Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma (concluded)

In my second post of this current series on “Faith in Trauma,” I cited Jean Améry’s observation that the very denial of reality that is present in what he calls “Finalistic” religious or political faith gave believers imprisoned in the horror of Auschwitz a certain distance from the horrifying reality around them—a distance that actually increased such believers’ odds of survival. In contrast, non-believers, lacking such denial-based protection, were more nearly certain to be overcome and crushed by the horrific reality they so clearly saw surrounding them.

Améry’s observation can fruitfully be juxtaposed to a remark that at first glance appears to oppose it, a remark Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich make in the 1970 afterword to the classic analysis of “the inability to mourn” they give in their 1967 book of that title (Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Munich: Piper). In that book the Mitscherlichs are addressing specifically the inability of the Germans as a nation to mourn the misdeeds of their own Nazi past, a past wherein they created such death-camps as Auschwitz—and above all their concomitant incapacity to mourn the millions of innocent victims they murdered there and throughout Europe. What the Mitscherlichs observe at one point in their 1970 afterword applies not just to Germans, however. It applies to everyone. “To endure reality as it is,” they write, “is the presupposition that first makes it possible to alter it into something more bearable; denial unwillingly preserves the status quo.”

Despite the appearance of opposition between the two remarks—Améry’s on the one hand and the Mitscherlichs’ on the other—they can and should be combined as follows:

When reality permits no hope for a better outcome beyond sheer survival, the denial of reality is necessary simply to preserve bare life itself—and with it the possibility of some day returning to true, full, and abundant living, rather than just surviving. As I already argued when first discussing Améry’s observation, that is really just an instance of the numbing against traumatic shock that allows those it strikes to live through it at all (the literal meaning of survive). However, if the survivor is not to be locked forever after into a pattern of compulsive repetition of the traumatic situation itself, at some point that survivor must grow strong enough at last to endure the very reality that has been thus denied. It is only then that any genuine recovery of real life, that is, life in its full sense and not just some endless survival, becomes possible, precisely as the Mitscherlichs observe.

Such faith to live a recovered life face to face with trauma can only be the sort of pure and purified faith Walter J. Ong attributes to Gerard Manley Hopkins, as discussed in my post before last. It is, as well, the simple but difficult faith of a woman freely consenting to bear a child, with no illusions about what that child itself may have to bear once born.

Such faith purified by trauma is true faith, not merely some defense mechanism.

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