Category Archives: PHILOSOPHY


Many trainers talk about neuroplasticity, the concept that our brains constantly reorganize themselves, allowing us to make new connections.  And this is important, because “what fires together wires together”.   If we are not mindful, our thoughts can take on some pretty predictable patterns and responses.  For those of us in high trauma environments, it is worthwhile to consider what we input into our gray cells, and what pathways we are creating and enforcing.

What kind of tangled goat paths do you have in your brain, and where are your superhighways?  What ideas are so overgrown as to be impassable?  What have you been telling yourself you cannot accomplish?  What have you given up on?  What are your repetitive thoughts and feelings that you fall into almost daily?  What are the main storylines of your life that you tell yourself and others, out of the infinite possible stories you could tell based on the same facts?

Some interpreters I know swear they just “don’t think about” what we witness.  But I believe that the less we metabolize the trauma we witness, the more our bodies and minds store and carry it.   And if we are not aware of what we are carrying, we cannot put it down.  That makes us more jumpy, more scared, more angry, more frustrated, and shorter-tempered, whether we notice it or not.  And if we cannot handle noticing it, then we shut down and disconnect.  And we become less present for our loved ones.  This puts us at high risk for addiction, isolation, and depression.  And of course it makes us quite unpleasant to be around, even when we are by ourselves.

What can we do?  Well, we can always change our jobs, our homes, and our environment.  Those who have done so notice something, though, that we need to be prepared for – we take our minds with us wherever we go.  Sorry about that!  Just as working in our gardens will not give us a clean house, working on our outer environment will not give us a spacious and healthy inner landscape. It is fine to work in our gardens, but we still need to do the inside work if we want a peaceful and habitable home for our thoughts.

in addition of changing what we do, we can change how we do it.  We can change our attitudes and our stories.  We can notice what is happening in our bodies both at work and when we leave. We can make self-care an absolute habit, instead of getting used to being tired all the time.  We can remember that the work we do is a choice and a privilege.  That we can leave at any time.  We can move on to something else that doesn’t hurt us as much, if we are that burnt out.  If we are through.  And that is okay, too.

If we are not through – if we still have much to learn where we are, doing what we do, then let’s keep doing it.  Let’s do it with love and respect.  Let us honor the dignity of the people’s whose voice we have become.  Let us not take on their suffering, but be a witness to their suffering, and give them voice while listening fully and respectfully.  Because when we are fully and exquisitely present, when we are with them without encroaching, when we give them voice without tainting their message, then we have done what we can in our chosen work.

When we can change our internal dialogue from reflecting on how stressful our work is and how hopeless and tired we have become, then we can make new paths.  And those paths can bring us a new inner dialogue: our open, heartfelt presence at work and at home serves us and serves our community.  It is worth cultivating.  This is not magical thinking, except in the best sense of that term.  It is simply replacing old habits with some new, healthy ones.  And this is worthwhile.  Because unless and until we do this, we are destined to keep thinking what we keep thinking, even when it doesn’t serve us.



Judge to person at the crossroads.

You have two choices.  You can walk through fire now or you can walk through fire later.  The choice you do not have is to just keep ignoring it and hope it will go away.  It won’t, as far as this criminal case goes.  And it won’t, as far as your addiction goes.  And let me tell you something.

Your grief, you anger, your sadness, you can drug it up.  Sure. It’s just like putting face makeup over acne.  But it’s all still there, just under the surface, and it isn’t doing better for being smothered.

I can see you are angry.  You may have a lot of great reasons.  But I am telling you that you need to get clean enough to own your anger.  You need to make it your friend.  You need to learn to do anger well.  Then you can use if for your self-protection, not to harm yourself and others.  Same thing with your grief and your sadness.  Own it.

Stop with the blame.  Stop with the made-up stories about how you are about to do great things but everyone is stopping you and holding you down.  Stop with how the people who love you and believed in you even after you betrayed them are letting you down.  You are the one letting them down.  You are the one letting yourself down.  This is about you today.

I know all the reasons you can possibly tell me for why you are using.  I have heard them all, for years and years.  But let’s turn that question around.  I invite you to ask yourself why you might want to get sober.  Do you have anything worth living for?  Anything you would like to do or feel or try before you die?  Are you curious?

You stand at the crossroads.  You can walk through fire now, or you can walk through fire later.  And oh, there actually is one third choice.  I have seen many of my clients go that route.  You can die without having even tried.  That is the saddest path of all.  For you, at this point, that includes prison time.  Is that what you want?

Don’t answer me.  I am giving you five days in custody so you can answer yourself.  There are questions that seem impossible, yet if we can get into a quiet space, we find that the answers come to us.  I hope your answers will come to you.  See you next week.

Guards?  Please escort our client to the think tank.



In the healing fields, we talk a lot about self-care, sustainability, and balance.  We give so much at work because we care so much, yet how do we balance that with wanting time and peace of mind for ourselves?  The neighbor who “works for money” has more money, but we can handle that.  We are dedicated, and we are aware enough to know we are better off, physically, than most people in the world.  So what is our problem?

One of our trainers posited that our US model leads us to believe that we can never have enough, be enough, or do enough to be truly happy.  We need more.  We feel a haunting sense of scarcity, no matter how heroically we strive to achieve and own.  When we feel bad, we tend to consume more, then we need more, and then we cycle back through.  Those of us who conscientiously try to consume less can still feel scarcity as to our time, sense of security, or whatever else we feel we cannot get enough of.

Do we have a haunting fear that we are not enough?  That we do not have enough?  That we must relentlessly keep going, even past the point of exhaustion, against our own self interest and common sense?  Where do these pictures and ideas come from?  Most likely from our earliest childhood, then reinforced at school, in the media, and throughout our pushing, craving, needy society.

So our “not enough” pictures come from the outside, and become self-destructive when we take them in and swallow the model whole.  Once we hurt ourselves with our imbibed ideas of “how we should live,” we become both oppressor and oppressed.  At that point, how much freedom do we have left to re-evaluate our choices?  How much of this internalized oppression is so tightly woven into our self-identity, that we cannot get off our respective hamster wheels?

Who is driving us right now, today?  Consumer society aside, what are our true responsibilities to self and others?  Who do we owe, and what do we owe them, and where are we as individuals on our own to-do lists?  Including the list that says “spend quality time with…”

Where is the freedom, and the spaciousness, that many of us thought we would gain as adults, when we could finally decide for ourselves what we want to do, and make our own rules to live by, and choose our own delicious lives, and live them fully?  Where is the time to forge and sustain these lovely relationships with the people we mostly have to cut off so we can get ready for our workweeks?

How do we get the time, and the space, to renew ourselves and refresh ourselves?  How do we keep up our strength and our energy through these weeks and months and years of performing our tasks?  How much should we be working, and when can we play?  And who is making these decisions for us?  And to the degree that we are, what are we basing these decisions on?  Whose ideas are driving us?  And if we are driving ourselves, how can we pull over, take a breath, and figure out our desired destination, and the road we wish to travel?



Those of us who are idealistic and striving tend to spend a lot of our time thinking about how much better the world would be, and how much better we would feel, if only people would change.  If only institutions would change.  If only the government, and our workplace, and even some of our loved ones, would change.

We have a vision of such a beautiful world, so possible if everyone would just cooperate.  And we know that others would want to live in it.  They would love to.  What a wonderful world, free of violence and willful harm.  Full of cooperation, love and peace.  Sustainable, nature-protecting, encouraging, and fair.  Inclusive and kind.  It is hard to fathom that we cannot achieve it, when so many of us do so much for it.

Why does it hurt so much, at times, to wish for something so wonderful?  Because this is what we are essentially saying to ourselves:

If only something outside of myself, over which I have no control, would change, then I could finally be okay.  I could be happy.  I could be at peace.  I could relax and enjoy my life.  I could finally come down off of high alert, and stop the endless striving, effort, struggle, and strain of trying to fix the systems, the institutions, and the people that I long to fix with all my heart.

But what if nothing outside of us does change to any appreciable degree?  What if our work with abused children does not end child abuse?  What if our interventions on behalf of sex workers does not end predatory behavior and human trafficking, worldwide, or even locally?  What if our lobbying does not change policy in any meaningful way?  What if our interpreting in court and in hospitals does not mean every person gets adequate healthcare and a fair trial, or a fair hearing as crime victim?  What if the people we sponsor do not stay clean and sober?  What if all our speeches and talking do not convince others to become kinder and more compassionate, to think lovingly and protectively, of both themselves and others?

Our love and our longing and our vision and our good intentions do not add up to getting to control these outcomes.  So we need another plan beyond the idea that something outside of ourselves has to change in order for us to be okay.  Let us consider the sad likelihood that we cannot fix the world, or even our workplace, or even our close friends and family.

What is our plan if nothing outside of ourselves ends up changing, in spite of our best efforts?  How are we going to maintain our own ethics, knowing that bad institutions tend to defeat good people?  How are we going to maintain our integrity in the face of certain injustices?  How are we going to keep our abiding joy, when we see so much suffering all around us?  How can we live, how can we work, how can we be at peace, knowing that whatever we do will not be enough?

If we face the fact that we are not going to change the world to any appreciable degree, and certainly not to the degree we would like, how are we going to keep any sense of meaning regarding our great and striving efforts over years of work?  How are we going to keep our ability to be effective in the tiny droplet of change that our individual efforts might make in the ocean of life?   My experience has taught me to embrace humility, and see how small I truly am.

All I can watch, all I can shepherd, all I can ever have any chance of controlling, is my own speech.  My own thought.  My own conduct.

This is not giving up.  This is letting go.  It is finding freedom while still choosing to serve.  When we embrace it, it allows for a tiny, yet expansive opening – a space for quiet joy within all the striving.


There is a great book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and one of the premises is that animals don’t tend worry about things that are not happening imminently.  Let’s say a zebra runs from a lion.  She deals with the immediate situation: running, zigzagging, finding her pack, whatever.  Once she is safe again, just moments later, she trembles, maybe vomits, then shakes it off and is fine again.  She has released the trauma of that moment.  Humans are not very good at this.  Especially in the workplace.

The zebra doesn’t, as far as I know, spend weeks or months dwelling on that moment.  She doesn’t relive the moment, fighting the same fight, running the same run, freezing and not able to call out or move, over and over for the rest of her life.  She doesn’t ponder why lions cannot find other food sources, or whether there is something about her that made her a target.  Or feel guilty for her own survival when someone else became lion food. She doesn’t keep reacting to it as if it were happening over and over, and about to happen yet again.

Humans take things differently, due to our socialization.  We take things very personally.  We take things very subjectively.  Yet we are socialized to think that we are supposed to “handle things” especially at work.  We are not supposed to react.  We feel embarrassed if others of our species sees us trembling.  That is shameful, especially at the workplace.  So we don’t, if we can help it.  We hold it together.  We don’t cry.  Especially as interpreters, we don’t emote at all.  We show nothing, and hide even our facial expressions, let alone our naturally occurring spontaneous words and gestures.  We only speak for others.  We don’t discharge our stress.

A friend of mine did some kind of regression therapy where she would go and shake and tremble while remembering unpleasant episodes of her life.  I am not sure whether trying to shake off something that was imprinted thirty years ago is very helpful.  But I am sure that carrying the full weight of everything that we have ever experienced and witnessed is an impossible task.  And the burden of that weight, if not discharged, tends to lead to many addictive behaviors.

So we have to find ways to shake it off.  This can be dance, movement, exercise, running.  It can be some kind of support group or therapy, meeting with colleagues and discussing things in a way that does not breach confidentiality.  It can be time in nature, rest, fishing, or whatever makes you light and easy.  It can involve meditation, or prayer, or anything that can change your mind and your body.  Anything that can change the way you feel when you are hurt and can neither cry out nor fight back.

And let’s take a moment to recognize that what we do is difficult.  There are excellent reasons why interpreters have to be neutral.  We are not speaking in our own voice.  We are not registering and conveying our own emotion, opinions, or experiences.  And yet as human beings, if we are connected, it hurts us to be hurt and to not cry out.  To run and not stop and tremble and vomit as needed.  To not even be allowed to run, when we need to.  To hold it in.

We need to find ways to be like the zebra.


Sometimes I wonder what actual percentage of people are deeply wounded.  My data is very skewed. Working in a criminal setting, assisting refugees, having friends and family who grew up in war zones, I see mostly the wounded. My heart goes out to those who have suffered. And yet I have had to learn a very difficult lesson in all of this. Not everyone conquers their traumas to become wonderful people.  Not everyone ends up with redeeming qualities. So how do we love them? This is a terrible and powerful question.

In the so-called Western World, we like to have dichotomies – pairs of opposites. Good and bad is our favorite pairing. We look at everything, from the tree in our backyard to our garbage can, in the light of what is good about it, and what is bad. As more Eastern philosophy has infiltrated, we are taught to see “what is” and accept things for what they are without superimposing our judgment of how we wish things were. So we struggle to see people “as they are” and love them “as they are” and forgive them “as they are”.

When the Christian God tells us to love our enemies, that God talks about the hardest kind of loving. Because it is easy to love those who love us and are kind to us.  Yet we are challenged to go beyond this.  We are challenged to love those who do not love us. To love those who do us harm. To love those who are evil, bad, hurtful, and cause lasting damage to ourselves and our loved ones.

How can we do this? I have come to believe that with our Western-trained mind we can only do this by deeply believing that “underneath it all” our enemies have good qualities. They are good people in their own way, with what they know. They are doing the best they can.  So we find and love the good in them.  This is easier than accepting the bad.  This is much easier than loving the whole person.

We “find something to love” in them. We tell ourselves that even enemy warriors go home to their children, and hug their spouses, and try to be “good” according to their lights. They kill people, and blow up buildings, but most of them believe they are sacrificing for a good cause. So we love the good in them. This works on the personal level, too. Someone just told me her Dad used to beat the living crap out of her, but she says she loves him, because he made her tough! He was a good man, she told me. Whatever the example, we try to find good in the people we have reason to hate, and we love that good in them, because we cannot love them whole.

In my close experience with extreme predatory and cruel behavior, I have found that every predator has a deeply wounded psyche with a multitude of intellectual, spiritual, psychological, and social ailments. A review of their childhood would be the basis for a very sad movie, or a Child Protective Services report. There is no doubt in my mind about this. And of course not all of them are to the extreme that they are imprisoned or marked a predator for life. Some are just highly unpleasant, often charming, and toxic people.

It is not unusual for these people to go from fits of rage to begging for love and acceptance. To hold a knife to a loved one’s throat, then sob like a baby and say how sorry they are, how much they love their victim. And not all of the wounded are in the criminal justice system, of course. Only a tiny percentage. There are plenty of people “around” who have fits and tantrums. People who are angry at the world. Fragile beings who snap at the smallest thing. Who throw things and scream at the people they swear they love, then want forgiveness, then repeat. They have terrible coping skills, we say. And some really are good people, deep down. As Westerners we can look deep, and find the good, see their good acts, and love them for the good buried deep underneath their unpleasant and hurtful qualities.

But this has been one of my hardest lessons: Having a wounded psyche does not make a person good deep down. In the very predatory, the psychopathic, the extremely narcissistic, they may not have a “core of goodness” that the Western mind can find and grab on to in order to love them. Their suffering makes them pathetic, in the sense of deserving of compassion, but it does not make them good.

I have met a lot of people who had an early loss of innocence, whether through family trauma, civil war, early addictions, or generalized violence in their culture of origin. Most are incredible survivors who overcome their past to embrace the wholeness of healing, and serve as a model to others.

But some don’t develop. They are resentful and envious of whole people, or healed people. They hate to see the innocence that they themselves have lost still alive and well in others. Some fiercely attack those who can look themselves in the mirror and like what they see. Some have a dark desire to wipe the smile off the faces of those who are happy.  For these few, our Western dichotomy does not serve us to find their core of goodness that allows us to love them.

I was in an John’s class, where men who solicited a prostitute get information about the sex trafficking trade and the human fallout. The teachers start by working on the men to help them see how harmful some of the good/bad dichotomy is for both men and women. At one point, an extremely unhealthy and deeply unhappy man started to share about how bad he felt, and how he could never live up to the “good man” myth, ow he was never allowed to cry as a child. He was suffused in sadness. And my heart felt pity for him.

At the same time, I felt a flood of sadness for the unanswerable question: Sitting here as the only woman in the room, my heart torn by the plight of the sex workers, and the suffering engendered by people like this speaker, I still feel sympathy for his suffering. Why cannot he feel sympathy for the suffering of the sex workers? Why cannot he feel compassion for others? Doesn’t he know that his suffering and theirs is from the same well of suffering? How can he be so cut off from humanity. as he must be, to do the things he does, with such a sense of entitlement? Where is the good in him? What if there isn’t any?

And so the hardest lesson in loving your enemies, if you choose to do so, is to give up on finding the good in order to love them. To turn off the good-bad searchlight. To see someone’s suffering and see how pitiful they are and without finding any redeeming quality within them, to love them as the enemy. Not because they are deeply good, but because they are deeply wounded. Love them at a safe distance, and protect yourself, and stop making up stories about how they are probably good, and let them be your enemy, and love them.


When we deal with trauma in our homes and workplaces, we are called to swoop in and save people, and we can lose track of where others end and where we begin.  We feel like we cannot be enough and do enough in the face of so much pain and struggle.  We keep trying harder, but it never seems enough.  Of course I am talking about myself here.  But it could be you as well.

Here are some ideas that can be helpful.  If you find yourself especially resistant to any of them, it might be worth exploring.

Be careful not to collapse what you do into who you are.  You are much more vulnerable if your identity is at stake.

Do not externalize your well-being.  If you can only be okay once everyone else is okay, you can never be okay.

Nothing outside of you needs to change in order for something inside of you to be able to shift.  You control your inner world.

Don’t get caught up in hopes of what you will achieve with all your effort and sacrifice and how good your situation will be – some day.

You have a multitude of burdensome thoughts.  You are suffering from things that have happened and things you think will happen.

Those are scary thoughts.  But at this moment, nothing so terrible is happening.  You are simply reading these words, and you are fine.

You are alive, here and now, and the world does not depend on your heroic efforts to keep rotating around its axis.

Remember that the graveyard is full of irreplaceable people.

How much of your time are you spending in past regrets and future fears?  How much of it are you spending in the here and now?

Shift that balance, come to present, and the mind quiets, and the body relaxes off its high alert.  You are replenished and stronger.

See if you can let go of the burden of not doing enough, not being enough, not deserving enough, no matter how hard you try.  Because it is a heavy load to bear, and it serves no one well.

How would your life change if you just decided, at this very moment, that you are perfectly fine – that there is nothing so terribly wrong with you or your current situation?  That you don’t need to get fixed or to fix others before you can be happy?

Of course you can keep trying to change the world, and keep loving your loved ones, and even loving your enemies, if you like.  You can keep progressing, and improving, and working for the greater good.  But it doesn’t all have to be so agonizing.  Does it?

What if you give yourself permission to be at peace?





Interpreters constantly face what one expert calls “the poignancy of impermanence”.  The fragility of life, and human relationships.  In our society, trauma is paraded before us in the media, but at a great distance.  Most people only deal with violent trauma or fatal diseases as a personal experience when it hits their loved ones, hopefully rarely indeed.  The rest of the time, they go around happily expecting that they know how their day will go.  Some of us have lost that innocence.

Interpreters are exposed to the “hanging by a thread” fragility of life every day.  As we go from murder suspect to child rapist to trespassing heroin addict from a war zone who has himself been victimized in a hundred ways, our tread grows heavy.  We walk in trauma, are suffused in trauma, shape our mouths around trauma, and breathe in trauma.

Like the trauma victims, we cannot go back to a time of unknowing.  As interpreters, it is not “happening to us” – but it is also not at the safe distance of the media consumer, who can turn it off with the click of a button.  We are close enough to smell their breath and their sweat, the hear the trembling in their voices, and make our own tremble at the same vibration as we give them voice.

We have looked in the faces, watched the expressions, of the perpetrators and the victims, the witnesses and the police, as we must do to catch their nuances and render their testimony on the witness stand.  We stand beside these witnesses.  And we sit next to suspects in jail while we listen with them to the taped statements of crime victims, view videos, read over police and medical reports, look at photos of wounds, blood and bruising.  Betrayal and pain and disbelief, damage to body and soul.  Confessions and denials and lies and blame.  Very human pain.

But we are fine!  We are just neutral interpreters, and we just say what they said, and never look back.  I have had a few interpreters swear this to me.  But what I have learned is that compassion fatigue creeps up on us, and we may feel like we are handling things pretty well, all things considered.  Just like when we gain or lose weight over time, we don’t notice it until one day we catch ourselves in the mirror.  Until we see to our surprise and dismay that we have changed without noticing.  While in our day to day experience, we are about the same as yesterday, there is a cumulative effect that cannot be denied.

If we have hit that cumulative point of compassion fatigue, we may have become numb and flat.  Or we may be hard on ourselves, and scold ourselves to suck it up.  We may universalize, and see abuse everywhere.  We can become cynical and withholding, angry and indignant.  Or simply exhausted and burnt out, disconnected and alone.  We may feel unsafe, because we have seen so much trauma up close.  Stuck on high alert, expecting the next violent act.  Or in the case of some of my colleagues, we may deny all this and then “your body keeps the score” and you actually get sick as your whole being tries to process what you cannot.

With the strict confidentiality that our work requires, we have the added responsibility of carrying these burdens alone.  And they can be heavy indeed.  Within the interpreter community, we are finally starting to talk about compassion fatigue, and the very real toll that vicarious trauma takes on us, and I welcome these conversations.




In our field, we talk about “languages of limited diffusion”.  Examples would be Burmese, Azerbaijani or Zapotec.  These are languages that simply do not have an abundance of speakers over a wide range of territory, in contrast to English, Spanish or Mandarin.  It is exceedingly difficult to get interpreters for these languages.  But I had not really pondered the actual difficulties for the interpreter, once found, in conveying a language so different from English, beyond the lack of courtroom vocabulary.  Until I was honored to meet a small Pacific Island language interpreter at a conference.

As she explained, her language is visual, communal, and relational.  Words in her community are used to weave people together, create bonds, and keep the clan together as a whole.  She said it is a huge challenge to use words as they are used in courtroom English:  to be adversarial.  To separate.  To judge, order, punish.  And the use of these specific words, to accuse rather than to invite, is a very painful process for her, and she believes, to her people.

Imagine feeling a full and complete sense of belonging to a clan or group in which the collective “we” is always more valuable than the individual “I”, and invitation is more important than judging.  Many of us in Western cultures feel a horror of that, because we cannot really envision a clan as being anything more than a collection of competing individuals all cramped together under fettering rules.  We have a hard time imagining anything that might smooth down our rugged individualistic edges, and make us one of many.

But try to imagine a setting where our interwoven relationships are more important than any modern sense of self-importance, of being special, or being better than others.  How relaxing.  I believe that most cultures had aspects of this, but much of it is lost now.  We need to keep looking for ways to rebuild this as best we can, within our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and other groups.

Competition only takes us so far.  We all need to be a part of something larger than ourselves, where we are included and accepted and can take joy in how well others are doing.  I believe this sense of being a part of something larger is the first step toward feeling a general sense of humanity.  Of wishing others well.  Of feeling ourselves a speck of stardust whirling through our immense universe on this lovely orb, a spark of life that is part of a wonderful infinite whole.


One of my favorite judges has an introduction to her family law calendar that she reads in a clear, ringing voice at the outset of each session.  I wonder how much of it the frightened audience hears.  I have heard it hundreds of times, without the stress of being a party to any family dispute, and neither seeking nor defending against a protection order, so I have absorbed more of it than perhaps anyone.

The most striking line in it, which I wait for like a favorite scene in a beloved movie, is where she says this:

“When I say Thank You that means bring your current sentence to a final end.  I have enough information.  I have made my decision.  I am prepared to make my ruling.”

This isn’t as cold as it may sound, because this calendar is one of “trials by affidavit”.  This means that all testimony and evidence are submitted in writing, for the judge’s review prior to the hearing.  The hearing itself is reserved for argument, and the time given to each party is around ten minutes.  No one may bring up anything “not presented” to the court in writing, such as facts not in evidence.

In any case, especially where the parties have attorneys, there will come a point where the judge says “Thank you!”  If the attorney does not take the hint and rambles on, the judge will very soon repeat, “I said Thank You!!  I am prepared to make my ruling at this time!”

What a delicious sense of power, what an incredible time saver it would be, if we could use such a technique at home.  Say, during matrimonial discussions.  Dear old spouse starts to spout off a dusty old argument, filled with worn out and all-too-well-known misguided opinions and foregone conclusions, and half a sentence into it, the other spouse could simply call out, “Thank you!”

I have enough information.  I have made up my mind.  Save yourself the trouble.  Let’s not waste any more time on this.  Thank you!