Posted by: Dan | January 17, 2008

Seeking Contentment in a Broken World: Exploring Vicarious Trauma

While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
~ Eugene V. Debs

This is the issue with which I am confronted: How can one live a contented life in a world that is torn and broken? How can one live joyfully while so many mourn? How can one experience a sense of ‘inner peace’ given the violence of the plotico-economic context in which we live? This, I realised, has been the topic driving my conversations with those near and dear to me, for quite some time now. Because I am not content, let alone joyful, and I am a long way away from experiencing anything akin to ‘inner peace.’

However, let me be clear about what is at stake here. What I am experiencing is not some sort of crisis about myself personally — I don’t think the problem comes down to me not doing enough, and I don’t think the problem comes down to me having some sort of ‘Messiah complex’ (as has been suggested, and was once the case half a dozen years ago). Indeed, the kicker about all of this is that it really isn’t about me. After all, I’ve got friends, family, and a wife who love me and who would drop everything for me, if that was what I needed. I’ve got a strong sense of being beloved by God, I’m healthy, I seem to be doing okay in school and work, and so on and so forth. I am not unhappy because anything in my life is lacking; I am unhappy because so much is lacking in the lives of others. Similarly, I am not unhappy because I am not doing enough (although one can always do more); I am unhappy because not enough is being done. What is breaking me is the brokenness around me, not any personal experience of brokenness per se.

I believe that the technical term for what I am experiencing right now is ‘vicarious trauma’, wherein one takes on the traumas of others (I reckon that this experience is also largely what many others refer to as ‘burn out’). I am aware of this, but this awareness does not resolve things because I cannot easily brush it aside and conclude that this is an experience I should avoid having. That is to say, I do not know how to love others and not feel this way. If those whom I love are being broken, shouldn’t I, in my love for them, also be broken? Isn’t this the model established by Jesus himself, as the image of the cruciform God who is broken out of his love for this broken world? Perhaps this vicarious trauma is a part of the process of laying down one’s life for those whom God loves; perhaps it is a part of the via dolorosa.

Of course, several people have been quick to tell me that if this is the road I go then I will quickly end up in a position where I am unable to help anybody in anyway because I’ll be so ‘burnt out’… however, like I said before, this really isn’t about me (and the difference that I make or don’t make). If I burn out once and for all, then I burn out once and for all. God doesn’t need me to save the world.

Speaking of God, others have pointed out that it is God who is saving the world, and so I don’t need to take the weight of the world onto my shoulders but can simply be contented with the little that I do on a day-to-day basis. I have mixed feelings about this. I, too, believe that God is saving the world, and will one day heal all of our wounds, wipe all our tears away, and make all things new… but that day has not yet arrived. Until that day brokenness continues. I do not know how to contentedly wait for that day. Certainly I long for it, I place all of my hope in it, but I cannot sit back and wait for it patiently. I want it to come now. I want God to say, “Enough.” Enough of all this bleeding, this killing, this shattering; enough of all this goddamn fucking shit. How much will be enough, Lord? I’ve had enough. Why do you linger, Lord? How long will you damn us with your absence?

This, then, is my final question: how can one find contentment in places of godforsakenness? For those of us who are worn down waiting for God, tired of seeing our friends bleed out, tired of watching The Brokenness settle ever more deeply into our loved ones, what does the notion of contentment offer us? Is such contentment possible? Is it appropriate?

I opened with a quote from Eugene V. Debs, a quote I discovered some year ago. I was first drawn to this quote because it sounded noble and romantic. Now I resonate with the quote on an altogether different level. Now I know that I too am not free. And so I am longing for a liberation that only God can bring.

But God, God is nowhere to be found.

Lord, have mercy.

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