We live in a time and place where nothing bad really happens. People can go months, years even decades without experiencing anything closely related to trauma. In fact, I’d wager that there’s no shortage of people out there, in their 20’s and 30’s who’ve never experienced abuse, loss or even death. Sure, bad things happen to everyone, but in our western bubble we’ve manged to insulate our daily lives from suffering.
And at first glance, this might look like a great thing, and at one level it is. Safety, security and a dramatic reduction of danger are all a result of affluence. Today we are far more easily able to collect and accumulate personal possessions and wealth then previous generations. In turn, we are far more individualistic then previous generations.
If our society has perfected the art of buffering individuals and groups from harm, why then is this generation one of the worst affected by mental illness? Why is this generation one of the worst affected with behavioural disorders? We are witnessing a generation rise up who, despite having every comfort, are for the most part the unhappiest generation ever. It is affected with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety and chronic illness in human history. Why, in all our technological advancements in health, security and communication, are we one of the most disconnected and lonely generations of all time? How can we live surrounded in urban environments, some of the densest residential dwellings known to the human race, and yet feel deeply, even dangerously alone?
Maybe, we’ve pursued all these great things and neglected ‘community’ along the way. What if accumulating affluence comes at a cost… What if it decreases our dependence on other people… What if it decreases our motivation to contribute to other people or groups within our society… What if…
What if… humans are built for hardship? What if humans were designed to thrive on it. We live in a time and place where nothing really bad happens. But it comes at the cost of experiencing something of what it means to be human. How do you become a mature adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a mature adult in a culture that doesn’t demand courage?
We are in the midst of a generation of ‘adults’ who, for the most part have never been required to sacrifice. A generation that doesn’t know what loss or daily hardships are. So when tragedy strikes, (and it strikes everyone), it’s no wonder that a growing number within our society don’t know how to deal with it. It rapidly escalates and becomes overwhelming, pushing people beyond their limits. It would seem that rather than acting as a buffer, the modernisation of our societies has fostered mental health concerns.
One observation I’d made during my time as a medic in the Army, is that very few soldiers suffered mental health concerns ‘during’ their operational deployment. The soldiers I knew, young men and women, had been thrown into hideous circumstances, exposed to all kinds of traumatic situations, and in the moment, they cope exceptionally well. These young adults, to mention a few things, were dealing with life changing injuries, death, killing, murder, racism, religious extremism, prolonged separation from family and the uncertainty of hidden and indiscriminate enemy explosives. Yet, their health and well-being in the midst of this tribulation was almost always good.
Again, from my observation, there were two primary things that held these soldiers together. The first was a deep sense of comradery amongst the ranks. It was a bond that brought men and women together as brothers and sisters. It was a community that was as close as family. When one person struggled, everyone struggled with them. The second was in that environment everyone had a purpose. There was a obligation to contribute to the collective, and permission to lean on the collective when needed. There was a great honour in being strong, but at the same time there was no shame in moments of weakness. Everyone had a role to play and that role, in the community was meaningful.
But skip forward a few years, and the picture is far more grim. We lost 6 soldiers in combat on our operational deployment, and since then, at last count, we’ve lost 6 more to suicide. There are countless more suffering with ongoing mental health problems such as moral injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and so on. And since returning home, the two things that soldiers relied upon are almost entirely neglected by our affluent society.
Our western culture is highly individualistic. When we get home after work we close the doors and windows and tend to ourselves and our family. The system honours those who work hard and succeed on an individualistic level.
And, as a consequence of heightened individualism, our culture has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary. People are almost always regarded as indispensable. People aren’t required to contribute to a larger group, and people don’t therefore, have permission to lean upon someone else without feeling a sense of shame.
When a soldier is removed from their tribe-like community, they find themselves overwhelmed by the burden of their experiences because they no longer share it with their peers.
I’m not a mental health professional, and I’m certain that many victims of trauma suffer very real and prolific mental illnesses, but what if sometimes it was less about the trauma itself, and more about the way we as a society prepare, and deal with trauma as a community?
From my own experience, as a Christian, my worldview expects suffering to happen. It gives permission for bad things to take place. The way I look at the world legitimises suffering. I have permission to have good days and bad days, permission to feel lonely and sad. But I also have a hope, that being human isn’t limited to my physical experiences. This way, in the bigger picture, traumatic events don’t undo my entire universe. Sure, for a time they suck, but the fabric that my world is constructed on remains in tact. As a Christian, my suffering has a purpose, even if I can’t see it at the time.
I also found that having deep spiritual and familial connections enabled me to better process the trauma that I’ve experienced. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep as I wrestled with deep injustices that had been committed against innocent people. There were moments were overwhelming sadness came upon me as I wrestled with the concepts of life and death. There’s been times I’ve been was torn to shreds over relationship troubles, but I’ve always found comfort in meeting with like-minded people, allowing them to comfort me and knowing that I was a comfort in return. I found comfort and value in community.
Maybe as a result of all this, we need to be less concerned about immunising ourselves from any risk of suffering, and more concerned about learning how to experience it in a healthy way. Maybe we need to give ourselves permission to struggle and do more to accept others as they struggle.