On Trauma

Sebastian Junger has a fascinating piece over at Vanity Fair on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The problem, he writes, is not that soldiers experience horrific things in war, but that our society is no longer meaningfully social.

There are obvious psychological stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation. Most higher primates, including humans, are intensely social, and there are few examples of individuals surviving outside of a group. A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit situation that humans evolved for into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good, and people sleep alone or with a partner. Even if he or she is in a family, that is not the same as belonging to a large, self-sufficient group that shares and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individual lifestyles that those technologies spawn may be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.

“You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society—that we are an anti-human society,” anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz warned when I tried this theory out on her. Abramowitz was in Ivory Coast during the start of the civil war there in 2002 and experienced, firsthand, the extremely close bonds created by hardship and danger. “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is about an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”

And he continues:

In America, the more assimilated a person is into contemporary society, the more likely he or she is to develop depression in his or her lifetime. According to a 2004 study in The**Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Mexicans born in the United States are highly assimilated into American culture and have much higher rates of depression than Mexicans born in Mexico. By contrast, Amish communities have an exceedingly low rate of reported depression because, in part, it is theorized, they have completely resisted modernization. They won’t even drive cars. “The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment promoting decisions that maximize consumption at the long-term cost of well-being,” one survey of these studies, from the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2012, concluded. “In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

And still more:

“Our whole approach to mental health has been hijacked by pharmaceutical logic,” I was told by Gary Barker, an anthropologist whose group, Promundo, is dedicated to understanding and preventing violence. “PTSD is a crisis of connection and disruption, not an illness that you carry within you.”

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

What Junger here touches on, but doesn’t explicitly state, is some I think I ran into — or rather, ran into me — during my candidacy process with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The belief among educated, bourgeois, professional westerners — which is basically the ruling elite of the ELCA — that trauma is and should not be a normative human experience and therefore human beings who, as individuals or communities, have experienced trauma, or have learned to cope and function in and with trauma, were someone permanently damaged and only worthy of being cared for. Always by educated, well-adjusted professionals.

Somehow, the professionals possess the skills and knowledge to “help” those who have been traumatized, but the traumatized possess nothing of value.

I say this because on a couple of levels, I deal with something akin to PTSD. There is my experience of school — especially fourth through sixth grades at Citrus Elementary in Upland, California, which I write about in some detail in my book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death — but there is also the fact that I was at the World Trade Center on 9/11, an experience which has left me very wary of jet airplanes.

And for a long time utterly terrified.

I dealt with my terror not through therapy, and not by talking with other witnesses (aside from a short conversation I had at the Pentagon with someone who had been there on 9/11, I’ve never really spoken with someone else who witness the attack on the World Trade Center first hand, and so I have no idea how things might have been different had there been other witnesses to talk to). Rather, I dealt with my terror with a daily bicycle commute up and down the Mt. Vernon bike trail from Alexandria to the District.

Those of you know D.C. know what that means — a ride around National Airport, right under the northern approach. There’s nothing quite like screaming pointlessly at a 737 only a couple of hundred feet above you — “Curses upon you, murderous demon from hell!” — while pedaling madly day after day after day to eventually strip the terror away.

Now I’m just wary. I’ve lived near two major airports — National and Midway — and I can always hear them. I always make sure I know where they are going when I see a jet plane in the sky. But I’m not terrified anymore. I’ve flown several times, and I no longer panic whenever I hear the engines roar. I’m just wary. Just wary.

Again, I think our cultural response to traumatic events wants to isolate them, try to construct a world in which those traumas can “unhappen.” That’s at least the sense I got from dealing with skittish, liberal church people (and the occasional psychologist). I agree, it would be nice if human beings didn’t abuse, terrorize, assault, and kill each other. But we do. And we are. And we learn to live with that and even — heaven forbid! — confess the love of God in it!

Jesus didn’t preach the Gospel to a “nice” world, or assume that people would be good to his disciples or “the least of these.” He preached to an occupied people who experienced the violence of that occupation frequently. That’s why kindness as a response to the violence of the world matters. Not because it will result in a “nice” world (and too often, the “niceness” prized by the comfortable bourgeois is heavily dependent on the impersonal and indifferent brutality and violence of law and institutions, and thus the trauma it causes can be hidden or ignored, or even justified as righteousness), but because God as Jesus Christ lives and dies with us in our trauma. Not in an anti-sceptic nursing home bed, but on a dirty, bloody, and battered cross. An instrument of torture. A method of execution.

Trauma is part of the experience of God incarnate on earth, a trauma shared not just with those who suffer but also with those who torture and abuse. God is present to them, is with them, as victim as well, showing them what it is to be truly human and completely vulnerable to the brutal will of another. Because God once commanded the raising of a knife to kill a child.

But like all things Christ does, this is not avoiding trauma, or creating a world free of trauma, but redeeming humanity by going through trauma. Because the death of God is not final. God rises with us from our trauma and our death, still bearing his wounds, to face the world that had beaten and broken Him to say, “follow me and preach the Good News, that I am risen! Baptize in my name and make disciples from all people!”

6 thoughts on “On Trauma

  1. I’m a very easy-going person. It is hard to make me mad. (It can be done – say, by assaulting one of my family.) I don’t bear grudges; in fact, at my age I can hardly remember them.

    But I do sometimes get steamed at certain kinds of obtuseness. (Of course, I only hate the obtuseness, not the obtuse.) One of these is over-protection of the public psyche. (How this can be an issue in a society also which churns out multiple “Saw” movie sequels is perplexing, but there it is. Or maybe the latter is one reason for the former.) And it is pervasive. There are feminists who want (in effect) a red blinking light to go off in a lecture hall if the subject of rape is about to be mentioned so that the fragile will have time to exit or to prepare themselves. [I know there are lecturers who like to use shock tactics, so this concern is not entirely groundless.] There are church-goers, liberal and conservative, who think that churches should likewise be a “safe space” – no more risky to the sensibilities than Disney World. I have Protestant reservations about the use of images in religion, but I commend the traditionally grim Catholic crucifix as at least making it harder to forget what’s really going on.

    We are not in a special corner of the world with a security sticker saying “Protected by Modernity”. The barrier separating us from the typical life experience of the ancient world or the middle ages is no more than a quarter-inch piece of plywood with shaky support, which could give way at any time. I wish people were more grateful for what they have, while they still have it. Those who do have it.

  2. I went to a play recently called the Biloxi Blues, a semi-autobiographical story about a young Jewish man, Eugene Jerome, who is sent to boot camp in WWII. Eugene records his aspirations and perceptions about his boot camp experience in his journal and then published them after he was released from the army. There were many human and touching moments in boot camp, ranging from the camaraderie of the men (eventually) to Eugene falling in love, and losing his virginity.

    At the end of the play though, I realized all of these men were being sent basically to die. The prologue talks about how one of the men who used to sing was silenced because he developed neurological problems caused from bombing. Another of the men was MIA and never found.

    Anyway, I bring this up because even though war can produce intense closeness and a sense of solidarity, it is not a desirable state of affairs for humans, especially for people following someone referred to as “The Prince of Peace”. I’m not a committed pacifist, but I think the best part of war is when it ends. So given that our technology is not going away in modernity, and we have a bunch of different tribes in the US who don’t necessarily want to come together…how do you think a somewhat more peaceful society should create community? How do you think a church should?

  3. Also, for as many positive experiences as we have in groups, there are probably just as many negative ones. Tribalism and group mentality can be very ugly when you are not on the inside.

  4. Re: Laurie “Tribalism and group mentality can be very ugly when you are not on the inside.”

    Absolutely true. As a part-time recluse, I’m all for the Hermit Option. Who was more lonely and misunderstood than Jesus himself, especially when his disciples could not stay awake even an hour with him that night on the Mount of Olives. A prophet is without honor in his own country; or his own congregation.

    When I was discussing with my wife the thought that veterans had more trouble coping partly because the traumatic experiences were mixed with positive ones of group solidarity, she said “I bet the women who were raped by their fellow soldiers didn’t have that problem.”

  5. I know there are females who may want to serve in the military, but I completely understand the conservative viewpoint that doesn’t think women should serve in war. You can call it paternalistic, but it seems to open a whole can of worms that would be better of staying shut. I’m sure there are a few women would be great at it, but they would be the exception, not the rule.

    • When I was in Panama, in the mid-1980s, women could not serve in combat arms jobs (infantry, artillery), so military police was as close as they could get. About a third of our MPs, at least at the HQ company (the two combat MP companies did not allow women), were female, and they were as good and as hard charging as any of the men in uniform.

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