Robert Augustus Masters

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Collective PTSD

  • December 25, 2015
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PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a modern label, but what it stands for has been around for a very long time, transmitted — biochemically, emotionally, and psychologically — from generation to generation, with little or no awareness that this is happening. It occupies much of our shadow, both personally and collectively.


Just because the symptoms of PTSD may not seem to exist in some of us does not mean that they aren’t there; after all, we are capable of considerable repression. And there are levels of PTSD, ranging from severe to moderate to mild, in both personal and collective contexts. PTSD gets mainstream consideration these days, with various treatments being offered, ranging from the pharmaceutical to the conventionally therapeutic (overly cognitive) to — all too infrequently — the deeply therapeutic, with a relatively clear demarcation being made between those with PTSD and those apparently without it.


But is it not possible that all of us carry PTSD, to however slight a degree? And that our species itself has chronic PTSD? However well-adjusted we may be or seem to be, is there not some residual shock — however faraway — in us and our history, some core anxiety, some sense of impending disaster, some numbness, some sense of being driven by past events, some existential edginess, and some sense of sharing all of this? We may turn away from those with obvious PTSD symptoms, like war veterans, but in such aversion, we are turning away from our own PTSD, seeking ever more successful distraction from it and the raw pain that animates it — and the suffering of those who are slammed by it.


Given the conditions under which our ancestors lived, is it not highly probable that they had PTSD? Not just personally, but also collectively? Think of the shock to the system of being someone with no privileges back then (which was pretty much everyone except for those on top), the fearfulness and brutality of daily living, the disease and plagues, the mortality rate, the disregard for human rights, the dulling taken on to endure such conditions.


When any condition persists long enough, we tend to normalize it. We adapt. The collective PTSD our species is suffering has been normalized, accompanied by collective numbing and a dazzling wealth of potent distractions for those not living in poverty. Knowing in our heart of hearts that we have the capacity to annihilate our species — think of full-out nuclear war, nuclear winter — has become mostly just a background consideration, something to not really feel, despite the reality of it, needing only certain people at the controls to make it happen.


PTSD isn’t just a matter of overwhelming recall and reaction, but also of the “solutions” to this, practices and things with the potential power to distract us from our pain. When low-grade PTSD and its “solutions” are normalized, with the bare reality of this tucked away in our shadow, we see our possible oblivion with something akin to the vacant stare of a junkie who has just shot up. What’s needed here is de-numbing, which begins with recognizing our numbness — and our habit of numbing ourselves to our numbing. Feeling into what’s really going on can be overwhelming at first, but with practice we can keep our capacity to feel set to a level that doesn’t blow us away.


Much of our collective PTSD has slipped so deeply into our shadow that it seems to not exist, except perhaps as moods that periodically get to us. Nevertheless, it is there, muted and not so easy to differentiate, but still there. The way to get to it is to work with your shadow, deeply and thoroughly — and, when well into this labor, to turn up your radar for more distant signals, perhaps beginning with your felt sense of your parents’ personal and collective influences, and then moving further back in time. Take it as far back as you can. Instead of just being entertained by depictions of cave-dwelling humans from long ago, feel into those beings, look through their eyes, sense their environment, their fear and care and love.


We are moving so, so fast now as a species, largely overcome by our accelerating culture and electronic environments, our greed for speed trapping us, our deepest knowing drowning in all the excess information, suffocating in the data smog we take to be just the way things are, but there’s another world so close by, quieter, slower, much more alive, connected to what’s truly essential, bringing together past and present in ways that awaken and heal, allowing us to shed our shock and numbness, realizing that our heart has room for it all.