Material appearing on this blog from July 2011 through December 2012 is now published as a “blook”: Trauma and the Human Condition: Notes from the International Field, available through Amazon.com.
The following is an introduction to this new blook/book. (more information is available on my web site: www.acst-international.com )
“I yearn for my work because it always helps me make sense of things. For never was there a horror experienced without an angel stepping in from the opposite direction to witness it with me.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
During the summer of 2011 I welcomed an invitation from Dr. John Bilorusky, founder and President of The Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California to contribute material for their online web site focusing on topics having to do with education and social change. I came to WISR many years ago after completing my graduate studies in the humanities, art, history and languages, at the University of California at Berkeley. As much as I enjoyed a quiet life of study at UCB, my interest in the arts as reflections of social change led to a practical necessity for a career change as well. The subsequent transition from those comfortably remote realms of academia to mental health professional was eased by opportunities and support available from the WISR faculty and Dr. Bilorusky’s astute advice and amazing patience. Since I was never all that interested in psychological studies emphasizing rats, mazes and statistics, I greatly benefited from WISR’s individualized graduate study program which combines academic theory and qualitative research with an emphasis upon interdisciplinary and cross cultural experience.
Writing soon became an important exercise in an ongoing effort to clarify and deepen my understanding of psychological trauma, as well as trauma education and recovery work. Since I am also a cultural historian, it was inevitable that previous art and historical studies would contribute to my contextual perspective; this eventually evolved into social and global trauma work. Research done for my master’s and doctoral theses at WISR served as a basis for my first book Relative Balance in an Unstable World: A Search for New Models of Trauma Education and Recovery. I continue to enjoy writing and am now able to devote more time to this since the closing of my private practice in the spring of 2001. Themes that I had begun to research at WISR eventually took shape in A Question of Balance: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Resolving Trauma, and more recently, Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals: A Systemic Perspective on Individual, Social and Global Trauma.
Leaving private practice also opened new opportunities for travel, teaching and work in vastly different cultural settings. These international experiences have added much richness and depth to my understanding of our human condition and the many challenges that we face during these trying times of rapid environmental and social change. WISR’s invitation to join the online blogosphere came at an interesting time. During that summer of 2011, media hype and serious misunderstandings surrounding the Mayan calendar had given rise to an atmosphere of anticipation and also dread, as we moved toward the apparently iconic year of 2012. While those unfulfilled apocalyptic memes continued to abound, there was no shortage of genuine and meaningful international events, which were being carried on into the new years of 2012, 2013 and beyond. Since this new project with WISR evolved from a series of monthly blogs (web +logs) the resulting contributions might now qualify as a “blook” (blog+ book). Material contained within monthly entries “from the international field” differs from my earlier books, in that the focus now is almost entirely on current events and the trauma is social and global, rather than individual and family. For the most part, subjects included within this latest volume include topics of interest which arose within my own experience of international travel, social trauma seminars and training programs. While I seriously considered deleting accounts of my air travel tribulations, the fact is that what goes on in airports is often a microcosm of society at large.
For those unfamiliar with our subject, at this point it may be helpful to offer my working definition of trauma as it manifests in individuals and families, as well as social and global systems. It could be said that medical trauma results from injury to the physical body and psychological trauma from an injury to the psyche. However in reality, these two conditions often overlap since psychological shock and injury always has a physiological component which give rise to patterns of somatically encoded stress. Trauma is a psycho-physiological and also potentially collective phenomenon which is not confined to one individual’s, solely cognitive experience. In essence, trauma is all about an individual and/or collective response to overwhelming experiences that can lead to various levels of “broken connections”. These broken connections can then lead to a fragmentation in relationship to self, loved ones and community; as in numbness, hyperactivity, disorientation in time and space and other forms of dissociation. Many overwhelmed individuals, families and communities also experience a profound sense of alienation, despair and fragmentation in relation to family, others and the larger matrix supportive of human life. This is similar to what Martin Buber called “a wound in the order of being”. Trauma impacts our human ability to relate, learn, earn a living, and retain a capacity for intimacy and trust ,as well as our ability to parent. Unresolved traumas, therefore, are often passed on to many subsequent generations. Traumatic experiences can overwhelm personal and professional relationships, entire families, communities, tribes and nations, as well as our planetary biosphere. Events in our distant past such as ice ages, titanic floods, polar shifts, asteroid impacts and other extinction level catastrophes, all qualify as global traumas. In modern times we have massive global trauma as a result of several nuclear meltdowns and the December 26th earthquake and tsunami which affected eleven countries and caused our Earth to wobble on its axis.
It is important to understand that individual, social, global and even political traumas often overlap and cannot always be conveniently confined to separate categories. Also important is the fact that all traumatized individuals and families are also integral parts of larger systems which connect to even larger patterns involving all of their relationships, culture and ancestral history. Even within apparently safe and familiar clinical settings, where it appears that therapists are working with one individual, they are in fact, engaging, influencing and being influenced by many interconnected and often unacknowledged larger systems. Ultimately, these largely unrecognized , interconnecting systems actually do extend all the way into society’s most pressing and intractable problems; war, class struggle, racism, genocide, poverty, disease, violence, addiction, unemployment and so on… Any intervention made during an individual client’s process will absolutely affect everyone else that he or she is connected to in the past, present and future. The extent to which those of us in the healing and helping professions are willing to become conscious of this larger interconnected reality, the more options we are able to bring to the challenge of understanding and resolving these many levels of trauma.
Several themes in social, political and global trauma that I followed in 2011 and 2012 involved many veils of secrecy and ongoing radiation dangers from nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima Daaichi Complex and maybe others of which we are still unaware. I began writing about the aftermath of the USSR’s, 1986 Chernobyl accident in 1992 during my first trip to Russia and then about the Japanese disaster in March 2010. While one may wonder why I tend to go on and on about these events, our reality is that the disasters themselves go and on, with no end in sight. Obtaining accurate information about these greatest catastrophes of modern times has been an ongoing challenge due to overt lies, cover-ups, media black outs and a pervasive, complicit atmosphere of collective denial. The information subsequently presented here was mainly derived from alternative media and foreign press and offered from a conviction that endangered populations have a right to potentially life- saving information. Reliable facts, made immediately available, can greatly improve our chances of minimizing hazardous exposure, maximizing options for health and safety and taking precautions to enhance and protect both our immunological defenses and our DNA.
In a way, this blook could have been given a title something like: “In Order to AvoidPanic” since this rationale is employed over and again for withholding, minimizing and distorting vital information. We often hear that what we know to be life-threatening events, “present no danger to human health”. In fact, variations upon this Orwellian message accompany most public service announcements about events that are quite obviously dangerous to both public health and safety. We also find an almost comical over-use of such canned phrases as “minimal risk”, with lethal substances described as “mild irritants” or “low toxicity” and now the latest Australian version, “of no significant concern”. By now, the awake and aware have figured out that such banal reassurances most likely indicate the certain presence of significant dangers that most definitely warrant immediate attention.
While nuclear events were a dominant theme in 2011-12, this time frame contained no shortage of noteworthy developments reflecting various aspects of our rapidly changing, all too human condition. As long as we are living here on Planet Earth, in many ways a difficult as well as beautiful habitat, we would do well to accept that trauma is and always has been an integral part of our homo sapien experience. At this point in our evolution it is just not possible to “trauma proof” or vaccinate our species against the kinds of overwhelming experiences that can lead to trauma. For now, our best option is to gather resources conducive to mental, physical and spiritual health and also to promote resources and resiliency. My understanding of resources include those people, places , things and experiences that relieve anxiety and tension and reinforce one’s sense of strength, purpose and positive connection to life. Resources can also be found in positive memories and dreams that provide a sense of safety, comfort and support during times of difficulty and pain.
One can never have too many resources and most of us have more resources than we realize. During my clinical experience, I observed that those who have a strong positive connection to both parents, entire family of origin, ancestors and cultural roots, possess the greatest capacity for resiliency, as well as an ability to adapt and prevail within very difficult circumstances. This observation makes sense if one considers the basic biological reality that life itself is given through mother and father and that this came down to them through their ancestors. Respect and an aware connection to this basic reality, on the biological and soul level, offers a sense of strength and also serves as a powerful resource in the face of adversity and the uncertainty of the future.