A trauma is essentially an insight that is too powerful to be integrated into a person’s psyche. Neither joyful nor uplifting, it is a glimpse into the very “heart of darkness.” A traumatized person, who now possesses this dark knowledge, has become “the man who knows too much.” He can never reconstitute the comfortable, but illusory, world that he once inhabited.
|Even tough guys suffer traumas.
A trauma is akin, in certain respects, to a disillusionment. A person who is disillusioned had based his view of the world on certain beliefs, or premises. But events have conspired to render those premises invalid. For example, one day we discover that our admiration for a certain person is unfounded. We see that our hero has feet of clay. We might, as a result, become more cynical. Or, we might develop a a sympathy towards human frailty. But, one way or another, we integrate what we have seen about people into a larger understanding of life. This is part of what it means to mature as a person.
A trauma is an insight that is so profoundly disillusioning that we are not able to integrate it into a larger, more all-embracing, understanding of life. For example, a young man — with lofty ideals and a romanticized view of war — enlists in the army. Within time, he encounters terrible horrors on the battlefield, far beyond anything that he could have imagined. Most soldiers outgrow their naive beliefs, expanding their view of the world, such that it includes life’s darker side. But this soldier cannot integrate what he has seen, either because of personality factors or because he has seen things that are well beyond what most soldiers encounter. Consequently, what he has seen just sits in his psyche, undigested and festering, as it does in cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
People of all ages can suffer a trauma. It is more likely, though, to occur to a younger person, for he or she has not developed the ego structures and the defenses that can provide some buffering from life’s “slings and arrows.” They are also less likely to have developed an understanding of life, such that what transpired makes sense. But children learn fast, and some, rather than being traumatized, develop the pluck and resourcefulness of a Huckleberry Finn.
|An entire nation suffered a trauma on 9/11/2001
Traumas are often the result of a terrifying encounter with evil. The experience can be so harrowing that it shatters a person. For example, a woman who has been raped has suddenly been exposed to a dimension of the masculine that is murderously aggressive in its sexuality, shattering her sense of the masculine as fatherly and protective. Consequently, she no longer feels that she can be, in the world, safe and secure in her femininity. The film “Two Woman,” (1960) is about a woman (played by Sophie Loren), and her daughter, both who have been raped. What made it all the worse, psychologically, was the fact that the rapes occurred in a church, where one normally has a sense of being protected by God, the father. Furthermore, the rapes were perpetrated by soldiers, whose duty it is protect. The mother copes with what has happened, but her daughter has entered into a dissociative state, withdrawing from both her body and her feelings, for neither is now judged, by her, as a safe place to be. It is true that the daughter is suffering from a misperception, for obviously not all men are rapists. The fact, though, that some are, and that they cannot always be stopped, means that her world will, from now on, be riddled with uncertainty. Healing involves coming to terms with that very uncertainty.
One of the most traumatic experiences is when a person realizes that it is he who has committed an evil. For example, in Sophocles’ play, King Oedipus discovers that he has, unwittingly, murdered his father and married his mother. (Freud brilliantly realized the universality of this crime.) Oedipus is shattered, not because evil has been done to him, but because he has done evil to others. Trauma — which often precipitates the defense mechanism of desensitization — is symbolized in the play by Oedipus blinding himself. Similarly, our own self-imposed myopia, obtuseness, and insensitivity operate as circuit breakers to prevent an overload from the insights that lead to self-knowledge. After all, nothing is more potentially traumatic than self-knowledge, which brings into focus our own sinfulness. Of course, the light does eventually find its way through the many-layered maze of ego defenses. Unfortunately, the coming of the light does not always lead to deliverance. More often than not, it leads to desperate efforts to distract ourselves with 101 activities — from shopping to sports to business — and to nullify self-awareness through drinking, drugs, loud music, and other means. Kierkegaard referred to this flight from self-awareness as “the demonic.”
Related to the experience of evil, is that of death. Sometimes the two join forces to produce a horror show. The events of September 11th was both a national tragedy and a trauma, for it undermined our sense of being protected from the ideologically- driven homicidal maniacs, who wreck havoc in other parts of the world. Like traumas often do, it shocked us into an awareness of our vulnerability and forever changed the nature of our world. Of course, many people will always be in denial, for, as T.S. Eliot wrote: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
But death need not be allied with human malevolence to produce a trauma. The devastation wrought by nature — in such forms as flood, tidal-wave, earthquake, fire, and tornado — can be traumatic. Such an event challenges our puerile sense of nature as a beneficent force. Even more devastating is the way that it belies the naive notion that the good are rewarded and the are evil are punished, for the flood comes and drowns good and bad and innocent alike. Indeed, the philosopher Voltaire was so shocked by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that he abandoned his former optimism. Voltaire had to develop as a thinker to make sense of it all, as had Rousseau and Kant, who suffered a similar crisis.
Since a trauma is a dark insight, the way to healing involves consciously encountering what we have seen, wrestling with the demons, whether they take the form of evil or death. It essentially necessitates a philosophical quest, for we must expand our view of life so as to render intelligible the terrible events that have transpired. Understanding is always the road to inner peace. That is where a philosophical exploration can prove most valuable. And that is what we are offering here.
Dr. Dillof offers philosophical counseling, by phone and in person. For information, call him at: (502) 458-7171 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The telephone can allow for an intense conversation. Why, then, drive to a session — in the rain, snow, cold and dark — spending money on fuel?
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