By Mark Epstein, MD
There is an unspoken taboo in our society: a taboo against trauma. We expect normalcy from ourselves and from each other, and when life does not cooperate, when accidents, separation, illness, old age and death intrude, we try to hide from them as much as we can.
If we do react, we hope it is short-lived and we try to keep it private. We value our routines and grow intolerant if grief intrudes.
Mourning, if it needs to exist at all, should show discretion, we think. We have lives to be lived, after all. Mourning is messy, unpredictable and unbecoming. We act as if we would be better off without it.
The problem is that this is totally unrealistic. Trauma happens to everyone. Who could be spared? By denying it, by soldiering on as if it is not happening, we further traumatize ourselves.
Trauma is assuaged by conversation. Feelings need to be talked about, to be shared, to be passed back and forth, and to breathe. Comfort comes through communicated understanding, through the realization that we are not alone in our suffering, through the acknowledgement that trauma happens, in one form or another, to everyone.
Yesterday afternoon, I had a conversation on the street with my neighbor. He and his wife had just been in a car accident. They were stopped at a stop sign and suddenly, from 500 yards back, another car plowed into them at forty miles an hour, crumpling their Suburu so that none of the doors could open, flattening them against their airbags.
The driver of the runaway car had a heart attack. He died but his car kept on going until it ran into my friend and his wife. They were not badly hurt, thank goodness, the airbags did their job. But my friend said an interesting thing.
“It would have been easier to take if I had done something to cause it,” he told me.
The idea that something this traumatic could come out of the blue was disconcerting. My friend would have felt better if he could have taken responsibility for the accident, if it had not happened when he and his wife were just passively standing by. This would have given him some feeling of control, given him someone to blame, even if he was blaming himself.
Children whose parents split up often find themselves with similar feelings. They blame themselves although the causes of their parents’ troubles have nothing to do with them.
The car accident revealed something children cannot understand and adults do not like to admit. So much of what happens to us is random. We are at its mercy, and we would like to pretend it is not so.
My wife wears a beautiful art-deco ring that belonged to her aunt, her father’s sister. She discovered it one day in her mother’s jewelry case after we were married. The only thing is, she did not know she had an aunt. She had never met her.
“Whose ring is this?” she asked her mother, who avoided her eyes until deciding to tell her the story.
This aunt had lost a child in a car accident before my wife was born. She became depressed, psychotically so, and was hidden away in a mental institution by her brothers and never mentioned again. She was an embarrassment, a blemish, a casualty whose appearance made everyone uncomfortable.
Once she found out, my wife wore the ring on her index finger at least partially to remind her family of her aunt’s continued existence. Before my wife’s father died he visited her at my wife’s urging. Years had passed, and for the taboo to be lifted another whole generation had to come into its own.
Everyday life is filled with such things, not all of them in such a major key, but many of them equally hard to face. Accidents happen. People get sick and die. We inflict suffering on each other, and that is bad enough, but we are also subject to forces that are outside our control.
As my friend found out after his car accident, this is a difficult reality to accept. Our inclination is to look for an explanation, for someone to blame, even if we have to blame ourselves. When this proves difficult, we are in a quandary.
We act as if we should be invulnerable, as if the slings and arrows of fate should bounce right off us, as if grief could be contained and managed and overcome.
When my wife’s aunt could not do this, she was shut away. While extreme, this reaction is not uncommon. We shut our own feelings away, too, when they fly in the face of the rush to normal.
But living means living with trauma. To expect that we could live without it is to ask the impossible.
Mark Epstein’s new book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, is available now.
Mark Epstein leads The Trauma of Everyday Life: Perspectives from Buddhism and Psychotherapy.
This article was originally published on MariaShriver.com