Sometimes, events in one’s life have a heft, a magnitude, an awesomeness, such that it simply feels inconceivable that life continues for others, untouched. This can be because of something wonderful – the birth of a child – or something horrifying – death, suffering.
There have only been a few of these moments in my life – the death of my mother, the birth of our son, the destruction of the World Trade Center. In recent months, I’ve found myself living through another of those moments – one in which it simply is unfathomable to me that life goes on, that it must go on, in spite of what I know, what I see on a daily basis. (And apologies for the opaque nature of this description; it’s just the right thing for me.)
This is what makes helping professionals burn out: how can it be that the world has allowed suffering? And not just allowed it, but continued on, as if it weren’t happening? How can it be that I continue my life, continue writing my blog, having sex, living, even as suffering – existential, horrifying, suffering – continues all around me?
In some sense, trauma isn’t when something horrible happens to you; it’s when there’s simply no opportunity to integrate what happens to you with your understanding of how the world is. Those of us who go on living, even as suffering – unimaginable, untold suffering – continues in our midst, thus are unwitting accomplices in the infliction of trauma.
This isn’t exactly a guilty plea, a complaint, a criticism. It’s something different, more like a rueful observation: there simply is no good option available to a witness to suffering other than presence. Stopping living isn’t available as an option – we simply must go on. And yet, doing so is in and of itself an affront, an assault, to someone suffering daily horrors. Even attempting to describe those horrors using words can be an assault, as words necessarily come up short.
But is this right?
Could it be that it is it, in fact, the best we can do? To demonstrate that suffering can’t stop our lives, that it is possible to go on living, even as we integrate their suffering in our lives?
I don’t know.
I just don’t know.