How is trauma defined? Who or what gets the authority to define what is a relatively harmless unmet need and “normal life experience” and what is traumatic? Our cultural constructs and beliefs are just that- we believe certain situations to be “normal” when -maybe- they actually are traumatizing of we were to analyze them without our cultural blinders on.
We are products of our cultures, and the fact that we frame history in terms of war, disasters, epidemics and oppression is proof that we live in a world that produces trauma for everyone- some more than others depending on your skin color, gender, socio economic background, sexual orientation and other factors.
The modern world is rife with “normal” experiences that are absolutely traumatizing.
Sending kids off to learn how to kill other humans under the guise of patriotism is -to me- an easy example of how messed up our thoughts are about what some might think of as a “normal” rite of passage.
We are subject to all kinds of accepted norms and customs that warp and damage our spirits and minds and harm us emotionally: The examples are varied: The unbelievable amount of violence in our “entertainment” industries, children learning that we continue to use gasoline which destroys the planet instead of electricity or solar energy for most cars, the corruption stories that constitute “news”, the casual disregard for human life when we watch a a video of a beheading or a video of 30 people being swept away by a flooding river, and then cut to a commercial for chewing gum. These are all currently thought of as “sad parts of life” or at best, as “little t” traumas, but they harm us.
Then there are the beliefs in the righteousness of an economic system that promulgates a scarcity mentality which breeds fear and insecurity for millions. This insecurity and fear is so pervasive, that millions of people work entirely too many hours for most of their lives at soul deadening jobs more or less “willingly”. (as stated elsewhere about 67% of US workers are disengaged from their work)
The current economic systems produce brutal levels of (needless) competition and suffering- yet sucking it up and working one of these jobs is a “normal life experience”. The first experience might be a crummy job at McDonald’s with a loser boss. And yet jobs like these are seen as a “normal “ experience, a jolt of “reality”. That lousy job primes young adults on what to expect- it’s a gateway: These kids go on to find millions of “real jobs” that people work at that deaden the human spirit to what really can and does often become traumatizing levels if we were to be completely honest about it.
These different examples (military “service” and working dead end jobs) are also very much “normal” experiences in that they are pervasive and accepted as just part of life. So there’s this cultural level of experiences that can be and sometimes -are- traumatizing, but we aren’t even aware of them as such. My point: Cultural norms matter and they can be very hard to see if you are living within them. They can be especially hard to see if you are not personally harmed by them, such as a white person not understanding how common and terrifying it can be for a POC to be pulled over by police.
Castration as Normal Part of Life?
Not buying it, yet? If we lived in a culture where the great majority of men were castrated, would that then reduce the act of castration to a “normal life experience” for the person experiencing it?
The scary part is it might. Castration really could be seen as “a normal part of life” or a “little t” trauma experience, -if- the cultural norms were strong enough.
The example is not hyperbole. Million of women in the world have experienced the direct equivalent. Is that a normal life event? Seriously, the people (males and females) who endorse(d) and engage(d) in genital mutilation no doubt are still able to righteously bemoan how damned overly sensitive these women were who object(ed) to it and made such a fuss about it.
What if little boys were told they would be castrated as a rite of manhood, or told they HAD to have small feet or they would have to have them bound, would those things be “normal parts of life”? Seriously, this is how oblivious we can be around what really constitutes trauma.
Additionally, culturally accepted acts that are traumatizing also have consequences beyond those of the individual. Think about the millions of little boys who actually saw their sisters’ and mothers’ real pain from bound feet or genital mutilation- could those boys be adversely affected as well? Of course!
My point is maybe it is high time that we begin to see “overly sensitive” people responses as actually more humane, compassionate and aware ones.
I also think harsh cultural realities can easily produce a learned helplessness in the people who live with them. If the world has some brutal norms, and you have to deaden yourself to that in order to conform to expectations that limit your expression of who you really believe yourself to be, (gender norms for one example), then you’re already only half living.
About 67% of US workers are disengaged from heir work. Anyone who has ever worked a job they did not like knows that the experience of working 8 hours a day at something they do not like does change their quality of life. And yes, of course, that is a profoundly “little t” trauma compared to growing up with the knowledge that you will be castrated because it’s just a custom that’s done. I want to be clear in acknowledging there are differences in the amount of harm acts do to a person’s life and soul. So, yes, living in a culture where stultifying work environments are common is emphatically less traumatic, but it’s still a harm done to you and your quality of life. But the point is that even though the experience is a “pervasive part of life”, it can still be traumatizing.
Back to the learned helplessness: I believe that limping along having to negotiate dysfunctional cultural norms and half living due to those norms makes it much harder for the majority of people to fully take responsibility for their lives.
Overly Sensitive or Appropriately Compassionate?
So what about that experience of learning about war? Is it a normal life experience? Obviously, yes. Is it possible that it traumatizes kids to learn about it? Unfortunately, every small child learns that people -systematically- kill each other due to greed or differences in beliefs. Telling kids about the widespread use of state sanctioned violence that has killed and harmed millions of people…is what exactly? Just a “so sad, too bad” part of life? Is it a “little t” trauma, or is it actually a fairly traumatic thing for a kid? What exactly is the impact on small kids when they learn this?And, remember, these are kids young and innocent enough that they still believe in Santa Claus.
40-80 million people killed in World War II- just a small unpleasantness when we learn about it… or is it actually healthier to have a lot of existential worry and depression about it?
I think it’s clear which way I’m leaning, but on the other hand “adaptation” to environmental realities is also a survival strategy.
So, upon reflection, perhaps some “normal life experiences” are pretty traumatizing if we were to really think about it.
But what happens to a person’s psyche because they see no options but to accept these traumatizing realities as “normal life experiences”.
My point is that millions of people live within cultural norms that can and do produce trauma, yet they are seen merely as “part of life” because they are so pervasive. And that has to have some effect on the people living within those cultural norms.
Learning To Listen To Sensitivity and Compassion
As a sensitive kid I experienced what I currently call “little t” traumas (as a white, protestant female child) learning about war, slavery, the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, etc.
I distinctly remember being horrified to learn that there are “humanitarian” ways to wage war. I honestly couldn’t believe there were rules for war, a.k.a. The Geneva Conventions. I couldn’t believe people would bother to come up with rules of how to kill and maim each other instead of just figuring out how to not have a war.
The sickness is very easy to see if we apply these concepts to individual situations: “The new and improved Domestic Violence Conventions: You can only harm your partner in these certain ways.”
But I was basically told I was too sensitive. It was clearly not a good thing to be seen as overly sensitive. My concerns were dismissed as unrealistic because I was not happy learning that things like the Geneva Conventions existed in place of adults simply refusing to engage in war itself.
I wonder if most kids are -in actuality- like me and horrified at learning these things, but then very quickly learn to bury their gut reactions of horror because others do not appear upset by it. After all, our free will only goes so far as children.
I know as a kid I felt very alone, alienated, horrified and so on when adults (and yes, they were usually males) told me things like war were inevitable in matter of fact ways. But because of how I needed to live in the cultural context that produced the realities of these tragedies, I needed to relegate those incredibly disturbing realities to sad small parts of normal every day life.
But what if we lived in a world where hearing about those things -was- seen as at least truly disturbing if not traumatizing? How much kinder and gentler would that be? I wonder what the rate of vegetarianism is among kids who are told where meat comes from and then are given the choice to freely determine for themselves how they feel about it. What if they are allowed to see the slaughter of animals any way they choose rather than just routine? How many would become vegetarian?
My main point is that because we are products of our cultural norms, we don’t necessarily have -objective- ways of determining what customs are perhaps quite damaging and what are “normal”. We know what are the norms for our time and place. But those change. Obviously some of what was acceptable 100 years ago is not acceptable now. It’s because we became aware of the shortcomings of the norms and customs. And usually compassion is the catalyst. Not coincidentally, compassionate understanding and the subsequent development and use of wise actions and interventions are the necessary keys to recovery from PTSD as well.