Commenting on the response of Mike McQueary, the key witness in the Penn State child sex abuse case, when he said that he did not comprehend what he was seeing for the 30 to 45 seconds when Sandusky was victimizing a child, sportswriter Jane Leavy has the following to say about trauma:
Trauma fractures comprehension as a pebble shatters a windshield. The wound at the site of impact spreads across the field of vision, obscuring reality and challenging belief.1
Trauma overturns our systems of meaning that we hold dear, even of those who are onlookers. Even a brief glimpse of evil by those who are not directly being harmed or victimized can overturn so much of what we hold dear and true.
In Shattered Assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman explains the theory that people developed basic worldview assumptions about the benevolence and meaningfulness of the world and personal self-worth. These assumptions color how we understand ourselves and our experience day-to-day. If one is raised in a supportive environment, one will develop positive views about the world and oneself. However, according to Janoff-Bulman, “powerful situations” that are out of the ordinary and a threat to one’s own life and well-being can challenge these assumptions2
Janoff-Bulman’s does fairly well in trying to explain the trauma of victims and of those who are affected by severe natural disasters, who are all directly effected with basic threats to their security and well-being. However, it doesn’t explain as well the trauma that on-lookers can experience who are not directly threatened. We are today increasingly familiar with the effects of secondary trauma, where people exposed to traumatic events happening to others through direct witnessing the events or indirect accounts of the traumatizing events. Why is that people who witness or hear of traumatizing events experience traumatic symptoms themselves if they are not immediately threatened? One might suggest the helpers and onlookers of victims vicariously experience the threats to their own survival. While this may be the case in some instances of people who are directly involved in the matter, it doesn’t explain how people indirectly exposed to the trauma can also experience symptoms.
Another idea that explains trauma is that our worldviews provide us a set of meanings that buffers us from feelings of anxiety.3 According to Terror Management Theory, we deal with our recognition of our mortality by (1) our cultural worldviews which provides a sense of meaning, orderliness, and consistency of the world and (2) views of our own personal significance.4 In that case, our understandings of our self and the world actively prevent us from feeling the terror of our mortality. Our understanding in part functions as a defense/coping mechanism to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability. However, if we either directly experience a threatening event or we are simply witnesses and onlookers, the very set of beliefs that help us to manage our anxieties and fears are brought into stark dissonance with direct or vicarious experience. Our worldviews no longer become as credible in the face of such threats.
In other words, trauma is not a single cognitive reality of an overturned worldview assumptions, but rather there are two factors involved: the basic, instinctual need for survival and the beliefs we have that allow us to feel safe so that we can direct our goal and purposes towards something other than survival. In most people, their worldviews are strong enough that they feel a sense of optimism to focus on other goals, dreams, and ambitions.
This view is consistent with the agonist relationship between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), where the former actives the fight-or-flight instinct whereas the latter works against this instinct to help people to relax and take care of others physiological needs and desires. Whereas the SNS is always on to maintain homeostasis, the PNS can be “dialed” up or down. In that case, trauma can be hypothesized as the weakening of the cognitive worldview that dials down the PNS, leading to the ramping up of the survival instinct.
However, there is something that differentiates trauma from merely feeling threatened. Both can lead to the dialing down of the PNS, leading to the activation of the SNS. But with momentary threats, the person eventually believes that the threat has been handled and there is no immediate threat. However, with trauma, the fear is more ‘existential’ rather than being tied to a specific person or thing. In the case of non-trauma, the very ways of making meaning of the world that lead us to realize that the people we come into proximity to, the places we travel, the activities we participate in, etc. are to be given a basic sense of trust even though we have no direct evidence of their safety. But, after trauma, the very systems of meaning that allow us to have this sense of safety are now challenged and weakened; people, places, and activities we are not intimately familiar with are potentially dangerous. Even if the traumatized person is able to consciously recognize that there is no evidence that the people, places, and activities are dangerous, the weakening of one’s basic worldview assumptions means that the traumatized person will physiologically react as if there is a possible threat they need to be prepared to protect themselves from.
This leads to a basic premise about trauma and healing: since trauma is a disruption of meaning that makes us unable to stave off anxieties about survival, one does not reverse trauma by directly trying to strengthen their systems of meaning. While in non-traumatized people, basic assurances of the integrity of one’s worldview can ameliorate any sense of threat that might emerge, this is because the worldview is not fundamentally weakened. Rather, basic assurances allow the basic worldview to be brought to memory and regulate one’s sense of feelings. Their worldview is still by default trustworthy. But in trauma, the strength of a person’s worldviews are weakened. Trying to then directly strengthen a traumatized persons’ belief system doesn’t happen because their worldview is by default suspect, even though they may not be able to really identify where and how.
Now, our systems of meaning are largely a product of abstractions and associations that are used in the production and comprehension of language. While meaning and language are not coextensive, they are tightly related to the point that for the vast majority of people, people are often constrained to think in the categories given to them by their own proficiency and familiarity with the language. But, there are occasionally experiences they are ineffable as defy any encompassing verbal description. Feelings of romantic love can happen largely without the person realizing or understanding it is happening. Events that inspire awe, whether it be a majestic scene of beauty of the worship of God, can not be so easily encapsulated by words. Many a mystic can only describe their anomoalous experiences with metaphors.
So too can trauma operate in this way: a person lacks the language to fully comprehend the threat that is happening to them. While a person may be physiologically reacting to a threat, their conscious mind does not necessarily understand what is happening to them at the time. If this threat is severe or repetitive enough, this ineffable experience will be encoded into memory in such a way that it can haunt them. In trauma, physiological need for survival may overwhelm any ability to comprehend and understand what is happening to them: their deepest held worldviews do not provide them the cognitive and linguistic resources to describe and comprehend what has happened.
However, talk therapy soon after a traumatic event has not been found to be ineffective; in fact, it may even exacerbate trauma. Why is that the case? Perhaps it is because trying to verbally describe and comprehend the victimization actually begins to develop a system of cognitive meanings and understandings that further challenges the worldviews that enabled them to physiologically feel they can be at rest and peace. For instance, a rape victim describing their rape may further entrench the image of their victimization through the usage of language, thereby further weakening the worldview assumptions that allowed them to cast aside feelings of anxiety for their survival.
When faced with events that powerfully under turn our personal systems of meaning, whether it be falling in love, a religious vision that defies comprehension, or an event of trauma, the belief systems we hold onto may become life chaff. Hence, we can look at the story of Job, a man overwhelmed with indescribable loss and disaster and the feeling of despair, and comprehend his words to his friends in Job 16.2-3:
I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? (NRSV)
Job’s friends attempted to comfort Job by letting him know that his misfortune was due to some sin on Job’s part. Why in our modern world that eschews judgmentalism may find this to be terribly insensitive, what Job’s friends were doing actually makes sense if you live with a worldview that all suffering is due to some sin. And far from this being terrorizing, it can actually be a source of comfort, as this would mean that ultimately one’s suffering is under one’s own control. If the solution to suffering was simple as be good and do good, then this would be wonderful news for many people. But, the problem is that Job knows the truth: he is not guilty of anything. His loss and suffering is ultimately not under his control. As a consequence, he finds his friends theological discussions to be a dagger to his heart, as that very worldview he experiences to be absolutely false. Their words are like chaff.
Instead, Job continues to implicate God amidst the suffering. Interestingly enough, God vindicates Job’s speech (Job 42.7) while he condemns the words of Job’s friends. This being despite the fact that Job is not actually correct in what he says about God. God Himself spoke out of the whirlwind, challenge Job’s contention with God. Furthermore, God did not bring this calamity on him, but as the opening narratives of the first two chapters describe, it was Satan who brought this calamity upon with while God simply permitted it to happen. Why Job who spoke in error actually vindicated?
In our modern era where we think right theology in terms of representational truth (that is, to rightly describe what is the case in precise, descriptive terms), it can be hard to fathom why Job’s error is vindicated. But if we recognize that within Job’s complaints is a man who is open to hearing from God, then we can begin to make sense of both Job’s vindication and also Job’s healing. For Job’s friends, the reality of the matter was already settled: Job was guilty of some sin. In so doing, they were in error about Job. But not only that, they were wholly incapable of consoling Job. Their confidence made them poor comforters as they were no just simply in error, but they were locked into their error. Job, by contrast, was in error and many might feel a bit brazen in wanting to contend with God, but he was willing to hear from God.
And yet after God’s two speeches from the whirlwind, something happens. Job repents of his feelings. But why? Burton Cooper suggests that Job receives an image of a vulnerable God rather than a monarchical image that convey an unlimited God.5 Cooper’s reading is not to be found in the text of Job, as he acknowledges is the case, but rather in the tensions within the story. However, I think Cooper’s explanation is a bit too creative, as I don’t think there is anything within the story of Job that would convey an image of God as a vulnerable God. Yet, I do want to affirm that the answer to why Job repents of his feelings is due to something that is only briefly glazed over without much further explanation. Job says in Job 42.5-6:
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (NRSV)
This is the only explanation given for Job’s repentance. Notice the two different sensory modalities mentioned: hearing and seeing. Previously, Job criticized his friends for his words, but Job has now heard from God. But Job doesn’t speak simply of hearing but he is also given a vision of God. It is this vision that serves to change Job’s response to God. In other words, Job wasn’t convinced and persuaded by theological arguments; implicitly, not even God’s own words by themselves were enough to persuade Job. Rather, Job also had a vision of God.
What exactly the content of this vision is, we can not really say. Perhaps it is related to the imagery of God’s powers of creation or the humanly uncontainable power of Leviathon. But the point here is that Job was changed through something more than words that conveyed a sense of meaning. Job had a more intensive experience of a vision that he received because he wanted to hear from God, even if his original intention was to accuse God.
This brings me to by point about trauma and healing. Because trauma is the weakening of our worldviews that allow us to feel safe and hopeful for the future by allaying the anxieties about our well-being and survival, one does not heal trauma by trying to directly fix the worldview. Because of the default suspicion of the worldview, trying to directly fix the worldview may only makes things worse and not better. This is especially cased in the worldview is fundamentally inflexible in the face of error, as was the case with Job’s friends. However, simply trying to comprehend and understand the trauma doesn’t itself provide healing either, as it may reinforce a worldview where one is perpetually threatened.
Rather, healing comes through something more cognitively powerful than the meaning of our entrenched worldviews and language. Just as trauma is created by a powerful experience that tears apart our worldviews, healing is created by a powerful experience that builds an understanding anew. While with Job, it comes through a direct experience of God that few can say they have had, the point that I think the book of Job tries to make in the end is that overcoming of suffering happens not through the batting around of theological ideas and concepts, but through something more visceral and more defining. In the book of Job, we witness a nascent form of a theology of revelation, which in the apocalyptic literature is customarily received through a two-fold act of vision/image/dream and word/explanation. This vision of God, whatever it is that Job saw, is the source of his change of mind that eventually leads to his healing that transitions into the reestablishment of his well-being.
My own speculation leads me to hypothesize that through God’s speech from the whirlwind, Job received an image of the terror Leviathon that was also being tamed and controlled by God. God’s speeches simultaneously (a) gives a vision of the threat and (b) provides the solution to the threat in God’s power. At one level, this vindicates Job from any wrong-doing, as his misfortunate is attributable to someone other than God, or himself. At another level, it would convey an image of God’s sovereign victory over Leviathon. At this point, we are then ready to transition into the revelation of Jesus Christ as the victory over the uncontained chaos in the powers of sin and death.
- Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions. (New York, The Free Press, 1992) 53ff.
- Donald Edmonson et. al., “From Shattered Assumptions to Weakened Worldviews.” Journal of Loss and Trauma 16(4), 2011; 358-385. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3783359/
- Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, The Worm at the Core. (New York; Random House, 2015) 9.
- Burton Cooper, Why, God? (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 52-59.