WE ARE living through a national and global trauma. The American Psychiatric Association defines psychological trauma as actual, or threatened, death or injury to self or a loved one. This can be through witnessing such things directly, or hearing them reported.
The way in which this works on our psychology is twofold. First, our physical anxiety levels rise. We go into fight-flight mode, and we are forced to confront the threat full-on. This means that our habitual tendency to avoid or deny unpalatable truths is not an option.
Second, the threat is not only to our physical integrity, but to our basic assumptions about the world and our place within it. Thus, psychological trauma combines a highly embodied process with deeply existential content.
Twenty years ago, the trauma psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published Shattered Assumptions (Simon & Schuster), in which she presented what was then a novel analysis of trauma. She defined it as something that does violence to core beliefs, most notably that the world is safe; that I (or we) can cope with what life throws at us; and that this life has meaning and purpose.
We nurture such assumptions of safety by not attending fully to evidence that contradicts them, and by crafting narratives that shore them up.
Another psychologist, Dan McAdams, has noted how often these created narratives are redemptive in form, bringing good out of bad, and meaning out of chaos.
In “developed” cultures at least, there is a yet deeper assumption buried beneath these core beliefs: the sense that I exist and shall continue to exist. Witnessing the death of “people like me” violently challenges this sense, confronting us with the possibility of existential annihilation. The feeling is well captured in Damien Hirst’s installation The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
ONE means of defending ourselves against this sort of “death terror” is to “other” the individuals whose death we witness, or hear about, by emphasising their cultural or geographical distance (“the Chinese virus”), their age, or their state of health (“the elderly with underlying medical conditions”).
Another approach — the subject of much research — is self-esteem. Indeed, a dominant theory in psychology is that self-esteem arose in our evolutionary history primarily as a way of managing our awareness of, and terror at, our own mortality.
This can be an aspect of individual psychology. For example, at the time when the Government was advising all older people to self-isolate, Christian Wolmar wrote on Twitter: “I am 70 and have just played 4 sets of tennis, cycled 6 miles and yesterday ran a tough Parkrun in under 29 minutes. . . I work full time and go to meetings most days. Is the govt seriously suggesting ppl like me sit at home for 4 months?” (my italics).
THIS use of self-esteem as a buffer against mortality is not confined to individuals: it is also a characteristic of communities. The high esteem in which we hold our culture is a defence against the prospect of its annihilation.
The Covid-19 pandemic is traumatic not only because it threatens our existence and that of our loved ones, but because it also threatens the cultural norms, frameworks, and habits that we take for granted — and assume will continue to operate after we have gone.
These are creaking and cracking under its assault, leaving us socially isolated and existentially disorientated. It is no longer easy for us to say “. . . but life goes on.”
Janoff-Bulman’s research highlights something that we already know: when trauma strikes, people experience the need to attach themselves to institutions of society which offer stability and to gather together with others.
In the present instance, however, this need is being thwarted by the nature of the threat: people are isolated, and churches are closed. Thank God for online communities and live-streaming, but there is no substitute for gentle, healing touch and physical solidarity.
Trauma is utterly grim and has the capacity to wreak destruction. As mental-health practitioners know only too well, it can result in depression, PTSD, and psychosis. But we also know from the ever-growing research literature on the phenomenon of “post-traumatic growth” that it can be productive, and even transformative, in the lives of individuals.
This is not about Nietzsche’s oft-quoted maxim that: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Nor is it about crafting a narrative that looks on the bright side. It is about the revelatory way in which trauma forces us to see the world in a new light, re-examine radically our assumptions and priorities, discover new things about ourselves and others, and offer a different and more solid form of hope.
Much of this can be summed up in the word “wisdom”. Reviewing the psychological literature on post-traumatic wisdom, P. Alex Linley notes, wisdom is needed to engage well with trauma, but is also a quality that emerges from it. It is part of the process and one of the outcomes.
He identifies three characteristics of this wisdom: the integration of feeling and thinking; the recognition and acceptance of human limitation (including one’s own); and the recognition and management of uncertainty in life.
THE strong connections with the Christian faith hardly need to be drawn out here. Christianity is all about post-traumatic growth: the transformation of the utterly grim and the wreckage of disappointment into something that gives life and hope. Not “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” but the absurdly subversive notion that “what kills us makes us stronger.”
This is built into the way in which we observe Holy Week, where our remembrance of Christ’s Passion moves between affect-laden lament and theological reflection, integrating them so that the participants are not engulfed by grief and terror at the events, but are neither overly cerebral and detached from them.
When done well, the timing and pace of our observance of the Triduum do not allow wallowing in misery, or a premature rush to resurrection joy; our liturgies pause, and take account of the emptiness and disorientation of Holy Saturday.
This has the capacity to build a spiritual resilience and wisdom that should be at the heart of the life of faith and the witness of a life well-lived which are offered by the Church to the world.
Linley’s “recognition and acceptance of human limitation” has its counterpart in the Christian vocation to set aside the ego, and to understand fully that the esteem of an individual is not located in external achievements, or inherent qualities, but in Christ.
The gift of self-esteem, then, becomes a source of connection with the other rather than a mark of superiority; nor is self-esteem necessary as a defence against mortality, because its sting has been drawn out by Christ.
ACCEPTING human limitations need not tip us into a spiral of low self-esteem and despair. Instead, we are offered paradox as a means of grasping that another story is to be had: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.9-10).
This strength shows itself in being willing to do what we can, not held back by thoughts that it is not good enough, but inspired by the insight that we have our small but unique part to play in a bigger story. We can be liberated from the need to be masters of our fate, into servanthood in a higher enterprise.
We have seen thousands of people inside and outside the Church show this sort of deeply Christian “rising to the occasion”, resisting the destruction of community life in an insistence on enacting Kingdom values.
This living out of the Kingdom will eventually be seen as that other story: the breaking in of an alternative reality through the gap opened up by trauma.
Finally, the recognition and management of uncertainty is made possible because of the deepest conviction offered by Christianity, that we are not alone in this life: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.12-13).
We are not alone. The present provisional reality is being transformed into a state in which all shall be well. There is an ultimate context within which our trauma is placed.
This makes it no less grim, but it offers both a wider vision and a stronger anchor. We should not forget that it was in the context of the Black Death, which had killed as much of one third of the population of Norwich, and perhaps even while she was in quarantine, that Julian recorded those famous words: “I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well; and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of things shall be well.”
Canon Joanna Collicutt is Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. She is a clinical psychologist and psychologist of religion whose research interests include trauma-processing and the part that it plays in faith.