In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy of the Sandy Hook Newtown Connecticut mass school shooting, many of us are experiencing some degree of trauma–whether we knew the victims firsthand or not. In fact, there are many reasons we may feel increasingly traumatized in a culture where chaos seems to be the norm, rather than the unusual.
Psychologist and trauma expert, Robert Stolorow (2010) designates the contemporary era an “Age of Trauma” because, according to him, the “tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides” (para. 2). He refers to ongoing and increasing global issues like global warming, terrorism, and economic collapse–all of which raise issues of existential vulnerability and threaten to annihilate the core framework by which we make sense of our existence. To this list by Stolorow, I would add the pace and intensity by which we are fed information by mass media which assaults us with information like a firehose, inundating us at every moment with horrific news about violence (like the recurring mass shootings), crime, disease, loss, death, and destruction–allowing no time for us to integrate or “hold” the news in a lifestyle which provides no container in which we can witness it. In addition, many of us begin to feel what I call “trauma fatigue.” No matter how awake, sensitive, and compassionate we may be, there comes a point when we simply begin to shut down and wish to go back to “normal” life. It’s all we can do to survive our own depth of emotions.
Activist and author, Joanna Macy (1979) points to a general apathy in our culture which she defines as a state that derives from dread. She claims that we live in fear of confronting the despair we all carry that lives just under the surface. For Macy, despair is “the loss of the assumption that our species will inevitably pull through” (p. 1, column 3). More and more, we are bombarded by data that questions, perhaps for the first time, whether or not our culture, our species, or even our planet will survive from an ecological, economic, or even cultural standpoint. Growing numbers of people are tuning in to this horror across a broad spectrum of the global population. Worse, Macy points out, feeling despair in and about a cultural context can be isolating, further amplifying the dilemma. She believes there is a psychic dissonance between our felt sense of impending apocalypse and the increasingly desperate mechanisms to maintain “normalcy” as our society requires us to become adept at sweeping our fear and pain under the rug in order to avoid the taboo around directly addressing despair. “Our dread of what is happening to our future is banished to the fringes of awareness, too deep for most of us to name, too fearsome to face” (Macy, 1979, p. 64). As well, individuals who tap into the unnamed dread often conclude it is them and not society that is insane.
The Western notion of individuality maintains that we are separate individuals experiencing something unique to each of us andothers are disconnected from our experience. However, it is likely that in many cases, we have simply bracketed out the “outside,”–the collective memory of traumatic events that has accumulated over generations. Presumably, others with whom we have relationships are also experiencing the same trauma but it is unconscious, marginalized, silenced, and therefore invisible.
Fassin and Rechtman (2009) refer to both cultural trauma, the collective memory of wounds that contribute to cultural identity of specific groups including the Holocaust, slavery, and 9/11, and to historical trauma, events located in time that include acts of colonization, the atom bombs dropped in Japan, and apartheid among others. According to them, trauma embodies images of unacceptable suffering that are located in the body in order to ensure that these events never happen again. Social change in recent decades has redefined trauma survivors as “witness to the horrors of our age” (p. 22), embodying our common humanity.
Paul Shepherd compares dissociation to a fencing off of our psyche, a splitting, just as when we first fenced off plots of earth in order to manage them and accommodate our ongoing survival (in “My Name is Chellis…”, Glendinning, 1994). These fenced off areas of our psyche, once cut off, freeze in place, holding the contents in original untouched form, as if freeze-drying them to preserve the host from contamination. Jung referred to these split-off parts as complexes (Donald Kalsched, 1996).
Regardless, if left untreated, unhealed, and repressed, trauma leads to dissociation and abusive or pathological behaviors that tend to be passed on from generation to generation (Glendinning, 1994). To heal trauma, we must not only treat the individual symptomsand lives of those who suffer, but also address directly the cultural and psychic legacy we have inherited over time as the trauma was passed down through generations. In places where individuals can no longer contain the horror of the trauma that continues to live in the unconscious realm, it erupts into the collective culture as violence, terror, and abuse.
Even decades ago, C. G. Jung pointed out that our collective culture mirrors an individual who is suffering deeply from soul loss, manifesting in symptoms such as falling into conflict with himself, fragmenting into splinters in his pursuit of goals, interests, andoccupations, and forgetting his own “origins and traditions…even losing all memory of his former self” (Jung, as cited in Sabini, 2005, p.182). Disregard, numbing, or not wishing to see or feel the distress and negative effects that soul loss brings also moves us ever further away from deep connection an into a society where meaning is hard to find, compelling us try anything to fill up the gaping sense of emptiness that results, staving off the fear of annihilation that is core to the experience of trauma. Jung correctly diagnosed our compulsive, cultural tendency toward hyperactivity, saying, “we rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness” (in Sabini, 2005, p. 141).
While this may ring true for many of us–even decades after Jung wrote these words–there is still much potential for each of us to engage with creative imagination to envision a world vastly different than what we experience on a surface level. There is so much “depth” in the world–and though we have access to remarkable context and meaning, we can hardly remember who we truly are in the face of deep-seated patterns and complexes. Depth psychology provides a unique opportunity to engage with the invisible, hidden, marginalized aspects of self and culture that are crying out to help us be whole. But we need to take a depth psychological approach–to slow down and listen–and embrace the dark shadows in hopes of integrating all the aspects of what it means to be truly human.
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