Coping With Trauma

… in which Dave reveals some unhappy and mostly politically unacceptable truths about our having no free will, and about aspects of Christian moralistic evangelism that permeate our western ways of thinking about ‘good and evil’, ‘healing’, and trauma.

In my last post, I tried to identify what I see as the dangers of labels that equate our behaviours (what we do) with our identity (who we are).

In this article, I’m going to try to address a (very popular, and well-intentioned) human process that I think is at best useless, and at worst damaging, that often starts with labeling. And I will try to explain why I believe this process has arisen and why I cannot suggest a more fruitful process to replace it. This useless process might be called the Submission-Repentance-Atonement process. It often has the following components:

  1. The accuser describes a misbehaviour that has caused them suffering and their belief about why they think the accused did it (often including labeling), and the suffering it caused. The accused must just listen, and is exhorted not to deny or be defensive about the accusation.
  2. The accused is now required to accept and acknowledge their guilt and responsibility for the crime and the suffering it caused (often including accepting the label that has been slapped on them). And to demonstrate remorse, shame, apology, repentance and contrition for their action.
  3. The accuser and accused then agree upon punishments, compensatory atonement actions, ‘self-improvement’ programs, and in some cases actions that will hopefully prevent recurrence of the ‘crime’.

This S-R-A process has its roots, I think, in western evangelical religions, and has been exercised in everything from witch trials and prison ‘redemption’ programs to the modern cults of ‘reprogramming’ and CBT. Many ’12-step’ programs follow the same process but substitute a self-labeling and an appeal to a ‘higher power’ for help, for the first of the above three stages. It is no accident, I think, that many of the terms used in this process are biblical. All that’s missing is the Latin mea culpas and self-flagellation.

Acknowledge your sins, prostrate yourself, surrender, accept the label as who you are, and let your guilt and shame crack you open because (to use the nauseating Leonard Cohen cliché) “that’s how the light gets in”. Praise the Lord, let the healing begin!

Underlying all of this is the assumption that you have (or can have) complete free will and control over your behaviour (with the help of the ‘higher power’). If you believe, as I do, that our behaviour is entirely conditioned by our biology and our culture, given the circumstances of the moment, this entire process immediately looks preposterous — just magical thinking.

When someone harms another person out of hatred or fear of what they ‘represent’ (labels again), then what is happening, IMO, is an acting out of trauma. That’s not to excuse that behaviour; it’s just an explanation.

The hatred and fear that has been conditioned in the perpetrator/’criminal’ throughout their life is, I would think, almost always unconscious — it can’t be simply blamed on one traumatic incident. The hatred and fear is a symptom of the conditioning and the trauma. You can sometimes ‘treat’ a symptom, but you can’t ‘heal’ a symptom. And treating the symptom doesn’t heal you from the ‘disease’.

This all comes back, I think, to the whole evangelical/moral issue of ‘good vs evil’, which I just don’t believe in. It’s not as simple as taking a self-improvement course and realizing that your past behaviours or beliefs were ‘bad’ and vowing to do ‘better’ in future. Many of the arguments for ‘reparations’ and for ‘truth and reconciliation’* approaches are fraught with this (IMO faulty) western evangelical moralistic thinking. That’s not to say these approaches are without merit, just that the way they are (usually) couched as issues of morality (or “social justice” to use the currently fashionable term) is, I think, seriously flawed.

And I’m not saying that we can or should use trauma as an ‘excuse’ for past atrocities. It’s an explanation for them, not an excuse. Recognizing it as that doesn’t diminish the trauma that that conditioned behaviour led to. It just acknowledges that admitting you were ‘wrong’ and vowing to do ‘better’ is an inherently moralistic process (one that presumes you have free will and control over your behaviour, for a start).

While an S-R-A process might (if all parties share the same cultural and moral beliefs) make the ‘victims’ of those atrocities feel (temporarily) better, it fundamentally shoves the whole issue of identifying the underlying cause under the rug, rather than dealing with it or even acknowledging it. And the underlying cause, no matter what the moralizers might say, is almost never “I was/we were bad/wrong/evil/insane”. So IMO the entire S-R-A process, by failing to acknowledge and address the lifelong conditioning and underlying trauma behind the ‘crime’, can never offer more than a short-term placebo ‘healing’, either to the ‘perpetrators’ or the ‘victims’.

And in other cases, rather than offering some temporary placebo effect, the retelling of the story and circumstances that led to the suffering and trauma might actually re-trigger the trauma, making everything worse — the opposite of ‘healing’.

I think this is true both in the case of personal ‘crimes’ and in the case of collective acting out of lifelong conditioning and trauma — such as redlining, vigilante actions, wars and other larger-scale atrocities.

So, for example, I would argue that while Israel’s government and military is committing genocide in Palestine, it is not doing so ‘because’ Israelis are morally “bad”. It is committing genocide because its government and people have been conditioned for generations to hate and fear (insert many labels of ‘Others’ here), and have had instilled in them, over centuries, horrific levels of trauma that they are now acting out. That’s not to condone or condemn this genocide, which would suggest the perpetrators have a real choice over their behaviour, which they do not. It’s not an apology. It’s an explanation.

And, I believe, we have all suffered trauma, and are living with trauma, though some much more so than others.

So if S-R-A approaches to dealing with ‘crimes’, both personal and collective, don’t work, what might we do instead to actually ‘heal’ from the suffering and trauma that they both stem from and lead to?

You won’t like my answer.

I’m not really convinced that trauma is something that we can ‘consciously’ (ie using any deliberate process) ‘heal’ from — it either gets better with time as we move on and forget, or it doesn’t. And my sense is that, in humans at least, it usually doesn’t. Hence the hatreds and fears that have endured for centuries.

There may well be value in listening to stories of oppression, suffering, and trauma (even/especially if we may have personally contributed to them), but not for purposes of ‘resolution’ or ‘healing’. The value of such listening is to explore how, if it is possible at all, the circumstances that gave rise to that harm might be prevented from recurring. In other words, what can be done to reduce the likelihood of future suffering and trauma occurring as a result of our collective conditioned behaviours?

And my unhappy answer to that question, in most cases, is — nothing.

To some extent, being aware of the causal relationship between our conditioning, suffering, and trauma might be helpful in preventing recurrence — ask anyone who’s finally escaped the clutches of a serial abuser. But whether ‘being aware’ of the loop of trauma can actually help you ‘heal’ is another matter entirely. The awareness of our lack of free will over our conditioned behaviour, and how it plays out no matter how we think it ‘should’ and no matter what we think we ‘should’ do, might actually make us feel more hopeless.

I know that’s an unpopular position for a supposed progressive to take, but that’s where I’m at.

* Here’s an interesting quote from a study of the failures of the Truth & Reconciliation commission (TRC) approach in Sierra Leone:

Sierra Leone’s TRC, like South Africa’s, valorized a particular kind of memory practice: “truth telling,” the public recounting of memories of violence. This valorization, however, is based on problematic assumptions about the purportedly universal benefits of verbally remembering violence. Ideas concerning the conciliatory and therapeutic efficacy of truth telling are the product of a Western culture of memory deriving from North American and European historical processes. Nations, however, do not have psyches that can be healed. Nor can it be assumed that truth telling is healing on a personal level: truth commissions do not constitute therapy. [Instead, historically in Sierra Leone culture,] social forgetting is a cornerstone of established processes of reintegration and healing.

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2 Responses to Coping With Trauma

  1. David Beckemeier says:

    “I’m not really convinced that trauma is something that we can ‘consciously’ (ie using any deliberate process) ‘heal’ from” I would agree, from personal experience.

  2. Eric Platt says:

    Hi Dave – I’m commenting here because I could not find any way to comment on an older posts (why and how is that: I may want to implement something on my blog), nor a Contact form. The post in question was one revolving around non-duality and a Tony Parson’s talk (I liked the article: I was curious why you edited out certain thing in your transcript of his talk, namely, the sentence in brackets:

    “We don’t function in duality. In the dream we think we do. In the dream we’re absolutely sure ‘we’ choose this and avoid that and do that and not that. This apparent choice ‘we’ don’t do — it is done. You don’t go in and out of duality by choice. There is only what is. Everybody in this room is being lived. There is just life happening in this room. [There’s nothing else out there – there’s no God or destiny that’s living that. There’s just life happening] There’s no choice, no will, and nowhere to go, nowhere that anything has ever been. All there is, is this…”
    The talk is here:

    Was it because his comment about God would be too controversial or potentially anxiety-provoking for the audience/readers?


    P.S. I write about non-duality and was recently “attacked” – or a teacher I used to listen to and write about was attacked via my blog – basically for (seemingly) denying the person and not being PC about wealth inequality, climate change, etc. So much frustration and anger out there – the sense of separation!

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