Fighting the Spiritual Void

November 19, 2018
By David Brooks, for The New York Times

A veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.CreditCreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times
A veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

David BrooksWherever I go I seem to meet people who are either dealing with trauma or helping others dealing with trauma. In some places I meet veterans trying to recover from the psychic wounds they suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sometimes it is women struggling with the aftershocks of sexual assault. Sometimes it is teachers trying to help students overcome the traumas they’ve suffered from some adult’s abuse or abandonment.

Wherever Americans gather and try to help each other on any deep level, they confront levels of trauma that their training has often not prepared them for.

Our society has tried to medicalize trauma. We call it PTSD and regard it as an individual illness that can be treated with medications. But it’s increasingly clear that trauma is a moral and spiritual issue as much as a psychological or chemical one. Wherever there is trauma, there has been betrayal, an abuse of authority, a moral injury.

Medication can rebalance chemicals in the brain, but it can’t heal the inner self. People who have suffered a trauma — whether it’s a sexual assault at work or repeated beatings at home — find that their identity formation has been interrupted and fragmented. Time doesn’t flow from one day to the next but circles backward to the bad event.

People who endure trauma sometimes say that they feel morally tainted. They have the same plaintive mind-set as the old man at the cemetery in “Saving Private Ryan,” who says to his wife, “Tell me I’m a good man.”

As a culture we’re pretty bad at dealing with moral injury. Sometimes I look at the rising suicide and depression rates, the rising fragility and distrust, and I think it all flows from the fact that we’ve made our culture a spiritual void. When you privatize morality and denude the public square of spiritual content, you’ve robbed people of the community resources they need to process moral pain together.

The good news is that the people who are addressing trauma most directly are reviving a moral language and developing a moral curriculum. Edward Tick is a therapist who has been working with survivors of wars for decades. In his book “War and the Soul,” he writes that PTSD is best understood as a “soul wound, affecting the personality at the deepest levels.”

One of his patients, Art, told Tick, “My soul has fled.” He felt it leave his body at Khe Sanh. Art was a machine-gunner repelling wave after wave of North Vietnamese’ assault, killing them by the score.

One day the North Vietnamese overran his position, and while he was sprinting away in retreat, expecting to die at any second, he felt his soul run out of his body. It stayed out, traumatized, on red alert, for decades.

Tick told Art: “We can try to make your body and this life a safe place for your soul to move back into. If we can get you off combat alert, if you can learn to trust a little bit … maybe we can bring you two closer together.”

People who are recovering from trauma often embrace the language of myth, which offers us templates of moral progress. Recently, in New Orleans, I met the founder of a community of vets called Bastion. The men and women there are taught to see their lives as a hero’s journey with three stages: from Separation through Initiation and then back to Return.

When we see our lives in mythic terms, we can see that life still offers a chance to do something heroic. “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life,” Joseph Campbell wrote.

Tick points out that most ancient cultures put returning soldiers through purification rituals. The men came back from battle and the terrible things they had done there, and they were given a chance to cleanse, purify and rejoin the community. The community would take possession of the guilt the soldiers may have felt for the things they had to do on its behalf.

The Tohono O’odham, a Native American people from the Sonoran Desert, once practiced a 16-day purification ceremony.

These ceremonies had, Tick writes, what most rites of passage have: a sacred space, training by the elders, ordeals that prepare and test the initiate, rituals that symbolize the transformation taking place. After the cleansing, the blood-soaked soldier was now known as a warrior, a positive leader in the community.

I wish our culture had many more rites of passage, communal moments when we celebrated a moral transition. There could be a communitywide rite of passage for people coming out of prison, for forgiveness of a personal wrong, for people who felt they had come out the other side of trauma and abuse. There’d be a marriage ceremony of sorts to mark the moment when a young person found the vocation he or she would dedicate life to.

It’ll take a lot to make our culture a thick moral culture. But one way or another, nations and people have to grow a soul big enough to enclose the traumas that haunt them.