On collective traumas

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

The trauma of our individual lives – does it apply to peoples?

I have been thinking about trauma these past weeks as the violence in post-coup Egypt intensified and the discussions about memory that attended the revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process in Washington. What pushed me over the edge was the insistence by some for Jews to stop remembering the Holocaust and others for Palestinians to refuse to create a Nakba culture if their (always potential) state ever comes into existence. Their warning: the memory of suffering is endless. It does little but encourage bitterness and violence.

That’s when I ran across an Op-Ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times,  on trauma. Though emphasizing the individual, Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist, writes of trauma as a gateway to depth and vulnerability. As an example, he highlights the pain of his elderly mother who after losing her second husband to death remembers the loss of her first husband many, many years later:

Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.

My response to my mother — that trauma never goes away completely — points to something I have learned through my years as a psychiatrist. In resisting trauma and in defending ourselves from feeling its full impact, we deprive ourselves of its truth. As a therapist, I can testify to how difficult it can be to acknowledge one’s distress and to admit one’s vulnerability. My mother’s knee-jerk reaction, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others.

Reading Epstein’s caution against the insistence for individuals to deflect trauma or to get over it in order to live a normal life caused me to wonder if the same caution applies to peoples. Does deflection and normality in collective experiences mask a deeper violation that can be expressed in a variety of ways, some unhealthy but with the potential to create a deeper sense of vulnerability and solidarity?

Trauma isn’t only individual. It can be experienced in a collective way. Of course, peoples can experience trauma only if individuals experience their trauma as touching them and others as well. There is such a thing as a collective trauma.

Can trauma also be passed down to others who weren’t alive when the trauma occurred? Can Jews and Palestinians, for example, experience the Holocaust and the Nakba of the 1940s if they were born after the event itself? Obviously, the Nakba continues today. Nonetheless the paradigmatic event happened more than sixty years ago. And if there is ever a just resolution for Palestinians, it is unlikely that the Nakba will be banished from Palestinian history books. More likely is that memory will become more important once the Nakba has ended – much like the Holocaust has for Jews.

The warning is obvious: There’s a thin line between remembering trauma and instrumentalizing it. When instrumentalized, individual and collective trauma is used as a blunt instrument against others. At the same time, instrumentalized trauma functions as a way of distancing individuals and the collective from the trauma itself.

Epstein points to this cycle with regard to individuals but it applies to collective memory as well. Anyone who has attended Holocaust remembrance ceremonies experiences the distancing that remembering can create. How can you memorialize the trauma of the Holocaust while Jews in Israel and the United State continue to perpetrate and enable the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people?

Maybe the challenge of trauma is how and in what context we remember it. The litmus test is how the remembrance of trauma functions – over against others to diminish and oppress them or as a bridge of solidarity to others who are suffering. In solidarity we feel the pain of others and our own pain as part of life. Why exaggerate and cause more pain when life’s ordinary pain is disconcerting enough?

Epstein writes that the “willingness to face traumas — be they large, small, primitive or fresh — is the key to healing from them. They may never disappear in the way we think they should, but maybe they don’t need to. Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.”

One longs for the day when remembering individual and collective trauma become vehicles for embracing life beyond the cycle of violence and atrocity we remain mired in. Only then will the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing and martial law become part of the past rather than harbingers of the future. When that day arrives, the past will be remembered as a collective trauma that is too dangerous to our individual and collective humanity to repeat.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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