Sunday, August 04, 2013


A excellent piece appears in this weekend's NEW YORK TIMES entitled “The Trauma of Being Alive.” In reading it, I contemplated something that happened yesterday afternoon.

My partner Cary sang at a wedding and afterwards we attended the reception together. Carey proudly showed friends there photos of his first grandchild, Jadelyn, who was born just two weeks ago. While flipping through some of the photos of the baby on his cell phone and watching some of the young woman at the reception interact with their toddlers, I instantly began to tear up, emotionally overcome. It was a momentary thing, passing as quickly as it came; but it was intense enough that Carey asked in surprise, “What’s the matter?” I couldn’t explain exactly what I was feeling or what images passing through my mind triggered the onslaught of feelings, other than I was thinking (vaguely) about my Mom and feeling (momentarily but intensely) the loss of her in my daily life.

This author of this NY TIMES piece (Psychiatrist Mark Epstein) writes honestly about two common assumptions: that grief is something from which one can eventually recover completely, and that life “normally” is balanced and trauma-free. BOTH OF THESE ASSUMPTIONS ARE FALSE. As human beings, we do ourselves a grave injustice if we don’t reject these assumptions. By continuing to insist that these assumptions as true, we set ourselves up for lives of unnecessary disappointment and frustration, and—more importantly—we do battle against the very aspects of ourselves that make us human.

Epstein’s piece also reminds me why I continue to cling to my Mormon faith—which, when dealing with human nature and the nature of human life on earth, here and now—goes in the exact opposite direction of Christianity and most other religions. While Christianity interprets the mythical exile of Adam and Eve from Eden as a curse; while it declares human nature fallen and sinful, and life of earth as a series of woes from which human must be saved, Mormonism sees the mythical eating of the Fruit of Knowledge (what Christians call “the Forbidden Fruit”) and the exile from Eden as a GOOD thing, as a step UPWARD and FORWARD in the Eternal Progression of the human race.

“There must need be opposition in all things,” Mormon scripture declares. Without conscious awareness of the opposition that is inherent in the natural world, we would be less than human. Mormonism goes so far as declaring that without this opposition, “God would cease to be God.”

The awareness that human love is eternal—that our love for a mother, a father, a child, a spouse, lover or friend does not end when that person dies; that this love continues to be experienced as a potent, deeply-felt, important ongoing relationship even when that person is physically absent from us—means that the sadness and frustration over the loss of that person’s physical presence are realities with which we must deal for the remainder of our days upon the earth. It’s not only foolish but destructive of something essential to our humanity, to try to “overcome,” “get over,” or “get past” those feelings. There is no “closure”—a concept I detest when applied to the real and potent traumas and tragedies inherent in life.

Epstein confirms that “trauma” IS the norm. Life is not predictable, controllable or satisfyingly understandable. The human experience of life is complex, baffling, confusing, mysterious, demanding, sad, painful, challenging and frustrating—and it is EQUALLY beautiful, stimulating, pleasurable, rewarding and joyful. (I was tempted to use the phrase “on the flip side” when describing these contrasting and conflicting qualities; but in fact there is no flip side; all of these qualities—the traumatic and the non-traumatic—are tightly and seamlessly interwoven as equal parts of one great whole.) This is the way life is supposed to be. Human intelligence and human nature are perfectly suited to deal with it. In fact, human intelligence and human nature are unimaginable in any other context.

And so I try to embrace the “contradictions in all things” so that I might “have a fullness of joy”--to use Mormon phrases. Or, using Epstein’s words, I try to “lean into” the trauma. As he concludes, "we are human BECAUSE of trauma, not despite it."