We all endure suffering, and we all lose loved ones. But are we all traumatized? According to Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and well-known Buddhist practitioner writing in the pages of the New York Times last Sunday, we are indeed.
In an essay, “The Trauma of Being Alive,” Epstein describes the experience of his 88-year-old mother, who two years ago lost her husband of almost 60 years, and who still suffers from that loss, while those around her tell her that she must move on.
Epstein is absolutely right that while we all grieve, our culture frowns upon those who would wallow in it. We are expected to mourn, work through, and move on toward closure, tying it all up neatly. But it’s not so easy to do that. Loved ones, or painful episodes, linger on in our memory, pulling us away from our daily lives. “Mourning,” he rightly recognizes, “has no timetable.”
But in his effort to democratize trauma Epstein waters the term down, making it meaningless. He writes: “Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is will the poignancy of impermanence.”
As most psychiatrists and social scientists use the term, “trauma” refers to an event that is shocking and disruptive, that exists “outside the range of human experience.” They consider wars, genocide, natural disasters, rape and other forms of violence to be traumatic because these events cause lasting injuries, and fundamentally change the way we see the world. “I was a different person before the [fill in the blank] event that changed my life” is the typical refrain of the traumatized. Trauma, in other words, is marked by a radical break between before and after.
If trauma is by its very definition the effect of an exceptionally jarring event, then the notion that common events as joblessness, homophobia, or even losing a loved one (through a typical death) makes little sense– however painful they may be for those who experience them. “We are all suffering from “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” says Epstein. But tell that to the thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who suffer from painful flashbacks, nightmares, and an inability to speak of their experiences. And tell that to the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides–and to survivors of rape.
I would rather live in a society that over-diagnoses trauma than one in which trauma is denied. We did live in such a society until fairly recently. Before the advent of the idea of “post-traumatic stress” diagnosis beginning in the 1970s (thanks to psychiatrist Robert Lifton and others who worked with Vietnam vets and others who endured war, and Judith Herman, who included domestic forms of violence such as rape and incest to the mix) trauma was often met with incomprehension–or denial. Holocaust survivors, we thought, simply needed jobs and families to get over their experiences, and become “normal” again. Rape victims had endured bad sexual experiences, and would quickly heal. Today, we know that these experiences often have enduring effects, and frequently haunt individuals for the rest of their lives.
While modern life brings life uncertainties to which we are all vulnerable, trauma is an exceptional state; to say otherwise does victims–and ourselves– a disservice.