The Price of Being at the Edge of Life and Death
Here’s a tiny observation. Americans don’t seem to know it — but they are being traumatized just by living. At this stage of collapse, the everyday life of the average American is deeply, profoundly, and genuinely traumatic. I don’t mean that in a casual sense — but in a real psychological one.
I think we are witnessing something unique, special, and gruesome. A rich society traumatizing itself on a mass scale. I don’t think history has ever seen the like before — not modern history, at any rate, apart from in failed states like the Soviet Union.
Perhaps you think I overstate it. Do I? You be the judge. Here is why I think so.
What does it mean to suffer “trauma”? Trauma means that one has repeated exposure to events that threaten death, harm, or violation, to the self, or to loved ones. Such exposure of course causes biochemical changes in the brain — but those are just descriptors. What does it do to the mind, the psyche, the inner being?
Trauma erodes the integrity and structure and function of a healthy mind. When people are traumatized, they are afterwards ever more easily triggered, or flipped, into fight-or-flight-or-freeze reflexes. In other words, their automatic survival patterns kick in — they begin fighting desperately for life itself, even in moments where, perhaps, they don’t need to. Of course, trauma exists on a spectrum — from the crippling, or “PTSD”, to the merely severe, or what is often called “low-level trauma”. But there is no such thing as trauma that does not change people’s lives for the worse. And I want you to really understand why.
Human beings have three great primordial fears. The fear of annihilation, the fear of abandonment, and the fear of engulfment, or being overwhelmed. Trauma combines all of these, in a shattering, life-changing blow. Such a mind is something like a bridge with eroded pillars. It is afterwards left weakened, wounded, and scarred. To say that a person is “traumatized” means that the great primordial fears which surfaced in the original traumatic experience are then relived, and now seems to lurk now around every corner. Imagine someone who has been badly abused — and why they then begin to be fearful of small things, little slights, tiny changes.
Panic. Shock. Paralysis. Despair. That is why symptoms of trauma include hypervigilance, or constantly scanning the environment for threats, catastrophization, seeing an apocalypse in everything, black and white thinking, or thinking people and things are all good or all bad, paranoia, uncontrollable rage — when it’s not in a kind of abiding, all-consuming depression. If you felt under a constant existential threat, wouldn’t you experience all that, too?
Hence, the inner life of a traumatized person often feels unlivable — they do not know it, but they are constantly shifting, often uncontrollably, between fighting, fleeing, and freezing up, not just at a physical level, but at an emotional one, at the level of the soul. They may feel broken, dead inside — because they are being twisted and scarred by just existing.
Here is what is often unseen. Deep inside, the traumatized mind has come to see its world as a profoundly hostile and threatening place — one which, it comes to unconsciously believe, cannot perhaps cannot be survived in for very long at all. Annihilation might happen with the next step. So the traumatized mind is perpetually experiencing a deep, profound, terrible, guilt, shame, and grief — the loss of the experience of being, being safe, being whole, being alive, just being itself. It is in deep mourning not just for some ideal self, but for not being allowed to go on being.
Being at the edge of life and death, in other words, is trauma. It makes inner life emotionally unlivable. But isn’t that where most Americans find themselves, much of the time? What else would you call a nation whose people are beginning to have to crowdfund insulin?
(Now. Doesn’t that go a long way towards explaining much of American life already? Why people seem to lash out, in sudden orgies of violence? Why people seem to go numb and avoid civic life altogether, no matter how bad things get? Why they’re more obsessed with Kim Kardashian than the their nation? Why people have suddenly begun to believe in strange and foolish superstitions, like vaccines are bad for their kids, or ancient aliens made the world, or the earth is flat — or even flat out survivalisms? These are the three sides of a traumatized social mind — fight, flight, freeze. They are ways, sometimes dysfunctional ones, to struggle desperately for life in a society which is constantly threatening to eliminate you, if you are not strong enough, rich enough, ruthless enough, cunning enough. But they are still ways.)
I want to give you two specific examples to illustrate my observation, and then we’ll discuss it a little more.
Imagine you are a little American child. You go to school, and the teacher says: “it’s time to do an active shooter drill.” Uniformed men with guns burst in, simulating a school shooter. You are told to hide under a desk, or maybe wear a bulletproof blanket. Isn’t such a child being quite literally traumatized? Not just once, but over and over again? If the definition of trauma is repeated exposure to events that threaten death, injury, or violence, then it’s hard to imagine a more powerful example than a child’s mind during an “active shooter drill”. But what does it mean for a generation of children to grow up literally and genuinely traumatized? Being at the edge of life death — remember?
Now imagine you are the average American worker. Your job doesn’t offer a pension, security, stability, a raise, or decent healthcare. You have less than $500 in emergency savings. Your life expectancy is declining. You cannot save — you can barely eke out a living to begin with. You might have a big TV and a big car — but all that masks the psychological reality: you are constantly living at the edge. Of what? Of surviving and not surviving, in very real terms. One bad month, one lost job — and you’ve fallen through the cracks. Living on the street. Pow — you’re done. In other words, you are constantly confronted with trauma: the very real threat of death, harm, or violation. Again we see: being at the edge of life and death.
I hope by now you are beginning to see what I see. American life is becoming one long, daily, repeated exercise in trauma. Americans are being traumatized according to the textbook definition, by the institutions, structures, and habits of daily life under predatory capitalism, which demands that they live at the edge of survival, of just being, at the very brink of being annihilated, mostly so that the economy can “grow”. Americans have become accustomed to being at the edge of life and death — but that is what trauma is.
Yet American psychologists don’t seem to be interested in any of this whatsoever — they are too busy prescribing “resilience” and “grit”, but those are profoundly damaging things to tell a traumatized person, who needs to understand it is not they who have failed at being, but the world which has left them traumatized. American psychiatrists appear to be blind to this great social phenomenon, too. American therapists — who, incidentally, tell me they have more traumatized patients than ever before — don’t really seem to know the tip of the massive iceberg they are treating.
That is why I began this essay by saying: I think we are witnessing something unique, special, and gruesome in history — a rich, democratic society traumatizing itself on a mass scale. Modern history has never seen the like before — except, perhaps in failed states like the Soviet Union.
And until we see it — how will we begin to understand how to ameliorate, answer, or treat it? You see, the traumatized mind needs to feel, fundamentally, that the world is safe again, a place in which being is possible — not a hostile, existentially threatening one, which is unlivable. But can America ever be such a place?