'Empathic Civilization' in an Age of Trauma

If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.
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In my work over the last two decades attempting to grasp the nature of emotional trauma, I have shown that its essence 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 contingency 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 and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats.

I describe our era as an Age of Trauma because the tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides--by global diminution of natural resources, by global warming, by global nuclear proliferation, by global terrorism, and by global economic collapse. These are forms of collective trauma in that they threaten to obliterate the basic framework with which we as members of our particular society have made sense out of our existence.

It is my view that, here in America, our Age of Trauma began with the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 was a devastating collective trauma that shattered our customary illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility--illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. The economic meltdown and the fall of iconic companies and financial institutions inaugurated a second wave of collective trauma.

Several outcomes of trauma, whether individual or collective, are possible. If what I call a relational home--a context of human understanding--can be found in which traumatized states can be held and eventually integrated (and I will have more to say about this later), a traumatized person may actually move toward a more authentic way of existing, in which existential vulnerabilities are embraced rather than disowned. More commonly, in the absence of such a relational home, he or she may succumb to various forms of dissociative numbing. Alternatively, traumatized people may attempt to restore the lost illusions shattered by trauma through some form of what I call resurrective ideology--collective beliefs that seek to bring back to life the illusory absolutisms that have been nullified.

A good example of the way resurrective ideology works was how, after 9/11, Americans readily fell under the spell of the rhetoric of George W. Bush, who 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. Another example, in the wake of the economic crisis, was the attribution of messianic powers to President Obama--expectations of being saved that have led, as they inevitably do, to bitter feelings of disappointment. Resurrective ideology always ends up being destructive.

What is the alternative to resurrective ideology? Earlier I suggested that the healthy alternative is the forming of bonds of human understanding in which experiences of trauma can be held and lived through. What makes such empathic connections possible?

Jeremy Rifkin looks to neuroscientists and social scientists for the answer. Neuroscientists are claiming that human brains possess special neurons--"mirror-neurons"--that allow one to feel another person's emotional situation vicariously, as if it were one's own. Accordingly, it is built into our genetic endowment to be an empathic species, and human evolution is characterized by expansion of our empathic capacities to ever-broadening domains. Indeed, in Rifkin's utopian vision, communications technology is now extending the empathic capacities of human nervous systems so vastly as to make possible a global empathic interconnectedness, a universal empathic connectivity that can avert a planetary collapse.

My own inclination has been to look not to neurobiology but to our existential structure--how we are necessarily understandable to ourselves as human beings. Because we and all those with whom we are deeply connected are finite, transient, vulnerable beings, the possibilities of death and loss, and therefore of emotional trauma, always impend and are ever present. I have contended, however, that just as our finiteness and vulnerability to death and loss are fundamental to our existential constitution, so too is it constitutive of our existence that we meet each other as "siblings in the same darkness," deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finiteness. Thus, although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present, so too is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional understanding within which devastating emotional pain can be held and cared for, rendered more tolerable, and, hopefully, eventually integrated. Our existential kinship-in-the-same-darkness is the condition for the possibility of the healing power of human understanding.

Whatever differences we may have, Rifkin and I both apprehend the critical importance of mutual empathic understanding in our current Age of Trauma. Imagine an "empathic civilization" in which the obligation to provide a relational home for the emotional pain that is inherent to the traumatizing impact of our finiteness has become a shared ethical principle. In such a society, human beings would be much more capable of living in their existential vulnerability, anxiety, and grief, rather than having to revert to destructive ideological evasions of them. In such a societal context, a new form of identity would become possible, based on owning rather than covering up our existential vulnerability. Vulnerability that finds a hospitable relational home could be seamlessly and constitutively integrated into whom we experience ourselves as being. A new form of human solidarity would also become possible rooted not in shared resurrective grandiosity but in shared recognition and respect for our common human finiteness. If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.

(This blog is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Daphne Socarides Stolorow, who died 19 years ago today at the age of 34.)

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