Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dealey Plaza (and PTSD)

I wasn't expecting it. But there it was -- starting when I was still blocks away. It wasn't in my mind; it was in my gut. First, I started to feel vaguely nauseous, and then more nauseous. And then when I stumbled across the memorial to JFK a block and a half away from Dealey Plaza itself, it grew into the chocking sobs.

Why? I was only 2 years old when JFK was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald there on Dealey Plaza. I never voted for him. I never looked to him with hope for what he might do. I don't even have any memory of him when he was still alive. How is it possible I have so much grief sitting in my gut about his assassination?

We talk a lot these days -- especially these days when so many Americans are overseas at war -- about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD ). But, we tend to think of this only in terms of the individual and the individual's experience. We think, for example, about what being almost killed by an IED might mean to an individual soldier's ability to feel safe again and to be able to trust others again once he or she returns home.

But entire societies and cultures can be traumatized, too. And traumas -- as we know -- can act almost like an echo chamber for one another. I remember the first disaster I dealt with as a chaplain. I was working at UCLA's Santa Monica hospital when an elderly man lost control of his car and drove it through the farmers' market there, killing at least 10 and wounding dozens.

We chaplains stood there in the lobby and made ourselves available to the non-wounded family and witnesses who came in. I talked to this one man who saw the disaster but emerged unschathed. I was surprised that it wasn't the incident itself he wanted to talk about. Instead, he told me the story of other traumas in his life, incidents where people he cared about were hurt or died. The new trauma of witnessing this disaster seemed to have left him with a tremendous hunger to talk about those previous events.

That's what happens with trauma. They echo in our head and in our heart. And that's what I think happened to me at Dealey Plaza, today. So much violence in the world. And so much of it meant to destroy not just people, but thoughts and hopes and dreams and the potential for change. We see it (dear, Lord, please bring it to an end, speedily and in our days) every day in Iraq. People murdered as a political statement. A murder not just against Holy human flesh, but against democracy and the hope for democracy. Bullets, not ballots.

And then there is the trauma of the Jewish people. So many centuries of exile. So many centuries of powerlessness. So many centuries of being viciously hated for inexplicable reasons. So many centuries of being murdered just for who we are, a chain of violence of which the Shoah was only its most terrible expression. The murder of JFK echoed in my head. It reminded me of all that injustice from that violence. And I cried. I cried.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that true peace and wholeness will come over all of us and that the chain -- and the echos -- of trauma may come to an end. Let it be speedily and in our days.


As I write these words, by the way, I am listening to a lecture by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier (of the Claremont School of Theology) here at the ACPE's annual conference in Dallas, and she is talking about how we can use our faith to find paths to peace and multicultural understanding. She is holding out the possibility that true change really is possible. But she also cautions patience. Change is incremental, she says. It takes a -- sometimes painful -- process of deconstructing our beliefs and values (disorientation) and then reconstructing them anew(reorientation).

And we cannot teach in such a way, she says, if we are not open to change in ourselves.


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