Writing the posts about being on a bus when it was bombed (Part I – Part II – Part III) has been an interesting experience. Even today, over twenty years afterwards, memories came rushing back as I re-read what I wrote. I close my eyes and see what I saw when I first opened my eyes after the chaos of the explosion. Behind the man’s shoulder that covered half of my face I see the bus ceiling, I see the spray of red not-rain. I smell fear and blood and urine. I open my eyes again. I slow my breathing, feel my body, listen to the ambient sounds, reorient myself to here and now. The whole process takes less than five seconds. I’ve had a lot of practice.
There are many definitions of psychological trauma. One of the simplest I’ve read is “the psychological damage from uncontrollable, terrifying life events”. Some people add the criterion of “life changing”. Being in an explosion is traumatic; so is a first diagnosis of cancer or another life-threatening disease. Torture, domestic violence, child abuse, non-consensual incest. Being the victim of street crime, of sudden homelessness, of a devastating financial loss.
In 1971, I lived in Chatsworth, California, and on February 9th of that year I felt the Sylmar earthquake. I only vaguely remember the strange growling, rumbling sound that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, but the longest lasting impression was the sense of utter disorientation I felt when I moved my foot to take a step and the ground wasn’t there. What? Where did the ground go?
I suppose my present interest in traumatic events was born of the union of the earthquake and the bus bombing in my life story. How do people keep going on after their inner world (and sometimes their outer world) is devastated? What is the difference between those who go on and those who get stuck? What is the effect on a culture subject to the repeated trauma of war, terrorism, or natural disaster?
People far more qualified than I don’t agree on these questions, but there is plenty of research on what happens when people are repeatedly subjected to radical loss of control and existential fear. But what happens when a whole population has suffered trauma over and over again? Would it be surprising to end up with a population that is aggressive with underlying depression, avoids introspection, is distrustful of new people and new situations, and that generally acts like a bluff, blustery bully who is secretly afraid of the dark?
There is a great deal of talk lately about resilience, the capacity or ability to get back to normal after a traumatic event. Hemmingway famously said (in A Farewell to Arms) “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” True, but many others suffer pain at the broken places and are handicapped for the rest of their lives. Resilience can be conceived, perhaps, as what differentiates the two.
I wish I could create it in a lab and pour it into the water supply.