The good news is that the people who are addressing trauma most directly are reviving a moral language and developing a moral curriculum. Edward Tick is a therapist who has been working with survivors of wars for decades. In his book “War and the Soul,” he writes that PTSD is best understood as a “soul wound, affecting the personality at the deepest levels.”
One of his patients, Art, told Tick, “My soul has fled.” He felt it leave his body at Khe Sanh. Art was a machine-gunner repelling wave after wave of North Vietnamese assault, killing them by the score.
One day the North Vietnamese overran his position, and while he was sprinting away in retreat, expecting to die at any second, he felt his soul run out of his body. It stayed out, traumatized, on red alert, for decades.
Tick told Art: “We can try to make your body and this life a safe place for your soul to move back into. If we can get you off combat alert, if you can learn to trust a little bit … maybe we can bring you two closer together.”
People who are recovering from trauma often embrace the language of myth, which offers us templates of moral progress. Recently, in New Orleans, I met the founder of a community of vets called Bastion. The men and women there are taught to see their lives as a hero’s journey with three stages: from Separation through Initiation and then back to Return.
Tick points out that most ancient cultures put returning soldiers through purification rituals. The men came back from battle and the terrible things they had done there, and they were given a chance to cleanse, purify and rejoin the community. The community would take possession of the guilt the soldiers may have felt for the things they had to do on its behalf.
I wish our culture had many more rites of passage, communal moments when we celebrated a moral transition. There could be a communitywide rite of passage for people coming out of prison, for forgiveness of a personal wrong, for people who felt they had come out the other side of trauma and abuse. There’d be a marriage ceremony of sorts to mark the moment when a young person found the vocation he or she would dedicate life to.
It’ll take a lot to make our culture a thick moral culture. But one way or another, nations and people have to grow a soul big enough to enclose the traumas that haunt them.
Writes for The New York Times.