What is Suffering and Trauma?
We all intuitively know what suffering is. It’s a state of pain or hardship, whether physical or emotional. Trauma is extreme suffering. It threatens the health of our bodies, or our minds, or even our lives.
In my book, I identify myself as a trauma victim because my sanity was threatened as an infant-toddler…and I was emotionally abused as a young child and teen…and later in mid-life I was severely harmed physically with permanent disabling consequences. So I’ve known trauma. But it’s only recently that research has shed light on the insidious and comprehensive effects of suffering on the human mind. In my book, I’ve shown the impact of suffering on both the mind and faith by showing you what happened in my own life.
Suffering can come in the form of one-time events, like a natural disaster, surgery, or rape. Suffering at the hands of another human being, like rape, is worse than natural disasters. Statistics vary. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that not only had six percent of men been forced to perform sexual behavior against their will but one in five women had been raped in their lifetime. Among those, over sixty percent had been raped by a partner or family member. Such violence at the hands of someone you trusted is devastatingly traumatizing.
But suffering can also come over a long period in the form of a pattern of events, like being in a war or chronic childhood abuse. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reported that about 900,000 children were abused in 2005…while the CDC reported about 700,000 were abused and neglected in 2014. Of those, about 27% were younger than three years old. Back in my day, I would have been among that number.
Believe it or not, suffering is in the mind of the sufferer. Here’s what I mean: While we all intuitively know that events make us suffer, how we suffer and how much we suffer depends on us. Pain becomes suffering (or trauma) depending on how we interpret what is happening to us—and how we react to our own interpretation. How we interpret and react to pain emerges from what mental resources we have…or don’t have. When I was an infant-toddler, I was completely vulnerable and had few mental resources—obviously—so the threat to my sanity was huge. I had to work hard both as a kid and as an adult to deal with the trauma I went through. And I did work hard…very hard. By the time I entered mid-life, I had forged innumerable mental skills by which to deal with my childhood trauma. Still, the pain from new physical traumas just piled on top of my early childhood emotional trauma to batter me enough to feel suicidal.
The human condition is tough. Suffering and trauma cut across all classifications: gender, ages, races, sexual orientation, religions, occupations, mental disorders, and nationalities. And, as social psychologists have discerned, we live in a culture where across three generations now—baby-boomers, Gen Xers, and the millennials—we have little to no philosophy of suffering. With that, we have few mental tools by which to deal with the tough stuff that life throws at us. As a people, we are relatively bankrupt of mental skills to deal with pain. And it shows. It shows in our entitlement culture, in our middle class parenting, and in how churches promote faith in Jesus Christ.
I am just one among millions who have suffered intensely so far in this life. And, like so many, I had been one of those raised with few skills by which to deal with my pain. I’ve scrambled since my youth to get those skills. Still, how was it that a nice guy like me—and a psychologist no less—could ever get to that point of wanting out of this life? What really happens to us when we suffer, and suffer in a way that overwhelmingly breaks our spirit?
We all have lower brain structures like primates and rats. Like most higher animals, those brain parts release hormones in the face of threats and pain, preparing us for the mission of either fighting the threat to defeat it or running from the threat to avoid it. Researchers call it the “fight or flight” response of our phylogenetically primitive brains. You likely have heard of it. When a father sadistically burns lit cigarettes into his daughter’s feet, that little girl’s brain will do everything possible to prepare her fragile body to fight back or run like heck. But—she can’t. She cannot escape the horrific pain—or the emotionally terrorizing, mind-boggling fact that this is happening at the hands of her own father. And she can’t stop him. She can neither fight nor flee. Now what?
By degrees, all intense and/or protracted suffering does the same thing to its victim. Trauma makes the victim feel utterly helpless, just like this little girl—whether it’s a natural disaster or rape. In that helplessness, the victim can neither fight back nor flee. And like that little girl, the victim is caught in that terrifying, mind-boggling moment: Now what?