Fight­ing the spir­i­tual void

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY DAVID BROOKS

Wher­ever I go I seem to meet peo­ple who are ei­ther deal­ing with trauma or help­ing oth­ers deal­ing with trauma.

In some places I meet vet­er­ans try­ing to re­cover from the psy­chic wounds they suf­fered in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some­times it is women strug­gling with the af­ter­shocks of sex­ual as­sault. Some­times it is teach­ers try­ing to help stu­dents over­come the trau­mas they’ve suf­fered from some adult’s abuse or aban­don­ment.

Wher­ever Amer­i­cans gather and try to help each other on any deep level, they con­front lev­els of trauma that their train­ing has of­ten not pre­pared them for.

Our so­ci­ety has tried to med­i­cal­ize trauma. We call it PTSD and re­gard it as an in­di­vid­ual ill­ness that can be treated with med­i­ca­tions. But it’s in­creas­ingly clear that trauma is a moral and spir­i­tual is­sue as much as a psy­cho­log­i­cal or chem­i­cal one. Wher­ever there is trauma, there has been be­trayal, an abuse of au­thor­ity, a moral in­jury.

Med­i­ca­tion can re­bal­ance chem­i­cals in the brain, but it can’t heal the in­ner self. Peo­ple who have suf­fered a trauma — whether it’s a sex­ual as­sault at work or re­peated beat­ings at home — find that their iden­tity for­ma­tion has been in­ter­rupted and frag­mented. Time doesn’t flow from one day to the next but cir­cles back­ward to the bad event.

Peo­ple who en­dure trauma some­times say that they feel morally tainted. They have the same plain­tive mind­set as the old man at the ceme­tery in “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan,” who says to his wife, “Tell me I’m a good man.”

As a cul­ture we’re pretty bad at deal­ing with moral in­jury. Some­times I look at the ris­ing sui­cide and de­pres­sion rates, the ris­ing fragility and dis­trust, and I think it all flows from the fact that we’ve made our cul­ture a spir­i­tual void.

When you pri­va­tize moral­ity and de­nude the pub­lic square of spir­i­tual con­tent, you’ve robbed peo­ple of the com­mu­nity re­sources they need to process moral pain to­gether.

The good news is that the peo­ple who are ad­dress­ing trauma most di­rectly are re­viv­ing a moral lan­guage and de­vel­op­ing a moral cur­ricu­lum. Ed­ward Tick is a ther­a­pist who has been work­ing with sur­vivors of wars for decades. In his book “War and the Soul,” he writes that PTSD is best un­der­stood as a “soul wound, af­fect­ing the per­son­al­ity at the deep­est lev­els.”

One of his pa­tients, Art, told Tick, “My soul has fled.” He felt it leave his body at Khe Sanh. Art was a ma­chine-gun­ner re­pelling wave af­ter wave of North Viet­namese' as­sault, killing them by the score.

One day the North Viet­namese over­ran his po­si­tion, and while he was sprint­ing away in re­treat, ex­pect­ing to die at any sec­ond, he felt his soul run out of his body. It stayed out, trau­ma­tized, on red alert, for decades.

Tick told Art: “We can try to make your body and this life a safe place for your soul to move back into. If we can get you off com­bat alert, if you can learn to trust a lit­tle bit … maybe we can bring you two closer to­gether.”

Peo­ple who are re­cov­er­ing from trauma of­ten em­brace the lan­guage of myth, which of­fers us tem­plates of moral progress. Re­cently, in New Or­leans, I met the founder of a com­mu­nity of vets called Bas­tion. The men and women there are taught to see their lives as a hero’s jour­ney with three stages: from Sep­a­ra­tion through Ini­ti­a­tion and then back to Re­turn.

When we see our lives in mythic terms, we can see that life still of­fers a chance to do some­thing heroic. “Myths are clues to the spir­i­tual po­ten­tial­i­ties of the hu­man life,” Joseph Camp­bell wrote.

Tick points out that most an­cient cul­tures put re­turn­ing soldiers through pu­rifi­ca­tion ri­tu­als. The men came back from bat­tle and the ter­ri­ble things they had done there, and they were given a chance to cleanse, pu­rify and re­join the com­mu­nity. The com­mu­nity would take pos­ses­sion of the guilt the soldiers may have felt for the things they had to do on its be­half.

The To­hono O'odham, a Na­tive Amer­i­can peo­ple from the Sono­ran Desert, once prac­ticed a 16-day pu­rifi­ca­tion cer­e­mony.

These cer­e­monies had, Tick writes, what most rites of pas­sage have: a sa­cred space, train­ing by the el­ders, or­deals that pre­pare and test the ini­ti­ate, ri­tu­als that sym­bol­ize the trans­for­ma­tion tak­ing place. Af­ter the cleans­ing, the blood-soaked sol­dier was now known as a war­rior, a pos­i­tive leader in the com­mu­nity.

I wish our cul­ture had many more rites of pas­sage, com­mu­nal mo­ments when we cel­e­brated a moral tran­si­tion. There could be a com­mu­ni­ty­wide rite of pas­sage for peo­ple com­ing out of prison, for for­give­ness of a per­sonal wrong, for peo­ple who felt they had come out the other side of trauma and abuse. There’d be a mar­riage cer­e­mony of sorts to mark the mo­ment when a young per­son found the vo­ca­tion he or she would ded­i­cate life to.

It'll take a lot to make our cul­ture a thick moral cul­ture. But one way or an­other, na­tions and peo­ple have to grow a soul big enough to en­close the trau­mas that haunt them.

Fol­low David Brooks on Twit­ter: @nyt­david­brooks

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.