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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.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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5 Responses

  1. Siegfried al-Haq
    Siegfried al-Haq
    August 5, 2013, 11:54 am

    Excellent piece with some important reflections… however, I was concerned to see you fall into a common conceptual trap: the conflation of personal/individual trauma with collective or social trauma. Many social theorists have begun to eloquently question the presumed link between these phenomena — the first being a clinical diagnosis of the field of psychology, while the second being a social event with social causes and implications. The defense mechanisms of the human psyche, which are productive of individual trauma, do not map alongside the ways by which societies produce their collective traumas. While the former is ostensibly “natural”, the latter is not. There are many social events that do not produce longstanding social trauma. No one speaks of the continuation of social trauma after the genocide in the Belgian Congo, nor of the social trauma of Cambodia after the autogenocide of the Khmer Rouge. This distinction allows us to better understand the institutional basis for the production of social trauma: it isn’t a natural outcome of certain kinds of events, but rather is a product of certain institutional formations. In this light both Nakba and Holocaust can be seen as outcomes not simply of the horrors of war, inhumanity, and injustice, but equally of social forces mobilized to formulate and police parameters of meaning around these concepts.

  2. gingershot
    August 5, 2013, 11:57 am

    Teaching children to become abusive Zionists in order to try to escape feelings of perpetual victimhood is fresh traumatization of innocent generations – ‘learned’, taught, modelled – and ignorantly/subconsciously culturally re-inflicted fresh trauma. Most Jewish children (as well as other children) will suffer far more during their lifetimes as a direct result of neurotic parents rather than from a hostile (or perceived hostile) outside culture.

    Creating an immense psychological world in which the enemy is ‘the other’, the Goy, the Non-Jew – is also the first refuge for the scoundrel that is the neurotic parent – directling a child’s resistance and defenses against the ‘hostile culture’ rather than the now conveniently off the hook hostile (neurotic) parent. These children have not only been exposed to the neurotic parent (bad for anyone) but have now also been deeply ‘conned’ by the neurotic parent as well – which tends to help hermetically seal the psychological damage away from ever becoming clearly conscious. The riddle has now be become wrapped in an enigma for the child – which is one level too far for most to ever release themselves from.

    The holocaust that most Jewish children will have to worry about MOST is the holocaust of being raised by neurotic parents and the insult to their mental wellness that creates – not a hostile outside culture. The damage to one’s mental health during childhood, at the hands of and due to exposure to neurotic parents, is hardly a Jewish problem – it is a deeply human and ubiquitous human problem.

    Zionist culture will change once this motivation for cultural fanaticism stops. The victim/victimizer dynamic will have been substantially undermined. The beneficiary will be able to stand on his own two feet with respect to his own parent as well as the world – and the world will WELCOME this as well.

    Beyond the Jew as the perpetual victim (cultural teaching)/perpetual victimizer (as in Palestine) will be a new and far healthier psychological world for Jewish culture

  3. just
    August 5, 2013, 6:09 pm

    “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.”

    Exactly correct. I think of the PTSD that so many humans suffer — the Lost Boys & Girls of Sudan, the victims of genocide all over the world, the Palestinians, the Afghans, the Iraqis , the Iranians, the innocent folks at Guantanamo…………..etc., ad nauseum. We need to acknowledge the fact that we contribute mightily to the injustice and trauma.

    Thank you Professor.

  4. Citizen
    August 6, 2013, 7:47 am

    Israel as a classic horror flick–actually a bunch of them:

  5. Citizen
    August 6, 2013, 9:38 am

    Epstein talks about “pre-traumatic stress disorder.”

    If memory serves, in his book, Atzmon coined the term “Pre-traumatic-stress-syndrome.” Or PTSS to describe contemporary Jewish preoccupation with the next Holocaust, always right around the corner, there if not here. Again, if memory serves,
    VP Beiden catered to this syndrome at the last AIPAC convention, when he spoke about the USA as not a place exempt from that possibility, hence why Israel should always be supported, the save haven for Jews everywhere, anytime.

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