Habituation in a world of trauma
The problem is not how we should live. The problem is how we can live with our grief at what is happening to the world in which we live.
How can we live with our grief at what is happening to the world in which we live? A world where political orders are crumbling, and where people are profoundly dispirited, if not traumatised, by the rank violence of almost daily mass killings in the USA, for example, and the weekly killing of women by their intimate partner in Australia. The shameless lies and inhumanity of the political elite who seem to be above consequence, and the constant scapegoating of the poor which society uses to maintain itself. And behind it all, the growing realisation, if not certainty, that the planet faces a biological disaster in which we as the peak predator are among the most vulnerable species.
It is difficult not to be traumatised by all this once our eyes are open to it, and yet, in the midst of our grief, the Gospel calls us to also bear the trauma of others who are in as much, if not more, pain as ourselves. The duty of our calling is plain. The question is how we can bear it. How do we continue to function through our own great grief and then find more energy for our children and those others life gives us as neighbour?
How do we find the energy and the will not to give up? How do we avoid paralysis because the climate catastrophe is so large and appears insurmountable? How do we persist despite despair?
We need a reason to live; that is we need a view of the world worth living for, a belief.
And we need to habituate ourselves in that world view. The ability to persist rather than despair is a habit; somewhere Aristotle says everything we do is practice for the next time. Belief is a habit. We often think of belief as a set of propositions to which we assent but, in truth, what we believe is what we do. If we say we believe a, b, and c, but act contrary to these, or without reference to them, they will be of little value as we seek to draw meaning from them and persist in times of trauma and despair. What gives us persistence and strength is lived belief which has come out of honest and habitual introspection about ourselves. Habitually living out that belief tests it and refines it, and "keeps it real" and life giving, rather than it turning out to be a somewhat foreign and empty set of ideas which hold no power when we fall back upon them.
I'm writing these notes as I reflect upon a recent seminar on vicarious trauma, and upon regaining health after some trauma of my own. Vicarious trauma is the secondary trauma we suffer from working and being with victims of trauma. The main speaker in this seminar suggested three key areas to help us be resistant to stress and trauma: Introspection, healthy, stress resistant habits, and social connection. I think all three areas need to be habitual; introspection and social connection need to become a habit.
What is trauma?
Trauma is what happens when we are at risk of death; specifically, it is when the threat of death breaches our emotional defences and assails the primitive brain so that our normal rationalisations and coping mechanisms, and even our civility, are overwhelmed by flight or fight mechanisms.
To be clear, we may not consciously understand this experience as threatening death, but the "lizard brain," as my daughter calls it, sees the emotional and physical onslaught in exactly those terms. It is afraid for its survival. When trauma re-visits us—when something triggers us—the primitive brain has remembered the original trauma and responded with the same fight/flight panic. It overwhelms us again.
In all this there is no hierarchy of trauma; a statement such as "The death toll was lower here so the trauma is less than it was there," is not true. Trauma occurs when an event gets through our higher level defences, which means a thing that does not traumatise one person can be devastating for another.
There is also a phenomenon which I call slow-drip trauma. This is where, looking back, there is no great single moment of trauma, but one realises there have been months or years of low level abuse, for example, which lead to a similar trauma responses we popularly associate with a single horrific event. The climate catastrophe means we all have this slow drip upon us; there is nowhere we can step out of it.
We are living in the context of a planetary trauma, a time when all culture is facing the danger of disintegration, where "natural disasters" are increasingly frequent, even in our own "lucky country," and where we are becoming aware of mass extinctions. It means there is no objective and uninvolved place from which we are able to assist another in our suffering. We are all suffering, and it is difficult to see that we are anywhere other than at the beginning of a much deeper and more prolonged suffering.
In this situation the great temptation for those of us who are privileged is to attempt to use that privilege to insulate ourselves from the suffering around us. The evolutionary origins of our species prime us to survive at any cost, so the unbidden temptation will be to abandon the poor and the traumatised to enable our own survival for as long as possible.
This is not merely a physical abandonment whereby we live on higher ground in storm-proofed houses and have enough money to cover higher food prices. There is an emotional aspect as well. What such abandonment and insulation does is attempt to lessen, or even deny, our grief. It is the opposite of the compassion which is the hallmark of our deepening humanity, because it separates us from others. This does not only hurt them, for in abandoning other people in an attempt to ensure our own survival, we abandon a part of ourselves because our humanity and personality is not merely biologically embedded memory, but also grounded in our relationality.
Whilst it may appear that we can harden ourselves in this abandonment, I suspect that a part of us knows, deep down, what it is doing. There is still a grief at what we have lost as a people. At a time where we sacrifice refugees to enable political stability, we still know that we have been a better people. The quick anger of some of us toward refugees, even as we slurp our pho, betrays us. The problem is that "the more we try to evade or avoid painful realities, the more entangled we become in the tentacles of their embrace." So says Joshua Coleman writing in a recent article in Aeon Magazine. He quotes Marsha Linehan:
‘The path out of hell is through misery,' Linehan wrote. ‘By refusing to accept the misery that is part of climbing out of hell, you fall back into hell.' The path out of hell is through misery. What's that supposed to mean? It means that you have to start by ‘radically accepting' where you are right now. Radical acceptance means that you don't fight what you're feeling in this moment. You feel sad? Feel sad. Don't judge it, don't push it away, don't diminish it, and don't try to control its passage. Turn toward the feeling rather than turning away from it.
We will not live well with our own trauma until we accept it, and much less will we be balm to those around us. It is one thing to accept intellectually that we Homo sapiens may not survive the climate crisis we have precipitated, but quite another to allow ourselves to feel this and to grieve it. For this is to own in our hearts that not only will we inevitably die, but so will our children and their children and, in the end, there may be nothing left of humanity but desert statues which are monuments to a hubris at which even Ozymandias would have demurred.
To live well is to own what the survivors of wars and concentration camps have learned. It will be crucial to find some sense of meaning and purpose for our being in all the chaos and inhumanity around us. Without that we will have no resilience and see no point in seeking to go on. "Those who have a ‘why' to live, can bear with almost any ‘how'," Frankl said. Along with that lesson is the recognition that our survival, in the end, is also simply a matter of chance. It is this which we must feel and accept. It sobers me to remember three friends of mine who all died young: a motor vehicle rollover, a fall from a cliff, and a drowning in the surf. Only by blind chance have I survived the same three things. This is an assault to all my pretensions to significance: Surely I am worth more than blind chance!?
Am I over reacting? Perhaps the climate catastrophe will not be so bad. Perhaps here in Australia we will be relatively safe. Here is where Living and Dying with the Planet began:
For myself, this project is continuing my own attempt to live out discipleship in the face of catastrophic climate change. I am working from an initial paper, Easter in the Anthropocene and developing a worst case model; that is, how do we live faithfully knowing that as a species we are becoming extinct. In light of the latest warnings of the climate emergency by world scientists this is not unrealistic, but even if we should be able to turn things around a little, our death avoidance culture needs some of us to assume the worst. Otherwise it is too easy to speak an easy theology which avoids the hardest questions about human futures.
The seminar which prompted these notes came out of work with victims of institutional child abuse, and I wondered if, in the first area of introspection, the speaker was gently suggesting that some wise introspection might lead us to consider if we were working in the correct area, led to it by unconscious factors. We might ask ourselves, if this is really the area we should be working in because, if not, we will be more prone to vicarious trauma.
But, as I have said, the climate catastrophe is different. We can't go and work in some other job, for all work and all life is influenced by this crisis. And there is no place for us to stand somewhat apart and objective as we seek to comfort our children or our friends; we are living in the same unfolding catastrophe.
Big picture introspection is not merely radically accepting where we are, but habitually revisiting who we are and where we are, and living out of that acceptance. Big-picture thinking considers our place and purpose in the totality of things, especially our place within the great planetary issues of ecology and violence. But to be introspective in that thinking is to ask: What is it that is really important to me? What has formed me; even, are there past events which traumatised me and still drive me? Who am I? What is my vocation? Vocation is perhaps an unfashionable word at the moment, implying not only a calling, but even a duty. It asks first not what I am called to do, but who am I meant to be; what sort of person? "Vocationing" is a lifelong process of self-identification and self-understanding, and begins to free us from the fashions of the moment, or the demands of family or friends—not to mention employers, who wish us to be something for their benefit instead of allowing us to become a person who lives in the best way we can for the sake of all humanity.
Wrestling with vocation is never easy. For one thing, we can never fully separate ourselves from others' ideas about what is important in life. But it begins to give us a measure of freedom. It means we are not the person born to be an artist who spends their life as an accountant, hating the work they do. Or, if we are stuck with a mortgage, and thus being an accountant, allows us to manage that job whilst developing our true vocation as artist. In the same way, it enables a person who sees pattern and finds joy in numbers to be an accountant instead of fitting into someone's expectation that she should be an artist.
But most of all, introspection and vocational thinking eventually enable us a certain peace with who we are. We are less in the thrall of Facebook and Instagram, less swayed by every wind of populism and, most importantly, become able to face the trauma of our own lives and of other people with some equanimity. It will almost certainly mean we will not exhibit the shiny personas we see projected by some of our social media contacts. But it will mean we find a precious groundedness and some sense of meaning.
Where my introspection has taken me...
I want to restate my basic theological position as it is outlined in many posts on this site.
This is what it means to trust God: a mostly unspectacular renunciation of violence and retaliation as we seek to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. In this love the "un-power of God" is shown and violence fails. Our ability to destroy ourselves means this restraint is our only option. (Here)
We, of all people, are called to be anti-ideologues and of all people, the least tribal. Our living is to be without violence. The love which Paul the apostle speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 requires that we act to give all people the same opportunity, safety, and value, in life. This love is witness that God loves and values all people just the same, for there is no hierarchy of human worth. As the Messiah's followers, we follow his example; we do not impose or force behaviour upon people, for that is a violence. We can only exemplify the love of the Messiah to all people, even to the point of death. (Here)
Scott Beauchamp says "force is always a corrupting power which blinds and deforms" and "makes anyone who is touched by it into things: both in the literal sense of a corpse and the analogous dehumanization of the corpse-maker." And so it must be, for any violence always has the threat of death at the back of it—I could kill you—and emerges from our atavistic use of death and the threat of death to prevent our own death. It is the antithesis of Christianity which emerges from the Messiah who chose to die rather than enforce one more form of empire.
What all this means is that we do not wini. We do not strategise to defeat others for the sake of the Christ. It means not only that we will advocate for the vulnerable of society, but that we will be the vulnerable, and the losers. This is the foolishness of the cross (1 Cor 1:18). (Here)
How do we live this as we seek meaning and energy in the face of climate trauma? How can we not win—for that, in the end, is the result of refusing violence—how can we not win without losing? I state the paradox in this way because we attach our worth, and thus our energy, to winning. It's why the sneer of "Loser!" is so potent. Losing is a small death. It reflects the long history of our evolving humanity where losing meant to die. Winning ensures life goes on, losing is the loss of power to stay alive. There is a long unbroken line‒too appalling to hold in our consciousness for long, or even to admit—an unbroken line between an all-in animalistic brawl millennia past where the losers were butchered, and this weekend's loss by our team at the footy, or our loss in a bid for promotion. And climate change threatens unimaginable loss.
What if there were a way of living, a set of values, which were intrinsically worthwhile? Values which were independent of winning? Michael East, reflecting on the work of Wendell Berry, says Berry offers us
a vision for living with integrity whether or not one wins. Which means, to put the matter more sharply, it is a portrait of how to live without despair when losing is likely. For the likelihood of loss is unbearable only if value—the goodness of a neighborly deed, the beauty of a creek at sunset—arises from consequences, not from things as they are in themselves.
For half a century, Berry's poetry and prose have bristled with irritation, outrage and indignation. But it has always lacked ... desperation. The absence of desperation is not, from Berry's perspective, a failure to recognize the gravity of the situation. His posture, rather, is a conscious decision rooted at once in a way of apprehending the world… as a gift that precedes and encompasses us… and a corresponding response that accepts one's place in it. Such a stance of humility and gratitude is not one among other viable options. The world calls it forth in us. Without it, we are lost.
For if virtue, pleasure or happiness in the lives of conscientious individuals depended on confidence that the world is going to be okay, that we will make history turn out right, then the only rational response would be anguish and desolation, even suicide. For that kind of confidence is beyond our ken; the kind of power necessary to underwrite it, corrupt and corrupting. Such a standard for living a decent life is for some other creatures than we in some other world than ours. (East)
It is important to add here that Berry's thought, deeply Christian, does not advocate some kind of apolitical quietism. For as East says,
To recognize these limits, to acknowledge that nothing will suffice to save us from them… is not, for Berry, an abandonment of politics. It is politics' founding premise, leavening it with mercy and relieving it of an unbearable burden. Because attention is a condition for the discipline of thought, thinking small means, among other things, paying attention to what is right in front of you. You have more to do than that, but not less. (Ibid)
Politics which is predicated upon winning will always end up being that "corrupting power which blinds and deforms." Berry reminds us that there is a politics that does not need to win.
The Healthy Habits
Habits are not value free. The habit of what I have called big-picture introspection, will profoundly influence what we see to be life-giving or life-draining as we seek to manage stress and trauma.
What follows are several areas the seminar called "patterns of healthy living," or "stress resistant habits." These habits do not prevent trauma in our own lives, but they enable us to be resilient and resistant. It is immediately clear that personal privilege and circumstance plays an enormous role here. One of my friends has the most energetic six year old I have ever seen. Her development of trauma resistant habits is unavoidably bound up with surviving his energy. Migrant workers with few employment options may have no ability to turn off their phone if they wish to eat.
- Personal control: Can we set boundaries? My phone goes over to Do Not Disturb at 9pm each night. My partner and children, and my sisters, are set as exceptions. Everyone, and everything else, can wait until 8am. It is freeing. And if I am working after tea, it's something exceptional, rather than being the commonplace it was in the past.
- Personally meaningful tasks: This relates to vocation, but also to other things we do. Where are we pouring our energy? Does what we have given our life to give us meaning, or is it destructive or dispiriting? How do we relax and take time out—is this restorative, or simply anaesthetising?
- Healthy lifestyle choices and coping mechanisms: We cope with stress and trauma through a number of mechanisms. Movies, social media, and partying, for example, can be a welcome and healthy time-out. They can also become an avoidance mechanism and a distraction from issues we need to confront. Constant busyness can be a mechanism to avoid the hard questions life is heaping upon us.
I find self-medication a useful framework for dealing with our own stress, and for being aware of our privilege. My pastoral experience leads me to conclude that much so-called drug addiction in our society is actually self-medication to deal with past and present trauma. My doctor once typed into her notes, "Controlling his depression with excessive exercise," and then proceeded to tell me that on her last holidays she had walked from one side of the UK to the other, which I thought was hilarious! But how privileged we both were.
There seems to be a decreasingly acceptable hierarchy of drugs within our society; something like money, media, work, exercise, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, over-the-counter drugs and prescription drugs, marijuana, "hard illegal drugs," and so on. When does something cease to give us distance and recovery from stress, and instead merely buy us insulation from our grief? When does a celebratory ritual become avoidance and sedation? Taught to look down upon those "addicted to drugs," many of us have long term caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and media addictions; we, too, are more or less functional addicts.
The seminar speaker said that as much as sugar, caffeine and nicotine may seem to help in the short term, they limit our resistance to stress. She noted that her source did not mention alcohol, clearly considering that it should have been in the list. She said it is far healthier to have regular hard exercise, which she defined as raised heart rate, and to have regular relaxation on at least a weekly basis.
Good habits in this area not only help us be more stress resistant, but they assist our recovery when we get swamped.
Being outside, and getting exercise appears to be a major stress release and health improver. Green space magnifies this. My commute into the city involves a few hundred metres across a large park, and I can often feel a physical response as I turn off the street onto the path across the park. I notice I have unconsciously developed the habit of returning home via a slightly longer route because it adds a second larger stretch of parklands to the ride.
Exercise works better as an habitual practice. Not only does it offer us the benefit of a healthy routine, but the routine means the exercise becomes enjoyable rather than another stress. As I once remarked to a friend, "If you persevere, you will stop arriving at work exhausted and sweaty and find you are refreshed instead."
I was privileged to be able to indulge in 30km commutes to my work three days a week for over a decade. Not only was there a considerable financial saving over car or train, but I was essentially getting free gym, and no winter colds for much the same time expenditure as a vehicular commute. But the greatest benefit of this exercise was a kind of unfocussing of the mind. This not only allowed the release of a lot of stress but also meant I was much more creative and efficient when I was working.
- Social support: In our present context, none of the habituation I have outlined so far is easy. In fact, it is mostly counter-cultural! Food and media companies saturate us in advertising, as do even the utility or service companies, in a very successful attempt to increase our consumption and monopolise our attention. Even "non-green-washing" companies selling solar panels work on a model of increasing consumption, whereas surviving the climate crisis demands we cut consumption and radically rethink what it means to live a good life.
As human beings we need social support. We need like-minded people who support and reinforce and exemplify the way we wish to live. We live by the example of others; our distinction from the other animals is based in how thoroughly we imitate each other. Being counter-cultural is extraordinarily difficult as a solitary enterprise. Find your people! They help carry the load. Relationships buffer stress and trauma, especially the relationships with people who share our sensibility.
In the end
Christ calls us to learn to live out of control. Stanley Hauerwas says, "For it turns out, to follow Jesus is ongoing training for learning to live out of control." He goes on reminding us living out of control trains us to rely on the power of God and forces us to recognize that we cannot do this alone. "To learn to live out of control means that we must learn to depend on others who are also learning to live out of control. The name given such a people is church" (from "Letting God" in Without Apology: Sermons for Christ's Church, p. 37-39) (Quoted here by Kyle Childress).
(Andrew Prior July 2021)