People who suffer profound trauma may no longer feel that they are alive. Instead, they feel like zombies, the walking dead wandering in the wilderness. Trauma sets people outside the bounds of the normal human community. We are able to get out of bed and leave our house in the morning because we make basic and unconscious assumptions that the world is safe, meaningful, and we can function adequately well in it. We rarely if ever think about these underlying assumptions because they are underlying premises that are just taken for granted in a consensual way. Trauma shatters the assumptions upon which we all base our sense of safety and freedom in the world. The victim may perceive the world as no longer meaningful, or benevolent, and perceive themselves as worthless, helpless, and hopeless (Janoff-Bulman, 1992).
Loss of Benevolence
When people are traumatized, these assumptions are at best challenged, and at worst demolished. When we experience the trauma, the world can no longer be seen as a benevolent place. The more rejecting the social response is to the trauma, the more this lack of benevolence is exaggerated. The world becomes less benevolent when a woman is raped, then even less benevolent when the judicial authorities blame her for the rape, and even less benevolent when her husband accuses her of inviting the rape. Children raised in homes filled with malice may never even get to fully develop the concept of a benevolent world before their tender assumptions are shattered. These may be the people who end up in our maximum security prisons.
Loss of Justice
Most people base their sense of safety in the world on a sense of meaning that they have derived individually from their own experience and from the social milieu of which they are a part-their gender, family, community, ethnic group, racial group, religious community, national group. Man is the meaning-making animal. All of our cultural achievements are directed at making sense of the world we live in and of each other.
Children do not need to be taught about "fairness". It seems to be builtin (Bloom, 2010; Callahan, 1991; De Waal, 2006; Iacoboni, 2008; Wilson, 1993; Wright, 1994). One of the fundamental ways in which we make sense of the world is through this native sense of justice. We assume that the world is just and that we are rewarded for right behavior and punished for wrong behavior. The corollary of this belief system is that if bad things happen to us, it is because we are bad in some way and are being punished. Somehow it is our fault.
Loss of Order
Because we need the world to be meaningful, the traumatized person has to fit the trauma into some kind of schema that makes sense. But most trauma does not make sense. It is meaningless, unfair, and tragic. Overwhelming traumatic experience challenges our assumptions about the nature of reality. Traumatized people often do not have a moment that is not contaminated by the trauma. It is so real that they can taste it, smell it, see it, hear it, feel it. But for even their most intimate companions, the trauma has no reality, and they want to distance themselves from whatever reality is conveyed through the emotions of the victim. Because much of what we define as real is defined that way through our cultural framework, the victim of trauma is set outside of this safe space, one foot in the world of others, another foot in the traumatic reality.
Loss of Meaning
Traumatic experiences destroy the sense of meaningfulness of the world in which the victim lives. And yet trauma rarely destroys the sense of justice that resides within-at least as it applies to judging the self. As a result many victims of trauma come to believe that they are not worthy, because if they were, the trauma would not have occurred. They become deeply ashamed of whatever imagined fault has caused the trauma to have befallen them and stolen from them a sense of mastery. When other people scapegoat them, it is a further confirmation of their blameworthiness. Burdened by such a sense of shame, victims often cast themselves into the wilderness, outside of the realm of human community.
Loss of Comfort from Others
Victims of trauma often become increasingly isolated from other people. They may destroy relationships that already exist, and refuse to start new relationships. They may be unable to pursue a vocation or avocation because they cannot find meaning in anything they do. They often resort to self-destructive behaviors including substance abuse, which relieve them briefly from the feeling of alienation and oppression. They are lost, alone, bereft, and unable to find comfort or solace anywhere, waiting for life to be over or taking the matter into their own hands and attempting suicide.
Loss of Faith
This loss of faith in oneself is mirrored in loss of faith in the capacity of others to provide help or comfort, as well as the loss of faith in a benevolent higher power to whom one can turn. Without an ability to alter one's reality positively through the use of other people or a group setting, the person often becomes overwhelmed by what has become his or her reality, unable to perform the self-deception that appears necessary for health (Schumaker, 1995). Without a fundamental ground of meaning or a shared meaning system it is often difficult to create, honor, and maintain a consistent set of ethical rules. And people who have learned to be helpless do not demonstrate an ability to mobilize for social action (Bandura, 1982).
Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy: Mechanism in human agency American Psychologist (Vol. 30, pp. 122-147).
Bloom, P. (2010). The moral life of babies. New York Times, pp. 44-49, 56, 62-63, 65.
Callahan, S. (1991). In Good Conscience: Reason and Emotion in Moral Decision Making. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
De Waal, F. (2006). Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Each Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma. New York: Free Press.
Schumaker, J. F. (1995). The Corruption of Reality: A Unified Theory of Religion, Hypnosis, and Psychopathology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus books.
Wilson, J. Q. (1993). The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press.
Wright, R. (1994). The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Pantheon.
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. (2013). Creating sanctuary: Toward the evolution of sane societies, 2nd Edition. New York, Routledge.