Our attitude toward the pathologizing may be more destructive than the pathologizing itself.—James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
Trauma affects all of us. Types of trauma—physical, emotional, violent, intrusive, social, or the product of brain chemistry—vary among individuals. The premise of Buddhism, all life is suffering, was based on an observation that everyone experiences loss, grief and pain while alive. How we treat that observation defines our character.
Our cultural relationship to trauma has changed as we've evolved. Consider one of the most damaging forms of trauma. While a handful of American political leaders make absurd distinctions regarding the type of rape that matters, historically we have grown tremendously in ensuring justice for and helping victims.
Fortunately we live in an era where trauma is not only addressed but, as long as our social services remain functional and funded, treated. Yet alongside this progressive social consciousness an entire industry of make-believe prophets has sprouted. These seemingly well-intentioned men and women capitalize on Buddhism’s first principle by claiming that not only are we all traumatized, but that we’ll benefit immensely by following their program.
This is not to take issue with healing or even the steps we take in doing so. As someone who has experienced great physical and emotional traumas, I know full well the importance of patience, compassion and self-understanding, that healing is indeed a layered process. But we have to differentiate between tragedies like rape and PTSD and needing to ‘heal’ every failed expectation we’ve had in life.
The victimization of the individual begs the question: When are you actually OK?
Modern spirituality as related to trauma and healing is like anti-bacterial soap, even antibiotics: by killing all the ‘harmful’ bacteria, it destroys what is beneficial as well. For example, the once-demonized H. pylori turns out to have extremely important functions within our digestive systems. By destroying it, you risk becoming sicker.
This is exactly what is happening to those in a perpetual state of healing. Like diet fads, spiritual fads promise better results faster and faster. I recently saw a workshop that was certain to help you overcome a lifetime of relationship trauma and find your true soul mate in just one day! This amazing service only cost the hundreds in attendance only...$200. Each.
The keywords used in this movement—unlimited, eternal, reclaim, birthright—suggest states of being somehow guaranteed to us, as well as perpetual in their effects. They do not, however, cite studies like this one at London’s University College, which found that spiritually-oriented participants suffered greater depression and anxiety.
(Note: this was not a double-blind study, though it is interesting what ‘spiritual’ folks thought of themselves, considering answers were voluntary.)
If we hold unattainable expectations of what the world ‘owes’ us, we’re bound to be disappointed. Americans currently consume two-thirds of the world’s supply of antidepressants, which are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the country. I’ve noticed a common theme among friends using such medications: it’s only for a little while, until things 'outside' get better.
This is how we treat healing—just a little more, and we’ll be alright. Until the next trauma, when we find that we need a whole new round of healing. We become addicted to healing instead of being healed, so we cannot be OK with not always being OK.
The biggest detriment to actually being healed comes back to our expectations of what we’re ‘here to do.’ Such a philosophy demands unrealistic behavior. Treating every challenging endeavor as an opportunity to heal is not far off from believing in original sin—no matter what we do, we’ll always be broken beings. We’ll never quite live up to what we really could do if only we weren’t who we are.
Don't look for logic in that last statement. There is none, hence the crisis we face when trying to understanding how we are simultaneously enlightened beings with a bright destiny and damaged beings in need of constant upkeep.
As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote,
There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.
The first victimizes us by telling us that the universe is a perfect place and it is our psychology that must change or else we’ll always suffer. The latter, that’s we’re promised nothing and can forge ahead in creating the most of of what we’ve got.
Maybe healing begins by recognizing that we’re not doing so badly after all, and that's just fine.
Image: Inga Ivanova/shutterstock.com