The title of this piece in yesterday's NYT Sunday Review caught my eye: "The Trauma of Being Alive." After wondering if it was a riff on the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism (it wasn't), I myself slipping into Daoist mode. Why conceive of "being alive" as traumatic?
I certainly understand that emotions and psychology matter, and that people can suffer deep and real psychic pain in their lives. But this piece seems to reach too far when it states:
Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.
This over-generalizes trauma. It makes virtually any moment of life, any moment when we realize our impermanence, traumatic. But why avoid the reality of impermanence in the first place?
We learn to deny our mortality. We learn it in our daily lives, driven as we are by expectations and desires for today and tomorrow. A notion of permanence is constructed in our minds, and reinforced by myriad transactions, as we envision our selves moving forward in time. And that is all perfectly natural and normal. But it is also inherently fragile and flawed. If we invest too much in maintaining a sense of "self," and if we come to believe that some sort of stable "self" will remain largely unchanged as we move through time, then we are setting ourselves up for more trauma than might otherwise emerge. This, at least, is what the Daodejing and Zhuangzi tell us. First, the Daodejing passage 22 (Hinton):
In yielding is completion. In bent is straight. In hollow is full. In exhaustion is renewal. In little is contentment. In much is confusion.
This is how a sage embraces primal unity as the measure of all beneath heaven.
Give up self-reflection and you're soon enlightened.
Give up self-definition and you're soon apparent.
Give up self-promotion and you're soon proverbial.
Give up self-esteem and you're soon perennial.
Simply give up contention and soon nothing in all beneath heaven contends with you.
It was hardly empty talk when the ancient declared "in yielding is completion." Once you perfect completion you've returned home to it all.
We could quibble with the translation. The first line is: 曲 則 全, which Ames and Hall have as: "crimped then whole;" and Hendricks has as: "Bent over, you'll be preserved whole." "曲," has a connotation of "bent" or "crooked." But I like the way Hinton handles it: in a sense, if you bend to circumstance, you will keep yourself whole. That is in keeping with the rest of the passage, which interrogates the notion of "self;" 自. Of course, "自" in the time of the DDJ did not have the same meanings as a modern definition of "self," but it does suggest a process for how we understand our place and presentation in the world. And passage 22 is clearly telling us to not hold on to expectations for what the "self" might be. If we give up thinking about what the "self" is, we will find a kind of liberation. If we yield in to the natural impermanence of "self" we return "home to it all" - 誠全而歸之 - or, true wholeness will return.
The attitude of passage 22 suggests a diffusion of trauma. If we are open to the impermanence of the self, to the constant flux and change of circumstance, then we can get out from under the sense of "loss" when circumstances change. This is not to suggest that the experience of trauma can be always and everywhere extinguished. I imagine the experience of violent combat, which gives rise to PTSD, is truly destabilizing. Indeed, I think the NYT article, in making virtually everything traumatic, undermines our appreciation of truly extraordinary trauma.
But even if a Daoist stance cannot remove all trauma from human experience (and Daoism would have no such expectation), it can help most of us deal with the unexpected and potentially painful experiences of every day life. If we let go of a predetermined definition of "self," then apparent transformations of that "self" need not be traumatic.
Zhuangzi is also helpful here. The story of the four friends in chapter six describes, in stirring detail, the physical demise of one of them. When asked directly if he dislikes or resents what is happening, his response is clear (Hinton):
This life we're given comes in its own season, and then follows its passing away. If you're at ease in your season, if you can dwell in its vanishing, joy and sorrow never touch you. This is what the ancients called "getting free." If you can't get free, you're tangled in things. And things have never overcome heaven. So what is there to resent?
This is the ultimate trauma: facing death. And Zhuangzi is telling us that death need not be traumatic. If we understand its inevitability, and if we focus on the moment we are in, there is nothing to resent. Or, as is stated elsewhere in the book: "there can be no loss."
The key here, I think, is acceptance. The NYT piece mentions Kubler-Ross's famous stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. We might think of this as a process of reaction: something bad happens and we first deny and then move through these other stages. Daoism, in this sense, is more pro-active, suggesting that we should be fully aware of the inevitability of unexpected change and, thus, cultivate acceptance before "trauma" occurs. The friends in Zhuangzi's story are not in denial or angry because they have already accepted their inevitable demise before the "trauma" appears. Thus, it is not nearly so traumatic.
So, the title of the NYT piece, "The Trauma of Being Alive," is over-wrought. Life need not be continuously traumatic, if we give up self-definition and get free of expectations.