Here it is, Christmas, and the nation is on the verge of a PTSD epidemic. Post-traumatic stress disorder is no longer only a veterans issue. After a series of violent national tragedies, the entire population feels it.
In America, unimaginable gun violence has become the new normal. PTSD manifests with hyperawareness coursing through schools. It lives with teachers and administrators wrestling with tension and dread in the wake of shock, horror, grief and loss. We are becoming a nation on perpetual lockdown.
PTSD reflects multiple wounds to the national soul as Thanatos (death) triumphs over Eros (life/libido) in the collective psyche. Few other cultures celebrate killing the way ours does with violent entertainments and the perpetual practice of war, for which we're paying an unconscionable price. The civilian population is now suffering collateral damage.
Chris Hedges, in his visceral book "War Is a Force That Give Us Meaning," warned, "Once we take war's heady narcotic it creates an addiction that slowly lowers us to the moral depravity of all addicts."
War promotes war. Violence promotes violence. The cycle is unbroken because the lure of Thanatos is a historic force beyond our control, incubated time and again in blood lust.
World War I gave Thanatos full force, followed by the catharsis of the Roaring '20s. World War II reawakened Thanatos on an even grander scale, followed by the catharsis of materialism. Vietnam brought Thanatos into our living rooms, for which The Beatles offered emotional catharsis: "Say the word, and you'll be free/Say the word, and be like me/Say the word I'm thinking of/Have you heard? The word is love."
Hedges perceived this shift: "We were humbled in Vietnam, purged for a while of a dangerous hubris. ... We became a better country." But the hiatus was brief. The wars kept coming, always elevating Thanatos over Eros. The national soul has suffered each time.
In war, Edward Tick wrote in "War and the Soul," "Chaos overwhelms compassion, violence replaces cooperation, instinct replaces rationality, gut dominates mind. When drenched in these conditions the soul is disfigured and can become lost for life."
The human spirit can take only so much, Nancy Sherman wrote in "The Untold War," " Because war sears memories, it brands the soul with images that can overpower and overwhelm."
Columbine, Aurora and Newtown overpower and overwhelm our collective soul. Somewhere deep inside, we struggle to hold on to our humanity, to believe in justice and human good, to confront depravity and accept loss.
"Relations with the missing and the dead, and with death itself, are at the core of the soul wound we call post-traumatic stress disorder," Tick wrote. He described soldiers "trapped in moral dilemmas" from which they cannot escape. "That impasse breaks the soul."
In America, we face constant moral dilemmas over dozens of issues hammered at us daily on TV and talk radio. The line between right and wrong becomes nebulous until a violent act spawns innate emotions. Shocked and stunned by violence, we feel disquiet, unease and fear.
PTSD is the dissolution of the good, the true, the beautiful. In its place is the shame, the remorse, the horror. This shift becomes a cultural paradigm intensified by media sensationalism. It also lives within us, resulting in occasional violent social pathologies that erupt spontaneously.
In his book "Man's Search for Meaning," Viktor Frankl described how inmates in Nazi concentration camps suffered "emotional death." Soul healing, he wrote, depends on survival of ego, of self, of human dignity and values. Man's meaning, he wrote, comes ultimately from "choosing one's own way."
Choosing life and love is the beginning of soul healing, and it is something we had better teach ourselves and our children. Given the easy availability of guns and the incessant occurrence of war, the individual and the collective soul will be wounded again and again.
Frankl, a psychiatrist, counseled those crushed by soulful despair. He taught the art of willfully "turning a personal tragedy into a triumph." America needs to cultivate that willful triumph - now and far into the future. Our collective soul depends upon it.