Trauma and the Hourglass of Time

on September 15 | in Existentialism, Psychology, Time, Trauma | by | with 2 Comments

When my book, “Contexts of Being,” was released in October of 1992, an initial batch of copies was sent “hot off the press” to the display table at a conference where I was a panelist. I picked up a copy and looked around excitedly for my late wife, Dede, who would be so pleased and happy to see it. She was, of course, nowhere to be found, having died 20 months earlier. I had awakened the morning of Feb. 23, 1991 to find her lying dead across our bed, four weeks after her metastatic cancer had been diagnosed. Spinning around to show her my newly published book and finding her gone instantly transported me back to that devastating moment in which I found her dead, and I was once again consumed with horror and sorrow. Throughout the 20 years since the morning when my world was shattered, I have relived that devastating moment again and again in all its terrible emotional intensity. If you, or someone you care about, ever experience a traumatic loss, never think or utter the words, “You have to let it go and move on.” Time does not heal the wounds of trauma. Let me explain.

I use the term “portkey,” which I borrowed from Harry Potter, to capture the profound impact of emotional trauma on our experience of time. Harry was a severely traumatized little boy, nearly killed by his parents’ murderer and left in the care of a family that mistreated him cruelly. He arose from the ashes of devastating trauma as a wizard in possession of wondrous magical powers, and yet he is never free from the original trauma, always under threat by his parents’ murderer. As a wizard, he encounters portkeys — objects that transport him instantly to other places, obliterating the duration ordinarily required for travel from one location to another. Portkeys to trauma return us again and again to an experience of traumatization. The experience of such portkeys fractures, and can even obliterate, our sense of unitary selfhood, of being continuous in time.

Trauma devastatingly disrupts the ordinary linearity and unity of our experience of time, our sense of stretching-along from the past to an open future. Experiences of emotional trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which we remain forever trapped, or to which we are condemned to be perpetually returned through the portkeys supplied by life’s slings and arrows. In the region of trauma, all duration or stretching-along collapses, past becomes present and future loses all meaning other than endless repetition. Trauma, in other words, is timeless. Further, because trauma so profoundly modifies our ordinary experience of time, the traumatized person quite literally lives in another kind of reality, completely different from the one that others inhabit. This felt differentness, in turn, contributes to the sense of alienation and estrangement from other human beings that typically haunts the traumatized person.

As a four-year-old boy, Friedrich Nietzsche was massively traumatized by the death of his beloved father. It was a crushing loss that haunted him for the rest of his life, eventuating in his madness. As a philosopher, he metaphorically captured the impact of trauma on our experience of time in “The Gay Science,” where he introduced his famous doctrine of “the eternal return of the same”:

What would happen if one day or night a demon were to steal upon you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you, “You will have to live this life — as you are living it now and have lived it in the past — once again and countless times more; and there will be nothing new to it, but every pain and every pleasure, every thought and sigh, and everything unutterably petty or grand in your life will have to come back to you, all in the same sequence and order… The eternal hourglass of existence turning over and over — and you with it, speck of dust!”… If that thought ever came to prevail in you, it would transform you, such as you are, and perhaps it would mangle you.

The eternal return of emotional trauma is ensured by the finiteness of our existence and the finiteness of all those whom we love. Trauma looms for all of us as an ever-present possibility. I have long contended that the mangling and the darkness can be enduringly borne, not in solitude, but in relationships of deep emotional understanding. In such relationships, we do not encourage the traumatized person to “get over it and move on.” Instead, we dwell with him or her in his or her endlessly recurring emotional pain, so that he or she is not left unbearably alone in it. As Bob Dylan sang it mournfully in his album, “Modern Times,” “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”

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2 Responses to Trauma and the Hourglass of Time

  1. The phenomenon described above is blamed in neurobiology on a temporarily disabled hippocampus, a part of the brain that is responsible for relegating events to their time and place. Trauma has a disabling effect on hippocampus, due to excessive release of cortisol, resulting in an encapsulated traumatic event that is free-floating, forever vulnerable to unleashing its horror in response to a trigger in the here-and-now. While neurobiology’s explanation of the “eternal return of the same” is a valuable piece of information, its approach is a Cartesian one: it regards the human being as one-dimensional, all of which renders Stolorow’s unprecedented approach that much more valuable, appreciated, and welcome.

  2. Neurobiology’s solution to trauma parallels the “get over it and move on” approach: in its effort to medicate emotional pain out of awareness, it tries to reinstate the lost “absolutism of everyday”. Do we, humans, really need yet another way to forget trauma? What’s wrong with time-honored solutions like dissociation, delusion, and the like? By failing to address the “finiteness of our existence and the finiteness of all those whom we love”, and concentrating its vast financial resources to create newer and quicker solutions to emotional oblivion, neurobiology is a major deterrent and stumbling block to allowing approaches more congruous with our finite existence to become mainstream.

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