copyright 2005 Alan Cutter
Who talks about Hell anymore these days? Hell is not a popular topic in the old mainline denominations; Hell is an embarrassment harkening back to the old days of “fire and brimstone.” Hell is too scary for the children, too old-fashioned for modern understandings, or just too trivial.
However, I happen to belong to a group of religious professionals, mainline, mainstream religious professionals, who take Hell seriously. We have all been there; we are all war veterans. We talk about Hell.
Given recent events – hurricanes, the earthquake in Pakistan and India, the mud slides in Guatemala, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – we might well begin to recognize that Hell is not some distant nightmare of the imagination, but a very present reality. Thousands of people are living in Hell right now.
So I am going to talk about Hell, and I am going to do so from the perspective of faith for I am a person of faith. I happen to be a Christian so I will use that faith perspective. Other faith groups may well find their own words to describe this human experience, but these are mine for it is my faith community that has given me what I need to be able to talk about Hell: a story, transmitted over the centuries with love and care. That story told in parables, sayings and songs provides both a matrix of experience and a language to express the encounter with Hell. The faith community, at its best, also serves as a safe venue in which to speak about the unspeakable, which, for me, is the trauma, the Hell of war.
The trauma of war is very personal so here I share my reflections about a journey I am making. I describe a pattern, a framework, that I developed so I could explain to my children what happened to their father and to help them understand how they could help me even if they could not heal me.
There is a story from my faith tradition that I will use to help provide a context. Ten lepers pleaded with Jesus for mercy. Jesus instructed them to show themselves to the community. By the time they did so, they were healed. Nine went on their ways rejoicing in their health, but one returned to thank Jesus. And that one was a Samaritan, an outsider, an alien. (Luke 17:11-19)
I returned from my war feeling as if I were an alien in my native land, a leper, an unclean one in the midst of the community, especially the community of faith. What had happened? I had grown up within the community of faith and had been steeped in the rituals, rules, and expectations that described the boundaries of that box within which we apparently lived. As does each person, I had started life with a small box; as I grew that box expanded bit by bit as the boundaries were gently challenged and then redrawn. However, when I went to Viet Nam I experienced events which placed me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually far outside the box I had developed in college and way outside even the military box of rituals, rules and expectations which I had been issued. In other words I found myself caught up in a traumatic situation, beyond, way beyond, any boundaries I knew.
Note again that there are a number of events which can transport us outside the box of daily existence. War is just one; hurricanes, mud slides, earthquakes, sexual abuse cases, rapes are but a few on the long list of traumatic events.
The first firefight I was in was terrifying. The sudden snap of the bullets startled me; I was momentarily paralyzed, literally shaking at this unknown experience. I quickly realized what was happening, an ambush, and was soaked in the sweat of fear. However, the reality of war is that one cannot survive in a frenzy of panic or in the grip of fear. So I was fortunate, truly blessed to pass through panic and fear to the warrior state of sheer anger, a “what the hell_” rage that sustained me in my reactions and kept me alive. When the shooting stopped that rage was replaced by a cold, calculating anger that enabled me to search the bodies for useful intelligence. Later that day, as I had a few moments to reflect on the event, I felt again the panic and the fear, the shakes and the sweat. I realized that if I gave in to these emotions I would not live another day, so I chose to be angry, choosing the cold, calculating anger for daily existence and summoning up the rage when it was necessary. This is the pattern of trauma I lived: a sudden event would throw me outside my box of expectations sending me through panic and fear to anger. I believe it is a common pattern; the traumatized, if lucky and if there is time, get to anger and may then survive.
Living in anger pushed me way outside the box; that’s what trauma does. In the midst of the trauma as a participant, either as a “victim” or a “perpetrator,” I found myself in a place where no hope was practical. And this state of “no hope allowed” continued even after the event was over for I was pushed so far outside the box that there was no path back to safety. The intentional trauma called war is especially harmful for incident piles upon incident with no opportunity for a retreat into reflection. I found myself as a participant in the midst of continuing trauma, always dirty, a leper. I have been asked how I lived in conditions where no hope was allowed. After all in some of the pictures from hurricanes or earthquakes, other types of traumatic events, people look completely drained and empty. My situation was different. War can be exciting; it can be fun, especially when, one, like I did, enjoys the advantage of power. Because I had power I had some options, though not many. In the midst of a trauma there are perhaps three options: you can endure; you can escape; or you can die. Since I was determined to live I endured much and plotted to escape, and having the ability to do so allowed me to continue to get up in the morning.
When I returned from the war, I was determined to shove the events of war away and reclaim the boundaries I had left behind. What had happened was ugly and evil; it was Hell. So I did. I went to a place where people seemed to have the boundaries I wanted and where people talked about hope and healing and no one wanted to talk about trauma and evil – a seminary. But I could not escape so easily from what had happened; like a leper, I knew I had a stain that placed me outside the community, yet like the lepers in the story I desperately wanted to be a part of the community, in the language of veterans, to come home, back to “the world.” However, that box called home did not want me and could not contain me; I could not fit into the rituals, rules, and expectations that defined the boundaries. I was stuck with memories, emotions, reactions, and wounds which isolated me so, in order to at least appear to be “at home,” I buried the events as deeply within myself as I could.
And there, deep within my being, the wounds began to fester. Every now and then a wound would rise to the surface, something unexpected would surprise me, an ambush, and I would be caught in shaking panic or sweaty fear. Knowing that I could not exist in these places I would quickly go to that state where I knew I could function and live: anger. But, after years of rage and cold anger, realizing the damage that the anger was having on those around me, I found myself often paralyzed by anger, unable to function as part of the community. I simply could not control the festering chaos with me. I was still involved in the past as a participant, at once both a victim and a perpetrator, and I was still living the pattern I had learned. I had no power anymore; I was now in a chaotic state of hopelessness; I could not fix myself.
Only when I found venues with people willing to confront trauma as a reality which can cause physical, mental, emotional and spiritual pain was I able to confront the chaos within. This was a task I could not do alone. In order to face the memories and ask the questions, I needed companions, people, like Jesus, who were open to the terrors hidden within. With these companions, I began to walk through the chaos, the Hell, and it hurt. So much had been destroyed, so much had been lost, including the way back to the comfortable box within which the society around me pretended to live and promoted as the norm. Together we listened to one another; we raged together; we grieved together; we cried together; we held one another. And together we accepted that what had happened had changed us so profoundly that we could not reverse the changes, only accept them.
With this acceptance the chaos began to lose power and the anger was replaced by a profound sadness for I finally recognized all that I had lost. Perhaps the hardest loss was the belief that I was created to live in the image of God, that being who does good no matter what, whose reasoning and actions are beyond understanding but always laudable. This is the image with which we are charged from our earliest years, blessed with as we enter into the community, expected to grow into; but I lost that possibility for I knew where I had been, Hell, and what I had done. I grieved that loss deeply. In accepting that the trauma of war had changed my life, I found myself walking a trail of tears. It was a trail, a path, of deep sadness, of deep darkness, but at least I did not need to walk it alone. That discovery of companionship on the way made all the difference and so deep was the sadness, so profound the grief, that I wept enough to fill a well of sadness. In the midst of grief, I learned that, though I lost the dream of living in the image of God, I had, in emerging from the chaos, ceased to be a victim of trauma, or a resident of Hell. I had now become a survivor. I began to believe that perhaps there was some hope for me, for my life, after all. At least I had emotions other than anger and these long-buried emotions, many painful, gave a new richness to life.
There is a real difference between simply surviving and being a survivor. When I was surviving the terror of war I depended upon anger to sustain me in the midst of whatever chaos surrounded me. As long as I depended upon that anger I was still a victim or a perpetrator – at any rate, a participant – simply surviving. Only when I was able to move through the chaos and find a place that was not based on anger could I claim to be a survivor.
Sadness was better than anger and in the midst of all the sadness I was grateful to those who helped me and supported me. Eventually it dawned on me that I had another emotion which also brought tears to my eyes, a deep joy arising out of thankfulness. I began to fill up a second well; I called it the well of gratitude. It was as full of light as the other was of darkness. As I wandered between the wells I became aware that my life was richer and fuller; like the ten lepers who hoped for healing that vague hope for myself had been fulfilled, my life had been changed, and left to my own devices I probably would have gone on, like the nine, happy and healed, expecting nothing more, but having perhaps a bit of hope for my own life.
One day I was talking with another trauma survivor who thanked me for something I had shared out of my own experience. This startled me. I had never imagined that anything helpful could arise out of Hell. Once I allowed myself to accept the thanks I was profoundly moved. So I began to talk a bit more about what had happened to me, how I had walked what I began to call “the trauma trail,” and how I had found help, even healing, along the way as I met others who themselves were walking the trail. I spoke of how thankful I was for companions who could support me when I could not support myself. I reflected on my role as trauma survivor and the richness that I had discovered when I was able to move from being a victim to a survivor.
As I shared with others, I found that I had taken another step on the trail. I had become more than a trauma survivor; somewhere, somehow I had been led to become a witness to the pathway I had followed, a witness to the reality that trauma changes one forever and that, in the face of all that would destroy any hope, there is a pathway to follow to new life
Nothing in my story of war trauma is especially unusual; veterans of war and other traumas speak of similar experiences whenever they gather. But my journey has meant new life to me for now I am a witness, like the leper who returned, gave thanks, and was sent forth. I no longer only have the trauma survivor’s hope for personal healing and growth, for I have already received so much, but rather my active hope is for others. In asserting that hope, in telling the story, in witnessing to new life, I have discovered that, beyond all my beliefs and conclusions about myself and the life I deserved, I am connected intimately with that image of the God who comes proclaiming fullness of life. No one could be more surprised than I am.
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