Trauma represents a life altering experience. It engenders a sense of helplessness, confusion, and disorganization for those directly involved in it and for those who bear witness to it. Part of this confusion is attempting to decipher what is real and what is fantasy, what is inside and what is outside, what happened in the past and what is happening now. These disorienting and discontinuous states of experience are hallmarks of trauma and often stir intense emotional reactions.
The emotional responses to traumatic events are powerful and often feel as though either life or death is at stake. Moreover, such emotional responses are almost always infused with an inordinate amount of moral judgments. These judgments quickly collapse into rigid binaries such as right and wrong, good and evil, victim and perpetrator. The emotional pull from a traumatic event makes it nearly impossible to stay morally neutral. This seems unique to the experience of trauma as other forms of suffering do not seem to elicit the same moral furor or intensity. So, why is morality so intimately tied up with the experience of trauma?
Before we can address that question, we need to come to terms with what the word “trauma” means. In our everyday discourse, unfortunately, the notion of trauma is often liberally used to describe any negative event or experience. Such a vague understanding does little to shed any meaningful light onto what is unique about traumatic experiences. For this piece, I will rely on Judith Herman’s (1997) definition of trauma which she describes as events that “overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning” (p. 33, italics added). Such events threaten the physical, social, and psychological integrity of an individual, which uniquely defines trauma as separate from other adverse events.
Key to this definition, and the connection between morality and trauma, is the notion of being psychologically overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed refers to a state of mind that is cognitively and affectively overloaded, and impairs one’s normal capacity to make sense of and modulate experience. In such cases, traumatic experiences are often somatically registered, but not incorporated into a meaningful self-narrative that brings coherence and continuity to the experience. Trauma is overwhelming precisely because the experience exists outside the horizon of the individual’s system of meaningful references. Without having a larger cultural framework to make sense of or process the traumatic experience, one is left in a state of being overwhelmed.
Trauma is experienced as forcibly shattering the everyday assumptions that are construed to provide a sense that the world is orderly and therefore predictable. It challenges moral standards that suggest one can be assured a sense of basic safety if one follows the rules and values of a particular worldview perspective. Stolorow (2007) referred to such assumptions as absolutisms of everyday life and argued such convictions are essential to ensure a basic trust in the stability and predictability of the world. These absolutisms provide a perceived sense of ontological security that tranquilizes one’s exposure to existential anxiety. Trauma obliterates these absolutisms and thereby renders a profound loss of innocence as one’s expectations of safety and continuity of being are fundamentally altered.
What is most disturbing about trauma is that it reveals the radical contingency of life in an ultimately unpredictable world (Stolorow, 2007). Trauma is therefore a palpable reminder of mortality and undermines one’s sense of ontological security earned by adhering to the moral standards of one’s worldview perspective. As a result, traumatic events and those who have been traumatized are often relegated to the margins of society. They are quickly forgotten about or suppressed in the happenings of everyday life as a means to defend against death anxiety. The collective amnesia associated with trauma can be viewed as a societal response to restore the absolutisms of life after the destabilizing effects of trauma tear apart basic assumptions about the order and predictability of life.
Morality is invoked to stitch together the torn fabric of a community’s worldview in the service to mollifying the ontological anxiety revealed by trauma. This occurs first when the traumatized individual attempts to answer the inevitable questions: why? and more specifically, why me? (Herman, 1997). Moral codes are utilized to attribute blame and seek accountability for the traumatic event. If someone can be blamed, someone can be held responsible, and thus action can be taken to avoid, fend off, or prevent such an event from occurring in the future. Responsibility implies there might have been some control in the situation and assuages the unbearable feelings associated with being powerless and helpless.
Morality helps turn ambiguous situations into more definitive black and white responses. Such perceived clarity prepares the ground for action and reestablishes a sense of control. Much energy and effort is expended in social discourse, legal infrastructure, and political ideologies to tame the ever present anxiety of death to transform it such that a society’s denizens can experience a more comfortable and tranquil existence by ascribing to the absolutisms of life. By bringing morality into the discussion, death anxiety is mitigated through identifying what is right and wrong, good and evil, who is victim and who is perpetrator, and how those responsible for traumatic acts can be held accountable. Progress can therefore be deemed as making existence more predictable and thus safer for everyone.
Trauma is particularly pernicious in that the usual means to protect oneself from a pervasive death anxiety are rendered useless in the shattering of basic assumptions of a worldview perspective that heretofore provided meaning to existence. The normative prescription of behaviors failed in yielding a sense of security and calls into question the larger suppositions that make up a cultural worldview perspective. The obliteration of such assumptions induces a state of being psychologically overwhelmed as there is no larger framework to employ in order to make sense of the traumatic experience. In such a vacuum, morality surges to the foreground in an effort to hold together a meaningful, orderly, and predictable worldview perspective. We experience an intense moral reaction to trauma because it helps us cope with the underlying terror associated with salient reminders of mortality and the contingency of life. Morality helps safeguard against ontological insecurity by restoring a sense of understanding, belonging, and wholeness to an otherwise sundered existence. It is the glue that maintains culturally constructed values and narratives that bring stability and meaning to life and is ultimately used in order to ameliorate existential anxiety wrought by trauma.
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Stolorow, R. D. (2007). Anxiety, authenticity, and trauma: The relevance of Heidegger’s existential analytic for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 24(3), pp. 373-383.
— Mark McKinley