The past five years, I engaged with the question of what survivors need and receive in the wake of atrocity. I have learned that the impact of trauma that violence creates changes over time and manifests differently in different people. Locality, mindset, family support, success, drive, outlook and prosperity all impact whether people fight for what they believe is due.
What someone is owed by a formerly complicity government or entity (corporate or otherwise) becomes a legal question. Courts try to quantify harm. Is the loss of your mother worth $25,000 or $80,000? What about the loss of your legs? Or the more ambiguous, a childhood spent running for persecution.
What someone is owed often fits into the category of money. It could also include apologies. We say in English that someone is "owed an apology." In French you might say, instead, that the person "merits" an apology. This idea of merit hinges to an idea that has been simmering within me. Merit rings a bit of deservedness.
At the very least, a survivor of trauma deserves dignity, legitimacy, space to tell their story, care and acknowledgement. They deserve patience and what one woman told me that her mother, a Holocaust survivor, sorely needed--unconditional love.
Donna Hicks writes about the restoration of dignity and the importance of this process in healing and in the prevention of continued conflict.
The subtle difference between deserving something versus being owed it, I believe significantly shits how we handle trauma and upset inter-personally and as a culture.
The idea of being owed pits us against one another..."you owe me!" This language pushes us towards lawsuits and/or legal settlements. They may be lucrative financially but spiritually bankrupting us in the process. They may not teach the payer anything other than that violence is expensive.
The idea of deserving, on the other hand, helps restore the humanity of all parties engaged in the dialogue. You and I deserve to be treated with respect and to be restored the humanity that was taken during the said crime.
This week a former boyfriend returned. A man I had not heard from in two years. I felt that he "owed" me an apology but this feeling of being "owed" left me feeling unsettled. It caused me to stew over where I felt abused, disregarded and patronized. When I shifted to the notion of deservedness, I felt a deeper sense of strength and less aggression towards him. I deserved respect whether or not he would be able to offer it. If I focused instead on what I was owed, power would have remained in his hands.
So I wrote him to let him know that I released him from any emotional debts I believed he owed me. I declared the game of "what I was owed" over and instead began focusing on what I believed I -- and all people for that matter-- deserve.
Thinking back to my work with eighty Holocaust victims, the idea seems to hold. Feeling that one is "owed" leaves one fighting. Whereas feeling that one deserves positions one as a powerful advocate for human dignity more broadly and contributes to ending cycles of blame and violence.