The Einsatzgrüppen: The Banality of Evil
I am in the second day of my conference and as I noted yesterday that the presenter, Dr. Robert Grant is dealing with spirituality and trauma. As was the last time I listened to him this conference is full of good information. For me though it is not merely information for information sake, but something very personal having gone through the living hell of a psychological, spiritual and physical collapse following my tour in Iraq and battle with chronic PTSD. For me it was passing though the abyss and when I emerged I was a changed man.
Today Dr. Grant began with some existential truths about life which have to be acknowledged. The basic list is his but I have taken those thoughts and ran with them.
Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.
No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment.
No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans. The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.
The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time
We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.
Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this.
Nothing exposes these truths faster than trauma. It does not matter if the trauma is impersonal and the result of a natural disaster or the result of individual or corporate evil and malevolence, be it physical, psychological or spiritual trauma the effect is often destructive.
In response to these facts we all as well as our society and culture develop patterns of denial about these existential truths. They are truths that most of us don’t want to face and which we often will do anything to avoid most often attempting to find meaning and comfort in materialism and consumerism. Others seek a “solid” faith in more fundamental branches of their religious tradition. Still others see to recreate a world that supposedly existed before our time attempting to roll back the clock to a time when the world was right. This is true especially in our political life, progressives think back to the Great Society or the New Deal, while conservatives tend to look back to what the Founding Fathers wrote or the ones that they agree with wrote. The overarching theme, be it in the life philosophy, religion or political-ideological arena people seek to create a world that is stable, where they can exist in their comfort zone free of trauma and free of anxiety. However the experience of trauma often blows such constructs into a million pieces.
The fact is that the comforts and protections that we seek refuge in are often fleeting or the myth that we have created for our self protection. Such beliefs are often illusions. One thing about trauma is that it tends to shake one’s world. In fact trauma can destroy long held belief structures including faith in God, humanity and deeply held beliefs about life and one’s place in the world. Religious beliefs, political ideologies and belief the righteousness of one’s country, friends, family and heroes can be devastated when trauma picks the lock of our soul and reveals our vulnerability. Such events including war, natural and manmade disasters, the loss of loved ones to death, divorce or the loss of one’s position in life, work and safety net all can be events that trigger crisis and reveal the startling truth that we are not invulnerable. The recent earthquake and Tsunami in Japan is a classic example as it has shaken the long held beliefs of the Japanese people regarding the respect that they have for their government and corporations.
Collectively as Americans we have experienced numerous national traumas in the past 10 years beginning with the 9-11 attacks. We have seen war, financial disaster and numerous natural disasters which have impacted our collective psyche as a nation. In response we elect to deny the effect of trauma on us as individuals and on our society. Politicians seek to find quick material fixes to a greater problem which is both spiritual and existential. Simply put we seek to treat the symptom rather than the greater problem which is that we have been so shaken that we have stopped believing in our nation, our fellow human beings and sometimes even the Divine.
We do the same as individuals because the darkness of trauma and the malevolence of those individuals and systems, governmental, corporate and ecclesiastical that inflict trauma on us is so great that we bear not to face them and face further trauma. The impact on individuals is often devastating as the perpetrators often use their power to dehumanize people. Thus facing the evil is to expose one to even greater danger. Thus the more common reaction is to edit the trauma, sealing it off so that we can reenter the safety of our protected sandbox without having to face the darkness that exists. The malevolence of evil, or what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil” manifests itself in ways that most of don’t ever want to face, thus the damage done by the trauma remains unhealed.
The problem is in order to really experience healing we have to be willing to face that darkness without succumbing to it. To do this requires not only facing the existential truths about ourselves but also uncomfortable truths about respected individuals, government, corporate and ecclesiastical organizations and systems which perpetuate trauma. Most of us do not want to go there. I know I didn’t until my crisis became an existential one where I had to face the darkness or try to cover it up. For me it was a crisis of faith in God, my church and even in the actions of my government and the political party that I had been loyal to for 36 years.
The journey was painful but in time I began to recover beginning a process that continues to this day and which I expect will be part an ongoing part of my life. In the process I know that I have changed hopefully for the better. As I began my recovery I found that not everyone understood, in fact when I began to write about my faith journey it cost me friends and resulted in me being asked to leave my church. To me it seemed that some people especially in the church were more comfortable with me being damaged and quiet than recovering and posing difficult questions especially when I deviated from the party line.
I found that many people did not want to walk with me through those dark times and I can understand why not. To walk with someone through the darkness exposes us to that darkness and sometimes takes us to places that we would rather not go places that lay outside of our safety zone. However those that did walk with me, those who held me but let me walk though the crisis without trying to force feed me formulas for success or what I needed to do to “be healed” when I was in free fall gave me the freedom to experience healing. Part of that was healing was spiritual, God’s grace became real again and not just a concept. Part was psychological as I became more stable and had fewer symptomatic episodes, and part was physical as the nagging injuries healed and I was able to reassert control over my diet and exercise. Finally part has been relational as I have started to rebuild the relationship that I have with my wife Judy because I had neglected that relationship for far too long and when I came home from Iraq I did her no favors. A few weeks ago she told me that she felt that she had me back for the first time since Iraq.
I have been through the abyss and have emerged from it different but I think better. I still have work to do because I know that I am still full of issues. I still have anxiety at night, trouble sleeping, especially without medication. Other times I can experience bouts of depression and anxiety and on some occasions still battle anger and occasionally rage when I feel endangered or see injustice being inflicted on others. I still have some measure of hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal and I am much more aware of my surroundings than I used to be. Even in ministry I am careful what I share with people. I figure on this website people can pick and chose what they want to read, but when counseling or teaching I have to be more careful. I know that I have some deep work to do especially in relation to forgiveness of those people and systems that I felt hurt or betrayed me. I don’t know how all of that will work out but that is part of the journey.
In the mean time I will walk in faith and hope even knowing that some of the answers that I seek will not always sit well with me or others. But then such is life.