From the Dean: Standing Hopeful in the Tragic Gap

Written by Kristina Alvarado
November 24, 2015
Once more the news is filled with stories of mass murders at the hands of terrorists. In the past few weeks, ISIS claimed responsibility for downing Russian Metrojet flight 9268 in Egypt, the two suicide bombers in Beirut, and six terrorist attacks in Paris. ?At least 400 were killed and 352 injured. ?Unfortunately, these murders are just the first round of the death and destruction when violence begets violence. ?A coalition of nations is already looking to kill the killers--those in ISIS associated with the small group of men initiating the carnage across three countries. ?Since any strong military response employing the dropping of bombs is an inexact science, many more innocent people will die in Syria and other targets in the Middle East, though the western press will not report on these figures. ?Nor will the media attempt to share the human-interest side of the innocent deceased occurring in a foreign land that is hosting a terrorist organization, as they do so movingly when Americans and Europeans are killed. ?

As the body count rises, I find myself thinking not about the lives lost in Egypt, France and Lebanon, or the mystery of the making of the terrorist mind, which is necessary to prepare someone to consider acts of unspeakable cruelty. ?Rather, I have been asking questions about the collateral damage of these terrorist attacks. ?When unintended victims are accidentally killed or injured in military responses, it is customary to refer to them as ?collateral damage,? a euphemism that allows people doing a dirty job to feel better about the mistake of killing or wounding the wrong person. ?But the full extent of collateral damage is never reported in the media, in part because you cannot really measure it, but also because we don?t like to think about the unintended suffering we create when we allow ourselves to devolve into an ?eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth? moral philosophy.

The research on the psychological effects of terrorism on survivors is still in its infancy, but some findings suggest it produces a unique form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). ?The malicious and unpredictable nature of terrorism creates a different dynamic for survivors than do other traumatic events. ?Low morale and diminished social cohesion can become long-term community effects after an attack, and the effects can linger longer than in other types of trauma. Terrorism also has a unique ability to open up the racial, economic and religious cracks occurring in a society, and can create a perception that specific ethnic, racial or religious groups are the real cause of the terrorism. The FBI, for instance, found that anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped from 28 in 2,000 to 481 in 2001. ?Most of these crimes occurred between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2001, direct results of the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington DC. ?Such xenophobic thinking is already manifesting itself in public policy, more than 30 governors declaring their states will not take Syrian refugees, and the U.S. House of Representatives voting overwhelmingly to close off U.S. borders to people fleeing the chaos of that region of the world. Terrorism also creates long-term adjustment difficulties. ?

A study in 2002 found that two months after the attack on the World Trade Center 17% of the nation still had symptoms of PTSD. ?We don?t really know the true effect of terrorist attacks on survivors and loved ones, but the sad reality is this: every lost life, whether in the Sinai desert, the city of Beirut, the 10th arrondissement of Paris, or an isolated village in Syria near an ISIS encampment, initiates a chain of suffering that reverberates along the connective tissue of extensive networks of humans. ?Husbands and wives lose the rich companionship and increased economic stability of a shared life; moms and dads are robbed of the life-altering experience of parenting sons and daughters; children and grandchildren grow up without the unconditional love and identity formation provided by parents or grandparents; sisters, brothers and cousins are denied growing up and growing old with siblings who may annoy them at times, but also provide emotional anchors for an entire life span; and friends and coworkers lose the companions and special confidants that keep life in balance and bring unexpected joy and comfort to the many challenges of daily living in our times. ?

To capture the full cost of terrorist attacks and national responses, you need to tally the broken hearts and wounded souls left in the wake of the violence, not just the lifeless corpses. ? The survivors of these tragic events can spend much of their remaining life crippled by the memories of their ordeal. ?Problems with anger, feelings of insecurity and distrust, survivor guilt and even prejudicial thoughts and feelings about others can magnify. ?For those unwilling or unable to seek out professional counseling and psychiatric interventions, it is not hard to imagine that they are likely to seek escape in various forms of addiction, or to live a small life, withdrawing from family and community to live an under-stimulated life that doesn?t stir up the hyper-vigilance that is part and parcel of post-traumatic stress.

Thinking about PTSD feels familiar to me. ?In an earlier period of my life, when I worked with youth in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, I experienced a series of traumatic events that gives me empathy for the survivors of terrorist attacks. In a one-year period I was the victim of multiple armed robberies, burglaries, and threats. My background, joined with my youthfulness, made me one of those young adults who thought he was immortal. ?But, several months after I stopped living in the neighborhood I started developing PTSD symptoms. ?Ironically, the person who made the diagnosis was not my doctor, but a good friend who had served in Special Forces and suffered himself from post-traumatic stress. ?When I described the symptoms I was having, he identified them immediately. ?

Walking through PTSD is a painful and complicated process. Encountering or witnessing a vicious and violent act can rip at the very fabric of our human capacities to build a secure, common life. ?Trust, safety, hope in a tomorrow, belief in the inherent goodness of others and the possibility of a shared humanity, despite our differences, are all challenged before the altar of a terrorist-level trauma. ?Most of all, such experiences can rob a person of the ability to forgive, rendering their life a hellish ordeal of resentment; an unending personal narrative focused on experiences of unjust loss and real and imagined wounds. ?In the process a person?s pain and shattered dreams can become the central feature of a family system or community legacy, making it that much harder for ancestors to learn to surrender to the vulnerability that is necessary for true love and true community. ?

In Unfashionable Observations, Friedrich Nietzsche notes that a child plays ?between the fences of the past and the future,? and one of the great gifts of childhood is the ability to live in the present, unencumbered by the past, and without worry of the future. ?But, the soul wounded by terrorist level wrong has no fence blocking the memories of the past, and it can cloud and overwhelm the present and render the future and its dreams unattainable. ?In such cases, humans become a prisoner of the past, and the only way to find liberation is walking down the difficult path of memory.

Elie Wiesel gave a speech in Germany in 1987 on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous night Germans flooded into the streets to destroy the property of Jews. ?The event marked a key turning point in Third Reich?s movement toward implementing the Holocaust. ??We remember Auschwitz,? Weisel said, ?and all that it symbolizes because we believe that, in spite of the past and its horrors, the world is worthy of salvation; and salvation, like redemption, can be found only in memory.?

Weisel is speaking out of the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, where memory is a fundamental human ability that God is constantly asking people to exercise. ??Remember that you were a slave in Egypt,? Hebrews are told in the book of Deuteronomy (5:15; 15:15; 16:2, 24:18),? in one of the more curious commandments associated with memory. ?Why would it be so important to remember the horrible experience of slavery? ?Is it to reconnect with the experience of liberation from slavery? ?Or, is its importance to remember the pain of our past and learn from it? ?Parker Palmer, a man who found a way to translate a Quaker Christian worldview for a secular audience, would say the latter. ?

Palmer writes eloquently of ?the tragic gap? in human experience. ?He defines this gap as the chasm ?between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.? ?Standing only in the imperfection of reality can lead to a ?corrosive cynicism? and chronic anger at the world?s dysfunction; standing only in the possible can lead to a form of ?irrelevant idealism,? building castles in the sky that ultimately does nothing to alleviate the pain in the world. ?When we cling to our ideals loosely enough to engage reality, it will break our heart. ?But, it is standing in that brokenness, in the tragic gap, that actually allows us to grow as human beings. ? We can cling to our memories of the mentors we have had, the books, music, films and experiences that have shaped our thinking and feeling that have inspired us and raised our vision and expectation of ourselves and the potential for the world. ?This breaks open our hearts, and while it can feel like it will kill us, remaining in the tension allows the God within us to lead us not only to an inner quietude, but also creative paths that will allow us to realize some of our ideals in the world.

It is in the crucible, or as Palmer would say, the cruciform way of living, that we can trust that the tragic gap will break our hearts but not shatter them, and in the process will bring transcendence and transformation to the crosses in our life, with a recurring resurrection of hope and possibility. ?Our memories, a carrier of trauma and grace, can build for us a habit of heart and mind that makes us more resilient in the face of the imperfection of the human condition where saints and terrorist cohabitate. ?

New York City has a memorial to Palmer?s theory about the cruciform way of life. ?The 9/11 Memorial Museum is a poignant reminder of the direct and collateral damage involved in the violent killing of 2,726 people on September 11, 2001. ?One section of the museum is a series of high-walled hallways with floor to ceiling pictures of every person killed. ?As you walk the halls, soft, recorded voices recite the name of each person with a picture on the wall. ?In many cases, a family member or friend of the deceased provided the painful voice on the recording. ?Small exhibits show artifacts from the rubble that were found next to the dead bodies, with many hinting at the damage caused to the love network of one solitary death remembered: the dust-covered cell phone of an ambitious young man recently married who lived with the phone to his ear. ?He worked hard, made the right kinds of decisions for a comfortable lifestyle, and planned his life so that he could retire early and lavish his children with attention; a singed red wallet of a woman whose picture showed a joyful, vibrant smile in life, was found across the street from the Twin Towers on the roof of a hotel; a $2 bill and another wallet, this one belonging to a man who carried the bill as a reminder that he and his wife had a second chance at happiness after both experienced painful, failed first marriages. ?The 9/11 Museum is designed to break our hearts. ?But, the museum does something else. ?It tells the story of everyday heroism, women and men who risked and lost their own lives to help others, and it tells the story of human dignity in the worst of situations. ?

In PTSD, you block out certain memories, or at least try to block them out. ?But, for healing you have to remember those traumatic memories you would rather forget. You don?t just remember THE trauma, but many of the other traumas that occurred that you did not take the time to remember, understand and release. ?The 9/11 Museum attempts to capture memories of both the horror and the grace under fire of that fateful day on Sept. 11. ?Perhaps the memories recorded in the museum can serve the model of memory reintegration proposed by the theologian, Miroslav Volf.

Volf has an interesting image of what we can do with our memories of trauma. ?Volf is the son of a Pentecostal minister, studied theology in the U.S. and married an American woman who is also a theologian and the child of a minister. ?After finishing his degree, Volf returned to his native Yugoslavia, which was under communist rule, and was drafted to a mandatory year of military service. ?He immediately informed his commanders that he was happy to perform his civil duty of service, but would not kill someone due to his religious convictions. ?For one entire year, his commanding officer repeatedly interrogated him, accusing him of spying for the Americans and betraying his country. ?Volf never confessed to anything and was never arrested, but he lived for more than a year in humiliation and fear. ?His book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, is an attempt to come to terms with the trauma of that year, and his particular animus toward his commanding officer, who is known only as Captain G. ?Volf wants freedom from this past wound, and makes a Christian case for not only forgiving his tormenter, but ultimately getting to a point where he could reconcile with Capitan G, even if only in his imagination.

Volf sees the personal narrative of our life as a patchwork quilt that we stitch together from a growing group of memories that is always expanding. ?Like all good quilters, we are constantly trying to know what to remember and what to discard and our narrative can become very different depending upon how we stitch the memories together. ??We are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us,? says Volf.

We are personally healed, he believes, not just by remembering traumatic events, and retrieving memories and the feelings associated with them, but by interpreting those memories rightly. ?What he means by this is that our own imperfections, the soul wounds of the perpetrator of evil, the contexts that give birth to moments of grace and violence are all part of the story that leads to horrendous actions. ?This is not to excuse anyone, but to see rightly that the human condition is a fractured one where perfection and pure motivation does not exist. ?In this broader tapestry, Volf believes, we have the power of making our memories, even those in which we have suffered wrongly, part of a ?larger pattern of meaning,? making a new ?patchwork quilt of one?s identity.? ?

Just in the past few weeks, many thousands of people across the globe have had the torment of violent and hate-filled memories introduced into their lives. ?Those memories will haunt and fracture and overwhelm. ?But, let us hope and pray those affected by these terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Moscow, the Sinai Desert, and the village and regions in Syria undergoing saturation bombings will have people close to them that can help survivors patch quilt their memories into Volf?s larger pattern of meaning. ?One that makes more room for love and grace, and mercy and forgiveness than is now occupied by only terror and destruction. ?If this happens, the victims of collateral damage in this situation will have the power to stand in the tragic gap and help us all to rise above this dark moment in human history.