[Upfront disclaimer: As I talk about psychological trauma, I want to clarify in advance that I am not saying that trauma itself is a good thing, especially for those who have to fight that on a regular basis. While God can bring good from whatever pain you are experiencing, do not feel the need to treat your trauma as a blessing in disguise.]
I am a survivor of trauma. One may point to many different events in my life where I have had to face some heart breaking events, such as the loss of my brother by suicide when I was on the cusp of becomg a teenager or the repetitive, unrelenting, unrepentant violation of my boundaries while denigrating me for nearly a year and a half, but no one single event out of these brought me to a point where I lost all sense of what is true. But it was the years of it finally culminating in my emotional, cognitive, and spiritual break five and a half years ago. My life became defined by the vacillation between numbness and trepidation, and everything in between. With it came the losses; a hiatus of my academic future, losing someone I loved but could never express it, feelings of overbearing, toxic shame, and a total loss of confidence in what I believed to be true (except Jesus Christ to whom, somehow, I clung to, albeit weakly at times), all of which just heaped more upon my already breaking back. But with the love of my parents, friends, and colleagues I have stepped through step by step back into some semblance of what I would call life (and I have learned to cherish the good each day, but that is another lesson for another time). However, there was something I learned in the midst of it all.
Almost all of us take for granted that we know what is real and true, even those with psychotic symptons such as those suffering from schizophrenia can believe they know what is real and true. Even the most skeptical of people who deny truth exists accept the truth of non-truth, relativists the same. And as is so often the case, we frequently feel we are able to assess any new experience, new statement, new information as to whether it is true and real or not. This assumption about the reliable analyzability of truth finds itself in philosophy; theories such as the correspondance theory of truth (where what is true matches what we call “facts”), the coherence theory of truth (where what is true matches with our other beliefs), or even Tarski’s theory of truth (don’t ask me to explain; I don’t fully understand it but I understand it enough to make a comment) all stipulate, at the end, that the value of something as being true or value is based upon comparing it to some other standard. In other words, we believe something to be true because it matches what we know to be true. It is a matter of what is the nature of what we take to be fundamentally true (facts, web of beliefs, etc.) and how much we accept to be fundamentally true (what set/range of beliefs, facts, etc.) that different in comparative understandings of truth. We have a basis of what is fundamental and then we assess the truth of everything else from those fundamentals.
However, psychological trauma entails much of the exact opposite. It entails events in life that are so out of place, so unbearable, so against our expectations, that it shatters much of what we sense to be fundamentally true. Prior to my break, I believed that I was a nice and smart, but otherwise unimpressive and unremarkable person that did not have a lot to offer other people; but afterwards I temporarily saw myself as a great wretch that people could only hate or pity, but not care or feel any love for and afterwards. Soon thereafter, while not seeing myself in such stark terms, at times I felt useless and perpetually lost as if irreparably broken and at times I felt I would overcome so great that it would be a wonderful story to tell. The fundamental truth (I emphasize little ‘t’ here) I saw as it pertained to myself fundamentally switched because of the experiences I faced, to the point that I didn’t even really know what to accept anymore. With that, I couldn’t move beyond the chains of the past because I didn’t even have a fundamental framework to start from and build upon. What I thought was right one minute the next minute I would think was terribly mistaken. Why? Because in the series of building traumas, what I knew to be fundamentally truth was fundamentally unable to help me to analyze, assess, and build upon those experiences to move forward. I could assimilate little information because there was hardly any stable foundation to build upon. In short, trauma totally shatters your foundations and can, in some instances, leave you so confused and helpless that there is nowhere to go and nothing to do but to sit, waiting in agony and anxiety looking for something to make sense.
But what if that is exactly how we come to understanding the fundamental Truth of life. Certainly, I don’t mean to say that we should seek to experience long bouts of suffering, depression, and anxiety. But what if Truth is not something we grapple a hold of, that we search for and find. Rather, Truth is something, or rather Someone, who searches and finds us, who grabs a hold of us. And when Truth does that, every foundation we have is shaken; Truth puts everything we accepted as most fundamental and place it in the column of uncertainty. As the disciples looked upon their failed, crucified would-be hero standing, walking, eating, and breathing, what could one say except they saw someone behold them that violated what they took to be fundamentally true. As Saul was on the road to Damascus, the very One he persecuted as an enemy of Israel and God was the very One who spoke from the heavens. We are not sure what to do or where to go in the immediate time afterwards; the disciples simply prayed and took little action until the day of Pentecost; Paul had to regain his strength before going down the journey of becoming the Apostle chronicled in our canon and history books. When Truth takes a hold of us, it is as a trauma, that forces us to totally rebuild the foundations of fundamentals and we can do nothing until strength has been given anew.
Truth isn’t something we acquire by building on confident a priori truths; Truth comes to us and happens to us. Like psychological trauma where we can resist it by psychological defenses (which we should if we can), we may resist the Truth with weapons to try to keep Truth at bay (but we shouldn’t though we think we should). But in the end, our life becomes fundamentally defined by how we respond. And perhaps, this part of why suffering is seen as a vehicle for Christian character (the other thing I would say is that the boundary between the kingdom of God and the world is traced out in suffering as values fundamentally clash and the loss and hostility that can go with that). This is not to say that we should celebrate suffering and trauma, but because it is precisely in those moments where we know not what is true that our weapons are put to the aside and we are open to the Truth. Maybe this is why Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” If Jesus came to take on our poverty, take on our curse, take our weakness so that we can have his riches, his blessing, his strength, then Truth necessarily overlaps with the traumas of life.
[Reiterated disclaimer: Let me reiterate; do not see this as trauma itself being a blessing. While this is more than simply a metaphor, Truth and psychological trauma are not equivalent.]