In a post 9/11 world, we live in a culture of collective trauma. It’s not something most of us want to discuss over coffee, in fact, we’d really rather avoid any unpleasant conversation about collective pain in general and the resulting fall out. But here we are very obviously in desperate need of a few solid clues as to why everyone seems to be trying to live life to the fullest from a center that, as W.B Yeats said, simply “cannot hold.”
What does it feel like to live in a culture of collective trauma? It feels like we may have lost access to a loving, hopeful or joyful self, the very center of our being, because it seems the evidence around us points only to the tragic loss of the kind of safety or sanity these emotional states bring. And that is the core issue, that we are trying to gain a sense of peace, sanity and stability from outside of ourselves. Where we may have once lived in a world that seemed to be able to provide a measure of stability, we find that our usual framework has lost its ability to sustain us anymore. The key to healing the wounds of collective trauma is going within, but that is easier said than done.
Trauma effects us in many different ways, but one of the main coping mechanisms for dealing with unrealized trauma is hypervigilence, emerging from the constant expectation that something horrible is about to happen, it is the state of constantly keeping watch and managing one’s environment. Most of us experience it as anxiety, some as anger, but it is also there in addictions to media devices and the constant news feeds of the subsequent horror of the ongoing tragedies of the world. Our hypervigilance gets confirmed over and over again by our news feeds through the evidence of terrible events unfolding all over the world. A hypervigilant state then becomes justified and we are caught in an unending loop. We can easily become trapped in hypervigilance and this can keep us from a taking the healing journey within. Hypervigilence can also keep us in a state of fatigue and exhaustion.
Collective trauma also generates the feeling that the world, events and our lives are moving very fast and it is difficult to slow down. Traumatic experience, left untreated, separates a person from his or her ability to self modulate between extreme emotional states of highs and lows. In order to cope, a person uses either/ or thinking or fight or flight responses whenever challenging situations arise. Anger and fear are the emotions that rule a culture trapped in a collective trauma. Media seems to play a prominent role in maintaining a hypervigilant state, though it can also provide opportunities for healing. Media or any medium for collective experience can also become tools for healing the wounds left by trauma.
What we all too often fail to experience in our culture is any true acknowledgment and would be healing from the deep psychological wounds of trauma. But how do we even approach these wounds that seem to overwhelm us at every turn? The pain seems so much greater than the solutions. In addition, the places that once seemed to keep peace and order are disappearing due to lack of interest. Churches are closing at an alarming rate, massive expanses of wilderness are being co-opted for natural resource development, the places that once brought peace seem to be bordering on extinction.
When Jesus, the great healer, walked among us, he shared the radical notion that the kingdom of God, the place where the healing happens, is within. Whether you think of it as a kingdom or a realm or a dimension, it’s the same thing, he told us that we must go within if we are to discover our authentic soul life awaiting us, that part of us that is eternal, indestructible, connected to God, connected to love. Some have gone so far as to say that in our time, even the soul is at risk. I suppose Jesus said this, too, in a way when he warned, “do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul, rather fear the one who can kill both the body and the soul…” (Matthew 10:28)
Jesus left the Christ (Holy) Spirit on earth as a guide, comforter and intercessor to the God within. If we continue to seek out what is hidden in our hearts, believing, we will begin to catch some initial glimpses of the possibility of healing. But we cannot do it alone, we need others to walk with us.
Faith communities are set up to be places that provide stability for people to experience moving from a trauma driven way of functioning in the world, to a love infused way of functioning. But all too often, we never make it past functioning mode. However, if we can bring this kind of awareness into our lives of faith, we can turn that around, too. A slow conversion to a God that heals, removes the barriers to our healing and enables us to live life from a center of love.
Just as collective trauma is contagious, so is collective healing. Our journey inward to sit with pain, to bring it before the Divine Light and risk loving love into being is the pathway to overcoming fear in our ourselves and in our world. We must learn to seek out the trauma in ourselves and allow God to heal us if we are to try and help others or set out to make the world a better place.
We are due for a collective healing and it begins in each of our hearts, each day. Claim some territory in your heart today for healing, slow down, breathe, meditate on the heart. As you do, ask God to be present and feel the wounds of fear letting go. Keep coming back to the prayer of the heart and to the community of prayer, the heart among hearts of love will surely find the way to God.