This is the final post in a unified series of seven in which I use an autobiographical incident to explore some connections between trauma, memory, human community, and social-political institutions in the broadest sense. The incident at issue is my breaking of one of my legs when I was still a young child, then reliving the experience as an adult, years later, triggered by the chance coalescence of various circumstances at that time.
* * * * *
Trauma changes nothing, it changes everything.
It is only because trauma changes nothing, that it can change everything.
“From death, from the fear of death . . . ”: That is how Franz Rosenzweig begins his masterpiece, The Star of Redemption, first published in 1920 in German. Here he how he ends it: “. . . into life.” There is a very important sense—perhaps it is even the most important, final sense—in which the entire book should be read as one long sentence with that beginning and that ending. In the more than 400 pages that intervene between those opening words and those closing ones, Rosenzweig struggles valiantly to articulate his vision of that very transition–the one from death, or more precisely from the fear of death, into life—for his readers, in a loving effort to give guidance to those same readers as they undergo the same transition themselves, undergo it precisely by reading the book itself.
By the end of the book, even for the most diligent, attentive, sympathetic, understanding reader—the “perfect” reader, if you will—in one sense, the very most important, final sense, in fact, nothing has changed. All the facts of that perfect reader’s life, and of that reader’s death, remain the same, unchanged. That the perfect reader was born, and born whenever, wherever, to whomever, and to be whoever that reader was in fact born as, and born to be—none of that is changed one bit by all that reader’s reading. None of the facts of birth of the reader are altered even to the slightest degree. None of the background, including genetic, or circumstances of the reader’s birth, down to the tiniest, most trivial, inconsequential details, are changed in any way whatsoever by the transition Rosenzweig has led the reader through. The same thing goes for all the facts, background, and circumstances of the reader’s death, in all the certain uncertainty of just when and where and how death may actually come to the reader, as it inevitably will. They, too, stay absolutely the same.
Thus, neither anything about the reader’s life, nor anything about the reader’s death has changed at all from going through the transition Rosenzweig articulates for the reader. In fact, not one single thing about anything–or any range of things, no matter how wide the range, all the way out to infinity itself—has been altered in any way whatsoever. Absolutely nothing has changed. And yet:
Everything has changed. The whole way the reader sees everything, or sees anything at all, has changed. Forever after, absolutely everything has absolutely changed.
Trauma is the transition from death, or, rather, from the fear of death, into life.
As I said at the start of this post: Trauma changes nothing, it changes everything.
Before my 1987 summer vacation I was a professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Denver. After my 1987 summer vacation I was a professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Denver. I still am. Nothing has changed.
Before that vacation, I had a wife, and we had two children. After it, I had a wife, and we had two children. I still do, and we still do. Nothing has changed.
A lot of things have changed for me between 1987 and now, of course. I’ve been promoted, and am set to retire in a year. Instead of being married to my wife for seventeen years, I’ve now been married to her for what will be forty-two years come vacation time this summer. Our children have both grown up and moved away, starting families of their own with their own spouses. We’ve moved from one house in one town in northern Colorado to another house in another town in northern Colorado. Both the current house and the current town are much bigger than the previous house and town. We make more money, and pay more taxes, at least by absolute dollar-amount. Both of my parents were alive in 1987, but both are dead now, along with my father-in-law, who was also still alive in 1987. I drive a different car than I drove then, wear hearing-aids now that I didn’t need then, have been to a lot of different places I had not yet ever been by 1987, have read a lot of books I hadn’t read by then, eaten a lot more food than I’d eaten by then, and so on, and so on, and so on, for as long as I might choose to keep going on, which I don’t.
I neither know nor care to know which of such matters if any–some trivial, some not so trivial, and some anything but trivial, and filled to overflowing with significance (at least to me: for example, the death of two parents whom I loved, and still do)–of all those countless things that have happened since, would, could, or might have been different, had I not spent my 1987 summer vacation the way I did in fact spend it. That, indeed, they would have been different in at least some ways, in all the various registers of triviality and consequentiality, and not in others—of that, I have no doubt. But just how they would have differed, in just what ways, I neither know nor care to know. Nor can I imagine how knowing such matters could possibly ever matter to me, such that I might ever come to find such knowledge at all worth having or caring to have.
What was itself born in the first breaking of my leg in 1949, then finally took its place fully (filling that place over-full, to full overflow) thirty-eight years later, in 1987, didn’t change anything for me. It changed everything. Suddenly, I found myself living in a new day—or, more exactly, I found myself living in a new way in the same old day. In that new way of living unto the day, that same old day never grew old, but stayed ever new. Since then, I keep awakening again and again morning after morning to the same old day, day after day after day after day, like Bill Murray caught in Groundhog’s Day. That, too, remains unchanged from how I awakened again and again day after day before my summer vacation of 1987. It’s still that same old day again today, as I write this, on May 12, 2012, the day before Mother’s Day, which this year happens to coincide, as it often enough does (so that too is the same old same old), with my wife’s birthday (after all, when nothing changes, nothing changes).
It just keeps on being the same old day I wake up to, the same day I’ve been reliving over and over and over again all the days of my life—the time of which I know, by the way, will eventually run out, just as the time of the hourglass that always began the old TV soap-opera The Days of Our Lives eventually did, so that the network finally pulled the plug on that so long running daily series. The day never changes. But what did change for me, back in 1987, was how I lived to that day, and in it. Suddenly, one day in the summer of 1987, I woke up yet again to find myself living yet again the same old day I’d already been living over and over every day until then, as though I were trapped in it as in a nightmare, or in a broad comedy, I couldn’t tell which. But all of a sudden that same old day was an altogether different, brand new one, as it keeps on being every new morning since then, when I awake to it. As Heraclitus said of the world, each morning my day—the self-same, single day of my entire repetitious life—is born again anew, for the very first time: A brand new day!
Thus, I awoke on that morning back in the summer of 1987 to find myself waking differently to the very same day I’d awakened to all the days of my life until then, and would continue to wake to every day thereafter, as I will continue to do till all the days of my life at last run out. What’s more, just as I found myself waking up differently but still to the same old day, so did I find myself waking up differently with all the same old mannerisms, gestures, and behaviors I’d developed over all my life till then, and woken up for countless days before that day. All of those, too, all the things I did habitually, without even needing to think about them, were just the same as they’d always been. But I found that I inhabited all those habits differently. I still spoke the same way, with the same verbal intonations, patterns, and other idiosyncrasies, still accompanied by the same characteristic gestures. Yet they all just no longer carried the same emotional, symbolic charge, in effect, that had invested them with significance for me up until then. I was “stuck” with them still, in the sense that they were the only tunes I was able to play–the only tunes in my repertoire, as it were, of behaviors. Yet they no longer had the same significance, the same “meaning,” that I had always, without even being aware of it, vested in them. I had lost all my “investment” in them, in that sense. Or, to put the same thing from the other side: Those behaviors themselves had lost all their power to infest me with themselves, taking up residence in me like a virus. They had been stripped of all their prior power, and had become dis-empowered. All their charge had been discharged.
I still played all the same old tunes. What else could I do? They were the only ones I knew.
Since then, of course, I’ve learned some new ones. But that took time, and was a very gradual process. And it really didn’t matter that much, one way or the other. The old tunes were still perfectly good for playing, but now I had finally learned how to play them well, to fill them with my newfound “musicality,” so to speak. What mattered, I found, was really not which tunes I played, but how I played whatever ones I did play.
Just so does it stand with all our institutions, and what trauma does with and to them: Trauma changes nothing, because it changes everything.
“Love—and do what you will!” Augustine famously—or, in some circles, infamously—said that. One thing my 1987 summer vacation taught me was how to hear that sentence differently than I’d always heard it up till then.. I found to my surprise that it no longer sounded to my ears as a dangerous formulation that could all too easily degenerate into a rationalizing justification for wantonness, if not in one’s sexual behavior specifically, then in one’s ethics generally. In one sense, I spent my 1987 summer vacation learning that, if I just placed the emphasis in Augustine’s sentence differently than I’d been accustomed to placing it, that very same sentence delivered to me some crucially important advice, along with direction along the way of heeding that advice, to boot. My new way of hearing it changed nothing in the advice itself, just in my hearing of it. In that sense, nothing changed in what the sentence said. It was still the same old sentence. Nothing new. My 1987 summer vacation taught me nothing on that score, any more than it did on any other.
So, in conclusion of this long, long-winded account (seven consecutive posts!), I guess, when you come right down to it, I have to say that I really spent my whole, long 1987 summer vacation doing nothing at all.
No wonder it has taken me so long to tell you about it!
Some sentences just take longer than others. Some are even life sentences, “until death.”