Book Recommendation: Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky

Welcome to the Radical Self-Care for Radical Action blog series. This series serves as a multigenre and strategic compilation of ways to avoid or heal activist burnout. During this new era, we need to keep activism and social justice efforts continuous and sustainable; we cannot afford burnout. While burnout and activism have had close relationships to one another, so have healing practices and social change methodologies. Every week, both leading up to and following the inauguration of a president that has Cortisol levels running high for many, expect a post on what it means to heal oneself in order to heal a country. From neuroscience to yoga to meditation to cardiology, learn how to systematically refuel in these trying times.

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Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is most widely-known for her TED Talk “Beyond the Cliff,” which begins with a day she found herself, without being able to articulate what got her there, feeling like she was going to voluntarily jump off the cliff she, her husband, and her in-laws leisurely hiked together. Lipsky opens her seminal book, Trauma Stewardship,  in the same way she opens her talk: through describing her process of recognizing how she found herself on that literal and metaphorical cliff in the first place, and how she learned to come down.

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others is everyday in only the most profound of ways. In it, Lipsky leads from learned experience. As someone who has worked with traumatized people since the age of 18 when she was inspired by a professor who talked about service, Lipsky walked the walk of secondary trauma, and lived to tell the tale. Like a good sustainable activist, she tells more than just the tale – the narrative – in Trauma Stewardship; she lets the reader in on her path towards wholeness while never once assuming that the same practices work for everyone.

Every time stories and anecdotes of secondary trauma start to take a turn for the depressing, Lipsky interjects, almost suddenly, the prose of systemic solutions. There are times when Lipsky’s writing feels too oriented to the American Psychological Association for an “everyday guide,” as her title promises. In her description of the effects of personal dynamics on the self, for example, or the burdens organizations and institutions place on individuals, writ large, Lipsky’s writing begins to feel esoteric. Yet, at that very moment when one would wish to put the book down because of that, she interjects with a universal truth or deeply meaningful personal anecdote, which make the reader simply want to read more.

Given its focus on trauma, oppression, and social justice, there’s a quality of urgency to Trauma Stewardship. Writing on trauma has often been relegated to the sphere of psychological journals in which the “I” is rarely used and “trauma” – inherently subjective reactions to personal or, in the case of secondary trauma, told-of experiences – is treated as objective. The format of Trauma Stewardship dares readers to insert themselves into the text and the issues it brings up in order to ask: How can I be of maximum service through taking care of myself in a way that serves others?

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