“Toys of War”

In this touching and brief documentary by Andrew Berends, children in South Sudan use clay, pieces of fabric, and flowers to narrate the raid on their village that led to murder of family members and their current state of homelessness.

Art is known to help heal the psychological rupture that trauma causes. For these Sudanese children, their creative ‘play’ gives expression to overwhelming and incomprehensible events, and seems to help them retrieve memories of themselves that have gone missing, much like the security they once knew. They speak of a deep longing for home, which may be an archetypal reaction to the need to heal a broken social world — a task that cannot be done alone. It is also hard to imagine community without an associated sense of time or place.

Longing, especially for home or community, is perhaps the greatest legacy of interminable conflict, if not any ongoing condition that threatens the integrity and safety of human life.

In his book, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, George Herbert Mead speculated that longing for an earlier time and place was a central psychological trait of Romanticism, and the direct result of social breakdown caused by revolutions. Revolutions are terrifying, and typically fail to create the equality and safety people need and desire. In response to the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and other radicalizing social movements of the eighteenth century, Mead claimed people began to nostalgically long for earlier times and circumstances. They expressed their longing through painting, poetry, novels, operas — a creative outpouring not much different in motivation than the figurines made by the children of South Sudan, and their efforts to find their pieces of lost humanity and their way back ‘home’.

Perhaps longing for home, and other symbols of the psyche and social worlds, is one way we reconstruct community in our imaginations. We inwardly search for a salve to longing and loneliness, and when lucky, find words, images, or sounds that lessen feelings of grief and loss, which can then be shared with others.

When we can stop longing for the past, or no longer feel compelled to recreate it, we have more energy and clarity to mindfully witness present circumstances, and are freer to choose new directions, even find new homes and social worlds to fill with our creative energies.

But ongoing conflicts — whether its South Sudan, Gaza, or US cities where men of color fear the police — are often so entrenched that it is difficult to imagine how resolution and transformation might come about. Nevertheless, art may still be possible, as these children show. Art is often grieving in its most powerful expression, and for many a vital step towards overcoming a tragic past.


Mead, George Herbert. 1936. Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.