I have contended (Stolorow, 2007, 2011) that the existential meaning of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life—the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable dependence of our existence on a universe that is unstable and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face-to-face with our existential vulnerability, our vulnerability to suffering, injury, illness, death, and loss, possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats.
In earlier blog posts (e.g., https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing/201110/the-meaning-and-the-rhetoric-evil-auschwitz-and-bin-laden), I applied this characterization to the impact of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. 9/11 was a devastating collective trauma that inflicted a rip in the fabric of the American psyche. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered Americans’ collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. In the wake of such shattering, Americans became much more susceptible to what I call resurrective ideologies that promised to restore the grandiose illusions that had been lost.
Following 9/11, the Bush administration declared war on global terrorism and drew America into a grandiose, holy crusade that enabled Americans to feel delivered from trauma, chosen by God to rid the world of evil and to bring their way of life (= goodness) to every people on earth. Through such resurrective ideology and its rhetoric of evil, Americans could evade the excruciating vulnerability that had been exposed by the attack and once again feel great, powerful, and godlike.
There is a striking similarity between Bush’s rhetoric and the grandiose claims made by Trump during his campaign—that he alone would make America great again and fix all that ails it. But what about the slim majority of the electorate who did not support Trump? As is often the case in situations of extreme polarization, one group’s savior is another group’s nemesis. The world has changed forever and is no longer a place of safety, I hear from members of this second group. They compare their post-election mood to what they felt in the wake of 9/11.
How can we understand this sense of endangerment? Certainly there are aspects of Trump’s personality that contribute to it—his emotional instability, for example. It is terrifying for many to envision the power of America, including its nuclear power, in the hands of someone so volatile and prone to revenge.
But there is more. Many people, especially those with an intellectual bent, attempt to counteract their existential vulnerabilities by turning to mental activity as a source of protectedness and security. Knowing outcomes in advance becomes paramount, and the limited ability to do so can bring intense anxiety. This way of counteracting vulnerability showed up in the weeks prior to the election as a compulsive attentiveness to the predictions of pundits and pollsters, predictions that ultimately were exposed as deeply flawed. Without the ability to protect against danger through anticipation and prediction, people are left with unmodified feelings of vulnerability and endangerment. Safety is once again revealed to be an illusion.
Stolorow, R. D. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections. New York: Routledge.
Stolorow, R. D. (2011). World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.