By Cynthia Anne Hale, Ph.D.
How can we support each other and work with hope for the future when all around us human life is being violated? Daily we hear the news of brutality around the world and in our own communities—killing, rape, kidnapping, and torture are some of the worst I know of, and yet bullying and blaming others mirror these higher level atrocities. How do we absorb the enormity of these occurrences and our increasingly detailed knowledge of the ways that life is forever changed for neighborhoods and countries, families and individuals? As members of humanity, each one of us is affected by these violations, for traumatic experiences are those events that prevent, destroy, or overwhelm the most ordinary but still meaningful ways that we live everyday life. Only by caring and connecting with each other in new ways is there any hope of resolving the causes for despair.
Taking guidance from how ancient myths suggest approaches and attitudes to address unbearable problems and restore balance in life, Carol Pearson urges us to read stories of today—books, films, papers, blogs, and more—in search of wisdom about situations that are affecting all of us. Universal themes that are found in stories can communicate emotional truth beyond their fact-based narratives.
Her book, Persephone Rising, beautifully demonstrates the relevance of an ancient myth to our lives today. In it, she explores how a mother’s grief about the kidnapping of her daughter eventually transforms an unbearable loss into a generative balance of life. The balance reached is complicated because Demeter’s generativity as goddess of the earth’s harvest depends on redefining her relationship with her daughter.
With our own traumatic losses, we can relate to how the outcome of Demeter and Persephone’s journey depends on the ways we relate to those we love as well as to all with whom we share the kinship of humanity. We can understand that the qualities of each of the Greek gods and goddesses in the myth can represent something that can be developed in ourselves and in our relationships as we work through devastating loss. To reach a transformative outcome, we need each other, along with a commitment to address helpful as well as obstructive qualities and circumstances. As I followed Carol’s guidance chapter by chapter, I connected with Demeter’s experience and that of those who assisted her as a journey through what today we call trauma.
When we pay attention to contemporary traumas—shootings, scandal, genocide, war, and more—our anxieties propagate. Fear is understandable. I recently received an anxious email from a member of my family asking, above a forwarded story, “How safe are we?”
The imperative of fear in the story beneath these words was in no way subtle. It began with this directive: “Cancelled Flight—Please read entire story, we should be very, very scared about this!” In lengthy detail, the report described an alleged incident of attempted terrorism. Written by someone identified as Tedd Petruna, a NASA employee who said he had been on AirTran Flight 297 a week earlier, the danger involved “eleven Muslim men” who intended to hijack the flight. Due to their suspicious behavior, he wrote, they were removed from the plane and then, shockingly, allowed to reboard. Mr. Petruna justified his take of the incident as a dry run for a future hijacking with two threads of thought, the first being his emphasis on the reality of what he said happened and the second, his claim of a cover-up.
He didn’t make it all up—there really was an incident on AirTran Flight 297 involving a Middle Eastern passenger not immediately turning off a cell phone for departure. However, the airline and passengers gave a much different account. Flight records determined that Theodore Petruna was not even on the flight or part of the boarding process. His details were inaccurate and his determination of terrorism was, by other accounts, quite a stretch. Because his email quickly went viral, AirTran refuted the story point-by-point in a formal statement to the press. Because so many people responded with fear to the email that came to be called “AirTran 297—Cancelled Flight,” the story was investigated by Snopes, an organization that fact checks online rumors and urban myths, within days of the 2009 incident. (Snopes most recently updated its documentation of the email story in November 2015.)
If the facts of the story aren’t verifiable, then why, six years later, is the email still being circulated as anything other than a rumor? I believe it is because there are enough realistic-sounding facts that it grabs our attention on a deeply emotional level. As an urban myth, the story about terrorism contains an emotional truth that is at its core about our fear. Fear deserves our attention, whether it takes the form of an unmerited concern or an actual danger. Rather than asking, “How safe are we?” when we hear a story that makes us afraid, I believe the more helpful question is broader and more ambiguous. By asking ourselves and others how we are afraid, we begin to get a more accurate sense of the way traumatic experience affects all of us, directly and indirectly.
So how are we afraid? The answer is not simple, nor is it singular. Here are just a few of my own thoughts, which are in no way comprehensive:
The ripple effect of our worries and terrors relates to the precariousness of daily life. When we cannot depend on common, routine things like flights that take us on business trips or home to see loved ones, what can we count on? The deep emotional truth of fear relates to our traumatized world, and to the very real daily reminders that we are never truly or completely safe. Although we might easily dismiss the viral terrorism story and many others like it as factually untrue, the depth of the story contains something that we hate to face but that is a vital reality: as humans, we inevitably must endure varied kinds of devastating loss. Whether it is on a personal level or a way of life that is within community, this loss can happen when we least expect it. Whatever the particularities, unforeseen devastation can feel like a sniper striking randomly. Anticipated loss can be more like a planned execution.
How can a more complete emotional understanding help us to bear these realities? Rather than remaining mired in our fear, we can engage with our stories more deeply, wherever they appear. The myth of Demeter and Persephone demonstrates a wide range of emotional responses in mother and daughter as they faced what we can relate to as horrific circumstances. Similarly, many voices are emerging from cultures around the world today that we can learn from to deepen our understanding.
Notice the stories that show up in places like email, YouTube, and talk shows as well as in films, plays, and books. Have conversations about thoughts and emotional responses to recurrent themes with friends, family members, and colleagues. Together, go to see difficult films (there are many recent ones) that are nuanced, like Spotlight (2015), which reveals both horror and hope in the way that newspaper reporters challenged the legal and religious system to hold the Catholic Church accountable for covering up the widespread, commonplace occurrence of priests abusing children. Discuss what it is like to read, or avoid, the headline stories of all levels of atrocities. Take in many sources to hear varied perspectives. Look for the subtleties. Notice how the stories change over time and how they remain the same.
As we let ourselves be affected on an emotional level and as we authentically share our perceptions with each other, we connect our stories as fragments of a larger and more complete truth. By engaging in this kind of deeper dialogue through our different perspectives, we can discover a context for possibility that reaches beyond fear toward more humane ways of relating to each other. With each conversation, we can help to create a better future.
Cynthia Anne Hale, Ph.D., LCSW, explores the connections between inner and outer experiences as a psychotherapist, author, and educator. Based in Southern California, she works in private practice and as a consultant with educational institutions developing accreditation and evaluation plans that are mission aligned. In her work with relationships and creative collaborative processes, her orientation is strengths-based. Dr. Hale’s publications address a range of interests within the field. Her first book, The Red Place: Transforming Past Trauma through Relationships, was released last fall. Written for “everyone who cares enough about another person to consider how traumatic experience— direct and indirect— can presently affect the ways we relate to each other,” it can be ordered from SUNY Press, Amazon, or bookstores. She will be addressing the Association of Jungian Analysts on May 17, 2016, in London. For nine years, Dr. Hale taught archetypal and depth psychologies and led institutional learning and research initiatives as a professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her website is http://www.imaginalways.com/.