Complete powerlessness is one of the worst, most traumatizing human experiences, so how do we recover afterward?
Philosopher, nihilist and ultimately madman, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
It’s a sentiment that Professor Bessel van der Kolk saw often echoed in the lives of the veterans who participated in his trauma study, particularly a man named Tom. In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. van der Kolk recalled, “Many of the men had friendships similar to Tom’s with Alex. Tom met Alex, an Italian guy from Malden, Massachusetts, on his first day in country, and they instantly became close friends. They drove their jeep together, listened to the same music, and read each other’s letters from home….
“After about three months in country Tom led his squad on a foot patrol through a rice paddy just before sunset. Suddenly a hail of gunfire spurted from the green wall of the surrounding jungle, hitting the men around him one by one.
“Tom told me how he had looked on in helpless horror as all the members of his platoon were killed or wounded in a matter of seconds. He would never get one image out of his mind: the back of Alex’s head as he lay facedown in the rice paddy, his feet in the air. Tom wept as he recalled, ‘He was the only real friend I ever had.’
“Maybe even worse for Tom than the recurrent flashbacks of the ambush was the memory of what happened afterward…. The day after the ambush Tom went into a frenzy to a neighboring village, killing children, shooting an innocent farmer…”
Reflecting on his sessions with the veteran, Dr. van der Kolk mused, “It’s hard enough to face the suffering that has been inflicted by others, but deep down many traumatized people are even more haunted by the shame they feel about what they themselves did or did not do under the circumstances.
“They despise themselves…”
When We Stare Into the Abyss
Having no power in a situation is horrific. Even if we are able, unlike the veterans Dr. van der Kolk interviewed, to escape a situation without receiving or inflicting physical harm, the mental scars of helplessness often remain.
Witnesses of public shootings and survivors of terrible car wrecks will sometimes suffer from PTSD, gripped by a visceral sense of vulnerability.
Others are able to walk through these circumstances and emerge on the other side with seemingly little impact. We might look at those individuals and wonder, “How? Is it a particular kind of mental fortitude? Is it their perception of the world? Is it because they received a certain kind of therapy or had more faith in God than others?” Even these questions show that we may still be looking for the right answer in the wrong places.
We’re not meant to be controlled by our past and our pains. We all know that on a gut level. How we achieve that liberation, though, is where so many opinions inside and outside of the church differ.
This subject is a sensitive one, especially for those who are struggling to stave off the most debilitating aspects of trauma.
How do you walk into a lifetime of suffering and give them a pat answer?
Perhaps there are no easy answers. God responds to the issues in our lives in as many diverse ways as the wounds themselves. The root of this crippling pain, though, might be traced back to single source, however varied its expressions.
None, or very few of us except the most holy and sanctified, lives in the full realization of C.S. Lewis’s statement in Mere Christianity, “Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense his own already.”
On some level, we believe we have power over our circumstances. The problem is that we do in the limited sense that God grants his image-bearers influence in his kingdom, but it is both more and less than we would like to imagine.
When our most firmly held trust in our own power and influence is ripped away and we are violently shaken awake to our own impotence in the face of loss, danger and death, that breaks something inside our hearts and minds.
We can get lost staring into the abyss of human frailty and evil.
Their Power Is Their God
After surviving several of Japan’s worst concentration camps, World War II veteran Louie Zamperini was a haunted man. He became obsessed with avenging himself and his friends; he fell into alcoholism; his wife almost couldn’t bear his violent outbursts and threatened to leave. The smallest sound or careless act could send him spinning into memories of the terrible powerlessness he had known.
One night, he and his wife went to a Billy Graham crusade. Unbroken describes how Louie listened to the famous evangelist preach, torn between anger and fascination.
“He spoke of God reaching into the world through miracles and the intangible blessings that give men the strength to outlast their sorrows. ‘God works miracles one after another,’ he said. ‘…God says, “If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.”’
“Louie found himself thinking of the moment at which he had woken in the sinking hull of Green Hornet, the wires that had trapped him a moment earlier now, inexplicably, gone. And he remembered the Japanese bomber swooping over the rafts, riddling them with bullets, and yet not a single bullet had struck him…. He had fallen into unbearably cruel worlds, and yet he had borne them.
“When he turned these memories in his mind, the only explanation he could find was one in which the impossible was possible….
“When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird [Mutsuhiro Watanabe] had striven to make of him.”
Pastor Claude Houde illustrates this truth that Louie Zamperini discovered in the prophet Habakkuk’s words, “He makes a contrast that we often miss between believers and unbelievers…. This is the heart of the difference between a believer and a non-believer. He says, ‘They have their own power as their god. But my just, they live by faith.’
“God is saying to every one of you, ‘True faith is the acknowledgement that you are not equipped to be God. The proud, his own strength is his god. You have to allow me to be God.’”
A Life With a Reason Why
When Greg Morse, writer for Desiring God, explored his own season of spiritual and emotional exhaustion, he found unexpected exhortation in the book of Jeremiah which had words we don’t typically hear in the church or our Christian circles.
He noted, “Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, had been saying, ‘Woe is me! For the Lord has added sorrow to my pain. I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest’ (Jeremiah 45:3). Exactly, I thought. I wondered how God would comfort this man of God who had endured many trials for his name. What promise of future reward would he give? His response to Baruch’s groans struck me dead between the shoulders: ‘Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not’ (Jeremiah 45:5).”
How is this meant to be encouraging to Baruch or us? Morse pulls apart how this initially harsh seeming command is actually the best response we could hear.
“God called both Jeremiah and Baruch to thankless work with stronger words than we often hear: ‘But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. . . . They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you’ (Jeremiah 1:17, 19)….
“Jesus recalibrates his men similarly in the New Testament: ‘Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ (Luke 10:20). Do not rest your joy upon career achievement, ministry success, or commendations from men, but upon the promise that you have eternal life, that your soul will survive the judgment.”
We are so often powerless in life, set upon by forces so much greater than ourselves. We are only able to move forward either under the illusion of our own control or by the promise of greater power overseeing us.
Friedrich Nietzsche, mad and degenerate though he was, accurately stated, “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”