Friday, February 27, 2009

This, too, shall pass

I heard a story, today, from someone who has a long history of working with vets who suffer PTSD. He recounted a story of sharing a personal loss with an older Jewish professor of his. His professor said to him, "This, too, shall pass." My acquaintance reacted poorly to his professor's response. So, his professor told him the background to his statement.

As a child, he said, his whole family was incarcerated in Auschwitz. They were separated by the Germans, and he became a servant to the officers. One day, he saw his father and older brother on the other side of a high fence. The young boy ran to the father and they touched hands through the fence. The boy was distraught, because he knew that his father and brother were in the area that led to the gas chambers. His father comforted him with that phrase, "This, too, shall pass."

Carrying on after trauma is an expression of faith in God. God didn't cause the trauma, but all too often, people made in God's image did and do horrible things that harm themselves and others. How do we carry on? How do we carry on well? Each new day can become an expression of new life and faith in a loving God who grieves for the children who live in and who create darkness, too. May the image of God in us reflect the image of the God whose love is steadfast and never ending. Paul's words to the Philippians come to mind:

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal [of becoming like Christ in his death that I may attain the resurrection from the dead]; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul didn't just have positive memories of his Jewish credentials, but he also had memories of his participation in murder, and beatings, torture and threats to his life. "Forgetting what is behind" is difficult in itself. To forget what lies behind, we need vision, hope and faith that there is a future that promises healing, better days, and life as life is truly meant to be. Consider Elie Wiesel, today, who survived the holocaust and concentration camps to do wonderful work for the good of humanity, only to have millions squandered by Bernard Madoff. How we long for the promises of God (through the prophet, Joel) to be fulfilled:

"I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

lessons for the church in PTSD?

PTSD symptoms are considered to be the result of "exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one's physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate (Criterion A1)." (DSM-IV)

Albert Glass, who wrote on psychotherapy after WWII and during the Korean War, noted that the cohesiveness and integrity of the relationships within each unit, or the lack thereof, affected the outcomes of PTSD in individual soldiers.

I've personally noted how personal ambivalence about actions, choices and outcomes seems to contribute to the level of stress which presents in PTSD sufferers.

Given that "church" is the Body of Christ in many members, what happens when we fail to exhibit unity and integrity in our midst -- not a hypocritical unity of "law" or an agenda, but the unity within diversity that only the Holy Spirit can empower? Whom do we harm?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

He restores my soul...

So, why did I choose the fragment of Psalm 23 for the name of this blog? I think that the ever-flowing tragedy of life is the destruction of our souls by the way we respond to life's vagaries and to others, by the way others' pain, fear and ambitions are wielded against each one of us.

Working in a military setting, studying PTSD and encountering those who need services, has surfaced what I consider to be a convenient "fabrication" about spiritual / mental health and personal responsibility that also shows up in our churches. It comes in the form of obedience to the authority which is above us in whatever setting -- military, corporate, familial, gender-based, social, economic, religious, ecclesiastical, etc.

Penny Coleman wrote of this phenomenon in her book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War.

Why do we think that, just because someone else told us to do/say something (or not to do/say something), that we won't bear any consequences within our own beings for "following orders"? This isn't always or simply a matter of respect for authority. We each have the ability to choose to do/say or not, because we are in control of our own bodies (obvious exceptions exist). Given that we have a choice, and it is our "self" doing the action, our "self" will bear the consequences in our psyche and body. There are horrible double-binds into which soldiers are put in by the theater and the conduct of war, yet we need to recognize that they will and do bear the pain and psychic wounds of following orders in ways contrary to their moral compasses. "Following orders" may work when they're mentally assessing the situation, but it doesn't change how they've used their weapons and how their bodies remember that traumatic situation through flashbacks, anger, sleeplessness, emotional distancing from loved ones, avoidance, etc. There doesn't seem to be a disconnect button we can push inside ourselves between what we do in and with our bodies when another person gives the orders. Re-integration between actions and moral or psychic consequences seems necessary for healing the soul.

It is my experience that I feel less damaged and second-guess myself less after honoring the Holy Spirit and my conscience than suffering from regrets for having failed to be true within myself. Even the punishment and damage that others may try to inflict for "disobedience" (in their minds) doesn't sting the same way.

Why would we continue to default to this hierarchical fallacy -- even in churches? Each member of the Body, Paul told us in 1 Corinthians 12, has value and should be treated as indispensable, seen as made in God's image (James). Such an egalitarian message we're believing! Watch how we try to compromise that radical message in our demands for "order" and authority! Certainly God, the author of all, differs with our human methods of how order is to be achieved among us!

Monday, February 23, 2009


When we think of the family we long for, we imagine love, faithfulness, truthfulness, forgiveness, security in our value and worth, and lasting identification of ourselves with one another. It's the ongoing-ness of relationships that daily binds us together, not static imprisonment in one another's opinions. Unless we hold fast to an exemplar of Love external to our selves and community, the risk of subjugating our relationships with one another to our own agendas, ideas, and personal judgments grows over time. Perhaps family is as much journey as life is. I came across a quote of Mikhail Bakhtin, the literary critic, which seems to warn of our fragility and vulnerability:
"The very being of
deepest communion. To be means to communicate. Absolute death (non-being) is the state of being unheard, unrecognized, unremembered. To be means to be for another, and through the other, for oneself. A person has no internal sovereignty, he is wholly and always on the boundary; looking inside of himself, he looks into the eyes of another or with the eyes of another."
May we see one another with the eyes of the God who loves us, today.