Trauma is a spiritual event. Trauma, at its core, is the feeling you have been abandoned. By everyone you know and by God himself. Some religious thinkers say Hell is not a fiery inferno or a place of torture, but simply the absence of God. So, maybe trauma is as close to Hell as we’ll ever come on Earth.
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The one truly effective treatment science has come up with for PTSD is a spiritual one. The psychedelic drug MDMA (the active component in the drug known as ecstasy) is administered before therapy sessions. The reason the medicine works is that it reinstates in the patient the sense of connectedness. To humanity, to the world, and, if they believe in such, to God himself.
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Religion seeks to answer the question of why we suffer. Some say there is meaning in suffering, that God is allowing us to suffer in his divine wisdom we often can’t begin to understand. Maybe to refine us as he does gold, as the evangelicals like to say. Maybe because we’re sinners. Or our ancestors are sinners. Or because someone kind of dared him into it (i.e. book of Job).
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My favorite thinkers in this area are recent Jewish scholars who must reconcile this questions in light of the Holocaust. I cannot help but feel the most depth and authenticity comes from those who have seen the suffering and evil the world is capable of, who have lived it. I’ve also always found in Jewish tradition the highest concentration of spiritually, intellectually alive, grounded and wise clergy. I’m Catholic but I studied in the Jewish community and hold certain views more consistent with theirs.
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Rabbi Harold Kushner (who wrote Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?) posits that there is no meaning to suffering itself but we can choose to give it meaning afterwards. There is no great divine plan that includes babies dying and little girls raped and tsunamis ripping off arms. There is no meaning in any of that. And God is not the one who does it. He would stop it if he could. But, in Kushner’s view, he is not all powerful. An all loving and all powerful God could never allow such suffering.
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When my first son was born and the doctors told us he was sick, I went through a long darkness. I could not understand how God would allow babies to suffer and die (my son didn’t die but infants with his conditions did die up until 50 years ago when doctors figured out the treatment to manage it). I turned to Judaism because I recalled when I’d studied the idea that the word Israel means to wrestle with God.
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It’s based off the biblical story of Jacob who wrestles with God through the night and in the morning his name is changed to Israel. The idea is that we can question God and the things he does, but we can never turn our backs on him. We can be angry but we cannot deny him.
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I wrestled with God over my baby being sick. Over not knowing what he would be able to do as he got older, what he’d be able to see. I wondered if I’d done something to cause it, spiritually. Was I being punished? But I couldn’t reconcile the idea of a God who would punish an innocent baby for its mother’s sins.
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In time I found peace. I developed an idea similar to Kushner’s. God was all loving and he did what he could, but he was limited. He’d chosen to limit himself for reasons I couldn’t completely understand.
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I decided to become a doctor. My son’s doctors were very frustrating and I thought there should be at least one doctor in the world who got it. I knew he would need me to make a decent living since he’d have special needs. And I wanted to make him proud, wanted to get my act together and be the kind of mom he deserved. It was time to grow up. More than anything, I wanted something good to come of his medical problems. I wanted something so sad to inspire something good.
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His suffering (and, let’s be honest, mine) was meaningless in its existence but I brought what meaning to it I could.
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He was three when I started medical school, against all odds (no one thought I would get it. Everyone thought I was crazy to try). He was three and a half when I met Jeremy Noyes. He was four when my medical school tried to kick me out for reporting my rapist. He was four when I fought like hell and won the right to stay.
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He was seven when I graduated medical school. He was eleven when I finished my training and became what he called “a real professional doctor.”
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I sometimes wonder if I would have fought to stay in medical school as hard as I did if it hadn’t been for him and his suffering. If I would have stayed in school and fought as hard as I did to get a residency and finish it. There was a primal drive there to protect my boys, to finish for them so I could provide.
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But there was something more too.
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Something spiritual.
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Becoming a doctor was the good that was to come from his suffering. If they’d managed to force me out of my medical career, not only would it have allowed Jeremy to have kept me from my calling and my livelihood, it would have done much more than that. It would have taken from me the peace I’d made with God over his being sick. It would have taken the meaning that allowed me to go on, walking in the world with that particular hole in my heart.
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And so, I wonder, did one trauma help to save me from another?
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I cannot help but think that those of us that have been to Hell on earth must know a thing or two the rest of you don’t. We buy up those corny books about people who say they’ve been to heaven in a near-death experience. Learn from them about love and peace. But, what of those of us who’ve been to hell? (What is trauma if not a near-death experience?) We bring with us a lesson not of mickey mouse cotton candy unicorn sappy love. We don’t return with messages that everything will be all right. We bring something deeper. A message that everything most definitely will not be all right, but if we are there for one another and step out bravely into what love really is, we will go on. And find meaning in anything that comes our way.