Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Life Goes Off-Script

One of the things that seems to really increase post-traumatic stress (says Hubs who studies these things) is that the traumas we experience break our narratives. They don’t fit in with what we tell ourselves and what we tell others about ourselves… the definitive stories of who we are and what are lives are about and how the world is supposed to work. And many of us really want to think of ourselves as mature and healthy people, good people living good lives in a basically good world. But then bad stuff happens and it doesn’t fit.

Trauma shakes us and messes up our stories and with them our sense of self. Our sense of justice or truth is violated. It's hard to accept. Sometimes we can’t find a redemptive thread in the experience to reconcile it with the whole.

We may not be able or willing to let go of or loosen our hold on our narratives and let them develop another direction that fits better in with reality rather than wishful thinking.

We may not know where to find a story worth telling, one that’s not so bright and shiny that it doesn’t ring true, nor so dark and hopeless that it deflates us and leaves us living lives devoid of purpose and meaning.

If we can’t change the narratives we started out with when trauma comes or find a way to make sense of that trauma and see how it’s part of the story, we may get stuck.

I wrote about this some years back, quoting a friend who explained that most definitions of health include an organism’s ability to make continuous adjustments to the stresses of its environment: resilience. A healthy person is able to change with life’s circumstances and recover from difficult situations. We can let go of an inadequate narrative and let the story of our lives and our understanding of what has happened to us change.

“People who walk closely with God know this kind of healthy. They know that God is the source of their ability to adjust,” she added. The gospel can provide a narrative that recognizes and acknowledges the power of evil at work in our world and in our lives, but also providing answers, strength, the promise of God’s presence and redemptive power, and an affirmation of our sense of and longing for what is good, right, and true. I know I have found it a much stronger, resilient narrative than what I started with.


All this came to mind while reading an interesting book this week.

In A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, author Joseph Loconte explores what two young men suffered during World War I and its aftermath, living through terrors that cost them many of their closest friends and trying to find something to hold onto in the years of disillusionment that followed. The idealism that propped up the idea that civilization was just going to keep getting better and better, and that this war was going to end all wars (and quickly) and usher in a season of peace and prosperity, well, that was shattered. It was as if the world, the world most people though they knew, had come to an end.

While hundreds of “war novels” in the 1920s and 1930s characterize all war as savage and absurd, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote epic tales that tell a different story, a story influenced by their experiences in the trenches but ultimately validating the possibility of things like a good death and the hope of a new world beyond this one. And Loconte makes the case that this is exactly what they were trying to do.

Though (like Lewis and Tolkien) Loconte often leaves readers to draw their own parallels, it seems clear that the normlessness that characterizes our society today is not unlike what Europe experienced in the twenties and thirties. People who still hold onto a sense of right and wrong and purpose, who believe in sin and sacrifice and judgment, may be mocked and dismissed now, but no worse than they were then. Consider what Virginia Woolf said in a letter quoted by Loconte, after a fellow intellectual, T.S. Elliot, was baptized and confirmed in the Church of England in 1927:
“I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”

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