kind of losses an individual may be able to deal with through mourning. The loss of a child by parents is an example of one that may not be capable of completion, and various forms of denial, idealization, and introject “walling off” may become necessary. (p. 84) 

Where this walling off takes place, the potential survivor remains victimized and often plunges into a deep depression that never leaves. What makes a survivor? A survivor is someone who can grieve and through that process integrate the events, no matter how horrific, and go on. 

So the struggle in the post-traumatic experience is to reconstitute the self into the single self, reintegrate itself. And it’s in that combination of feeling and not feeling, that the creative aspect of the survivor experience, or the potentially illuminating aspect of the survivor experience, takes shape. (Lipton in Caruth, 1995, p. 137-138)

Grief illuminates that part of the being or culture that is the traumatized self. It allows for sorrow and acknowledgement of the events at the core of mourning to take center stage and the traumatized self can then begin reintegration.

Testimony and Confession

There are two types of testimony; the first is from the perpetrator, the second is from the victim. A perpetrator can give testimony but that does not necessarily equate to a confession. The perpetrator must take ownership of the horrific deeds within the context of testimony, given in an oral or written fashion, in order for it to be a confession. This type of testimony or confession can quell the need to know that so vividly permeates the intellect and psyche of the victim or the survivors. What happened to my husband, my son, my daughter, my lover, my country? Confessions during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa served this purpose and answered many questions. Did this bring rest? 

Perhaps rest is more likely to come to the culture after the perpetrator has heard the testimony of the survivors of trauma, or loved ones of the dead or wronged; the secondary victims to the initial crime. If the victims do not tell their story they cannot heal. There is no rest. Honoring the suffering of survivors of the Shoah, or the relatives of those who died, gives voice to the pain inflicted and opens space for mourning of the dead. Truth and reality are maintained with integrity when testimony is given. If testimony is not given reality can become a story that is told from a distorted memory view of the events that develop out of an attempt to cope with loss. 

None find peace in silence, even when it is their choice to remain silent. Moreover, survivors who do not tell their story become victims of a distorted memory, that is, of a forcibly imposed “external evil,” which causes an endless struggle with and over a delusion. The “not telling” of the story serves as a perpetuation of its tyranny. The events become more and more distorted in their silent retention and pervasively invade and contaminate the survivor’s daily life. The longer the story remains untold, the more distorted it becomes in the survivor’s conception of it, so much so that the survivor doubts the reality of the actual events. (Laub in Caruth, 1995, p. 64)

Testimony places the victim in a safe but vulnerable place. This vulnerability allows the victim or survivor a full range of emotion that can come deep from the body to reveal the wound that so deftly steals away a life over time if not assuaged. This wound laid open for public view and shared, allows for comrades in healing to begin to embrace the wounded. Dori Laub speaks to the power of testimony in reclaiming one’s life: 

In my experience, repossessing one’s life story through giving testimony is itself a form of action, of change, which one has to actually pass through, in order to continue and complete the process of survival after liberation. The event must be reclaimed because even if successfully repressed, it nevertheless invariably plays a decisive formative role in who one comes to be, and in how one comes to live one’s life. (p. 70)

“Repossessing one’s life story” is another step in the integration of those pieces split off from the human being during the oppressive experience. The repossessing of the story of a culture, or people, is also imperative for reintegration and healing within that culture. Testimony allows for language to be the vehicle to place the story into a universal realm where there can be recognition of that story by many, and an opportunity for others to embrace the life that has suffered or been lost. It gives the opportunity for the truth to be told and for remembering which allows for “deep social awareness” (Watters, 2003, p. 3).

"Engaged" Witnessing

In Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins discusses the move toward being an “engaged” witness: 

To move from passive bystanding to active witnessing is a healing on many levels–personal, interpersonal, community, intercommunity, and, sometimes, between humans and the natural and built environments. To move toward engaged witness is to reclaim history and to look for one’s place in it; it is to look forward into the future for one’s own role in creating it. 

To hold history in ways that can inform the present we must nurture capacities for grief and mourning, for truth and reconciliation. We know that mourning is aided by the availability of support and rapport. (Watkins, 2008, p. 21)

The engaged witness brings the act of witnessing into daily life and allows time and space for this type of honoring for oneself and for others. Witnessing our own lives in a conscious way can allow us to witness for others in a more compassionate and engaged capacity. “A witness is a witness to the truth of what happens during an event” (Laub in Caruth, 1995 p. 65). These events can be personal, communal, or cultural. On some level it affects all of us, for if we are all connected, hearing the truth as witness allows the universe to witness the truth as well.

What ultimately matters in all processes of witnessing, spasmodic and continuous, conscious and unconscious, is not simply the information, the establishment of the facts, but the experience itself of living through testimony, of giving testimony. 

The testimony is, therefore, the process by which the narrator (the survivor) reclaims his position as a witness: reconstitutes the internal “thou,” and thus the possibility of a witness or a listener inside himself. (p. 70)

Engaged witnessing allows us to love both what the wound is and what it is not; for there is more to the speaker than the wound. By noticing in oneself, and one’s culture, where the wound lies within the body of the community, or within the literal human body, the parts of the body that are not the wound can begin to incorporate it, reintegrate it, from the outside in. The tattered edges can heal and scabs can form. Language is like oxygen to the wound. It allows the wound to breath, and on the exhale it allows it to be heard in such a way that it releases the energy of suffering, hatred, and pain into a more welcoming atmosphere that is the ear of the engaged witness. Witnessing is salve for the soul. If we are careful the salve will sooth the pain of repression and dissociation and help facilitate integration of the split off pieces of the one giving testimony. It seems that being an “engaged” witness is just as much a part of the cycle of humanity as it is to be giving the testimony. 


Does memorializing allow rest? What does a memorial look like? It might look like a sculpture, it might look like a headstone, it might look like a truth and reconciliation commission, and it might look like a 500 year peace plan. In 1999 Sarvodaya began a mission to bring peace and reconciliation to Sri Lanka. Under the guidance of its founder and leader, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, and with the participation of 170,000 people from all walks of life, Sarvodaya began its People’s Peace Initiative. In 2000 Sarvodaya published the plan. It is a 500 year peace plan. The reason it is a 500 year plan is because 500 years ago is when the unrest began. It took 500 years for the damage to be done, and the 500 Year Peace Plan acknowledges the hard path to true peace, acknowledges that the effects of war and strife last longer than the war itself. This 500 Year Peace Plan is a memorial to all those who suffered injustice in the civil/ethnic war of Sri Lanka. This is a move to transcend the war and memorialize peace in the hearts of Sri Lankans.

The United States, and the citizens of New York City, built a memorial for those who died tragically on September 11, 2001. At the time construction began, it had only been seven years since this horrific event. The wounds of loss were still fresh and burning with pain. Was it too soon for a memorial? There was infighting and outfighting over the memorial, and fighting over whether there should be a memorial at all. Perhaps we needed more time to grieve, to mourn, to heal, to give testimony, and to witness before attempting to erect a monument to the thousands who died. There had been no resolution or reconciliation around this event on a National level so how could there be enough healing energy to memorialize the dead? We, as a country, were still seeking the perpetrators who did this. The wound was still wide open; there had been no witness-stand confessions and no answers from the suspected perpetrators who the Federal Government believed lived in the caves of Afghanistan. Perhaps it was too soon to memorialize an event that is still the focus of the war in Afghanistan today.

Are memorials for survivors? Are they for first generation victims or are they for the second generation to honor the first? Are they for society? Are memorials a place to project our anger and frustration, pain and suffering, or are they to honor the dead and wounded? They are for the living, not the dead. Memorials are a place for remembering, a place to honor the experiences of those who suffered. Memorials are “vehicles of memory.”

Memory, then, is produced whenever and wherever there are subjects who share a culture, social agents who try to “materialize” the meanings of the past in different cultural products that are conceived as, or can be converted into, “vehicles for memory,” such as books, museums, monuments, films, and history books. Memory shows up also in actions and expressions that, rather than re-presenting that past, incorporate it performatively. (van Alphen (1997) in Jelin, Rein, & Godoy-Anativia, 2003, p. 25)

Simply, memorials help us re-member and re-membering supports integration. “…remembered traumatic events have an element of unbelievability” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003, p. 86). Memorials make the traumatic event believable. Where do the memories go when we heal? Hopefully, they are integrated. What of those who simply cannot heal? They are the memorial. 

Forgiveness and Compassion

The ultimate move in healing comes from forgiveness and compassion. 

Forgiving may appear to condone the offense, thus further disempowering the victim. But forgiveness does not overlook the deed: it rises above it. “This is what it means to be human,” it says. “I cannot and will not return the evil you inflicted on me.” And that is the victim’s triumph. (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003 p. 117)

The night after I finished reading A Human Being Died that Night, I had the following dream:

I am in a hotel kind of place or public place like a convention center. But, it feels like a hospital too. I stand back and two lines of people form. A man comes and he is shackled. He is large and muscular. He has something like a Mohawk haircut and he is marching hard, evil. He goes into the next room and I hear a man scream. He has killed the man even though others were around. They try to tackle him. It takes a lot. I try to get away so I don’t see his face. I go down a hallway and there are people everywhere, fearful and leaving. I go outside and try to find my car but before I can a bunch of people burst out of the door with him. He sees me. I fear he will be after me. I duck behind a van and they get him down and kill him there in the parking lot. I walk on and then I see a red figure floating in the air. Particles of red in the shape of a man. I know it is his essence, the essence of evil. It shrinks then I see it leave and it inhabits another human being. A boy, a teenager. I walk along towards a hotel room. The boy comes and I turn to face him. I see him directly and he tries to tell of the wrongs against him. I tell him I know and that we have all been wronged. He is morphing and disintegrating somehow becoming bigger and more evil. I touch him on the arm and he doesn’t hurt me. I go into a hotel room at the end of a hall and he goes into a room next to mine. I fear he will kill someone there. All of a sudden a team of people come and kill him and take him off. My son, is in the room with me. I lock the door. Something is on the TV about evil, a movie or something. I go try to lock the back door. The front door took some work to lock. The latch is hard. I go to lock the back door and the wall melts and a calf is there; then two. Then some people are there to help herd them. They come into the room and we herd them out. My son is trying to sleep now.

In the dream the evil is chained, but is strong and is still capable of murder. I run because I cannot look it in the eye the way it is. I am afraid of it in its muscular human form. It is dangerous. After they kill him in the parking lot I see his essence, the red particles shaped like a man. It is the essence of evil. It is here in the universe just as the essence of love is here. It is looking for a home, just like love, and it permeates the soul of a teenager. I do not know this boy but he feels persecuted and feels as if he has been wronged. And perhaps he has been wronged because he was chosen to carry the essence of evil. I make a move in the dream that is dangerous yet it must be done. I turn and face him. I engage him and I touch him on the arm just as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela touched the arm of Eugene de Kock. Once I touch him, there is a connection and he does not hurt me. He sees me as a human self and I see him as a being possessed. Once he sees me as human he moves on. I have compassion for his possessed condition. The dream tells me that to diffuse evil compassion is necessary. The wall melts and the innocent calves come into the room. My innocent son sleeps. We are safe. 

To paraphrase James Hillman: in betrayal there is forgiveness and in forgiveness there is compassion (Hillman, 1975). Surrendering to our wound is what allows for acceptance. Only after one accepts the circumstances can one forgive, and only after one forgives can one develop compassion for those who have wronged them. “And the grace-filled gestures of forgiveness I had witnessed from people who lived with psychological scars as daily reminders of their trauma gave me even greater hope” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003 p. 44). In many cases the victims need to forgive in order to heal; in order to relieve their own suffering around the event. “Victims themselves sometimes seem to be looking for an opportunity to forgive, because they see this as something that can bring an end to a life of hatred, which ties them so inextricably to the perpetrator” (p. 97). Once a victim forgives they can continue to integrate the walled-off parts of themselves that were tied up in the identification with the event and are owned by the perpetrator. They can begin to rest.

 Just as betrayal and destruction are part of the cycles of humanity, so are forgiveness and compassion. “Empathy is a response to another person’s pain; even in the midst of tragedy, pain cannot be evil” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003 p. 100). “Empathy reaches out to the other and says: I can feel the pain you feel for having caused me pain”(p. 127) . This deep type of empathy extends from the victim to the perpetrator as if to say, “I am in so much pain yet I can put myself in your shoes and feel your pain and it will not take me down. I am already down and can only go up from here.” Forgiveness and empathy can often be a place of empowerment for the victim.

Empowered and revalidated, many victims at this point find it natural to extend and deepen the healing process by going a step further: turning around and conferring forgiveness on their torturer. 

The motivation to do this does not stem only from altruism or high moral principles. The victim in a sense needs forgiveness as part of the process of becoming re-humanized. The victim needs it in order to complete himself or herself and to wrest away from the perpetrator the fiat power to destroy or to spare. It is part of the process of reclaiming self-efficacy. Reciprocating with empathy and forgiveness in the face of a perpetrator’s remorse restores to many victims the sense that they are once again capable of affecting a profound difference in the moral community. (p. 127)

When do we rest? When we are re-humanized, when the split off pieces of our inner life are reintegrated into the whole. We rest when we are empowered by love and forgiveness and when we learn to have compassion not only for the perpetrator and the other victims, but when we have compassion for ourselves for being part of all that makes up the cycles of humanity. 


Cabrera, R. (1996). Should We Remember? Recovering Historical Memory in Guatemala.

Caruth, C. (1995). Trauma: explorations in memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2003). A human being died that night: a South African story of forgiveness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hillman, J. (1975). Loose ends: primary papers in archetypal psychology. Zürich: Spring Publications.

Housden, R. (2002). Ten poems to open your heart (1st ed.). New York: Harmony Books.

Jelin, E., Rein, J., & Godoy-Anativia, M. (2003). State repression and the labors of memory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Krog, A. (1998). Country of my skull. [Johannesburg]: Random House.

Watkins, M., Shulman, L. (2008). Toward psychologies of liberation: London/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Watters, D., et. al. (2003). Conflict Transformation Papers. Linc Resource Centre, 3.

Author: Kim C. Bennett, PhD

Join the Conversation


  1. Gene Dunaway

    Kim, what a beautiful and through job of showing the healing process in the face of unthinkably cruel behavior and the hurt it produces. This is the best piece on this process I have read and thank you so much for laying it out.

    I often ask about how we can culturally heal the “sins of our fathers” that have taken place prior to our own lives. This is a road map for that important work.

    • Kim Bennett

      Dear Gene,

      Thank you for your kind words and for spending time with this piece. I appreciate that you “see” what is here. There is much to witness and heal in the colonization of our world and much to reconcile in these times we live in. If only it were so…

      Blessings, Kim


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