a response to Richard Polt’s Being Who You Were
I recently came across a very clear description of trauma by Existential philosopher, Richard Polt. Existentialism insists we are temporal beings. Our past, present, and future are interrelated and make us who we each are. In his short essay, Being Who You Were, Polt describes the effect of trauma on our existence:
Having abused and having been abused weighs on us. Weight is the experience of the pressure the past exerts on the present. It is the feeling of conflict between past and present, where the past overwhelms and crushes the present, and also threatens to obliterate the future: one can experience one’s possibilities tightly constrained, or even extinguished, by the pressure of the “it was”. In PTSD, one keeps returning to the temporal scene of disruption and violation, unable to escape its field of gravity. All later developments feel like unreal, ephemeral surfaces; the only true, and eternal, presence is the trauma. (4-5)
Polt asks how we can integrate past trauma into the present authentically. After discussing various “solutions” offered by our culture, he concludes that they all seek to escape the burden of the past by reaching into the eternal—a move that forgets rather than integrates the past (e.g. by being “born again”):
Authentic existence cannot pretend that this weight is nothing but it must find a way to recover futurity and integrate the past with the present. It must transform weight into depth—layers of insight and wisdom that are part of the present rather than overwhelming it as an oppressive force. How does weight become depth? I have no easy or universal answer. (5)
Indeed there is no easy or universal answer but the task remains nonetheless. Transforming the weight of a traumatic past into depth suggests an entirely different approach to that of escape into the eternal. To affirm our existence as temporal beings leaves us with no easy or universal answer to how trauma can be transformed into depth. Clearly such an approach cannot be programmatic, as Polt suggests (no universal answer). The character of such a transformation must include the quality of grace or giftedness. Polt believes that such gift, if it comes, must come from those we have wronged, or towards those who have wronged us, as an interpersonal, free act. I agree. But I don’t entirely agree that, when we graced with such gifts interpersonally, we are therefore led from being burdened to gaining depth. The transformation of weight into depth requires intervention from another source of the gift, I think. We must be given the depth perspective from the depths as the source of the gift. In other words, the weight of guilt or burden of responsibility impressed on us from past trauma (to self or others) must be seen and understood from a depth perspective as given us by those very depths.
In C. S. Lewis’ version of the Eros and Psyche myth, the story is told from the point of view of Psyche’s sister Queen Orual. While Psyche undergoes her tasks at the hands of the goddess, Orual is consumed by envy and hatred towards Psyche. Burdened with bitterness and grief through loss of love, she comes to the end of her life and finally receives a vision in which Psyche gifts her with the box of beauty retrieved from Persephone while the god of mountain makes his judgment: “You also are Psyche!” Orual is released from her suffering and dies shortly after.
This story is instructive. The transformation of the weight of the past into depth can occur when the victim and perpetrator are shown to be one. This requires a greater authority than that of another human being, I think. As Charles Williams says:
There are depths within depths. For a proper forgiveness is so full a matter of the spirit that it leads to the very centre of the union. It is an exchange of hearts. To forgive an other involves, sooner or later, so full an understanding of the injury, and of its cause, that in some sense we ourselves have committed the injury; we are that which injures ourselves. (189)
We can gain “so full an understanding of the injury” only by gaining a more objective perspective—a depth perspective. Orual received this understanding from a god. Polt rightly says that in modernity seeking such understanding from a metaphysical god would be to escape from temporality into the eternal. We simply cannot avoid what we have done in the past (or what we have suffered at the hands of others). But remember, Orual received her gift from within a vision, not from an external god she believed in. Such visionary gifts remain accessible to each of us today.
We must suffer the burden of our traumatic past (either as perpetrator or victim) until the releasing dream or vision from the depths is gifted to us. This advent cannot be predicted or manipulated of course. It may never come. But if it does, it will be, finally, in the form of uniting victim and perpetrator: “I did to myself what my perpetrator did to me” or, “I am the victim of what I perpetrated on an other.”
Upon returning from such a healing visionary state the supplicant is left with a dilemma. The outer circumstances may not have changed at all and yet the depth perspective has delivered the dreamer into “so full an understanding of the injury” that a greater unity is achieved—an equally convincing fact.
From this dilemma can flow a life-affirming outcome in which the burden of the past no longer crushes the present or obliterates the future, as Polt says. The modern Orual now can refine a kind of double vision. She has certain knowledge that an “inner healing” has occurred—the logical or psychological abyss between perpetrator and victim is healed in unity and love restored (forgiveness).. At the same time she is wiser about actual lived life. She knows as a fact, not as a charged indictment, that the real perpetrator is “getting away with murder”, for example but this outer fact is now merely a fact of life—people often get away with hurting others, without social penalty. She now knows that she, too, has in the past hurt others and “got away with it”. She gained this sobering knowledge as another gift from the mystical unity that took place in her vision. She is not spared any the gifts of that unity with the perpetrator. This is what objectivity from the depths brings!
Since love is the surprising outcome of such unity, she can, however, go forward into her life with open heart, no matter what the facts presently are and no matter what the real possibilities of the future may be. The burden of the past has transformed into depth of wisdom how to live well in our temporal existence.
In my own journeying into the question of wounding/being wounded, I once had been racked with guilt over hurting another person. I had no escape! In the middle of this suffering, I received the following dream:
I am in our home, then I am outside, by the side of the house, It is dark. E. comes. She is argumentative. She wants to know if I have sorted out my relationship with her, am I still involved, thinking of her etc. I am defensive at first, mumbling about discerning inner from outer reality but as I look at her I see with utter conviction that she is still involved with me, deeply and really wants to know that I am still, as well, involved with her. Our relationship is real, our feelings for each other, the mystery. I blurt out that I am not interested in sorting out inner from outer , whether I projected anima onto her or whether I am to understand our relationship on an inner level refusing the outer reality, etc. As I speak our desire grows and a kind of magnetic field begins to form in the darkness; vibrations of great energy begin to pulsate in the air. E. is afraid, tries to run but runs right into my arms. We embrace. We/I shout Look! Look! We see something emerging out of the darkness, a star, a speck of light moving about, close, far, I don’t know. I am getting filled with an immense power as this tiny light seems to approach. It is moving about as if looking for a place to lodge. Did it lodge in us? Awe fills me. I feel love awe and being filled to bursting. I wake up with this feeling. It is early Christmas Eve.
Although the outer facts remained as they were and I paid the price, forgiveness flowed into my heart from a. greater authority—that of the depths. I subsequently knew that no matter what might happen externally, from that time on, the burden of the past had been transformed into depth and I could now address the unknown future with love rather than crippling guilt, anger, or regret.