Tragedy, Trauma and Talking Animals
Shelley Curtis Weaver | 31 March 2023 |
During a recent writing project for Adventist Today, editor Loren Seibold and I had a discussion about my use of the word “sublimation.” I was right, and he was right, but his was the “righter” right, because once an obscure word requires that level of discussion, using it would clearly leave some readers behind.
Losing readers isn’t the point of writing, generally speaking.
These are the sorts of debates professionals and hobbyists have over the things they love, and word nerds are no exception. So I’m appreciative that Loren used his words to wrestle tragedy and loss in Sorry, but I’m Just Very Angry at God Right Now. It’s brave and responsive on a topic where commentary so often manipulates the truth or cajoles us into denial.
It takes a toll
It’s hard to discuss tragedy, and it occurs to me that words labor when we grapple with things that were never meant to be. This is magnified now especially, where every disaster in the world is as close as the nearest screen. So much loss, so many injured and dead. Those numbers can numb us until we see the faces of those searching the rubble, of those wounded and grieving. If we are paying attention, our hearts start to do the math. Each face equals multiplied tragedy. Many of us are tallying the cost, but few are brave enough to say so. It needs to be said.
One of the essential writer/researchers in the study of trauma is Dr. Peter Levine, whose endeavors have informed the way we treat the psychological damage in soldiers, crime victims, disaster survivors and others suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. He discovered that the body has a systematic response to trauma, and that the worst effects of trauma happen when this process is blocked or interrupted. He found that human coping mechanisms can stifle the natural physiological response to trauma.
Gift and burden
When I first read Levine’s work, I marveled at how impractical and also magnificent our gift of language can be. It causes us to deny and diminish our trauma responses in order to reason and problem-solve our way out of disaster. However, this means we miss the coping stages most other animals normally process. As a result, we suffer and are often stuck in the trauma.
On the positive side— it allows us to theorize, interview, test, consider, analyze and treat our psychological injuries when the reptilian [Levine’s term for primitive coping mechanisms] trauma-response fails our sophisticated brains.
As a person obsessed with both words and spiritual questions, this leads me to some important ones— is language somehow sacred? Is language the defining evidence of our creation in the image of God, and what possibilities lie in that distinction? Do the words in the stories of God and humanity contribute anything to the way we process staggering loss?
C.S. Lewis uses wildlife to help him address these questions. He populates Narnia with assorted mammals who talk and reason like humans. Discussing what’s ostensibly a nursery story in connection with natural disaster and massive casualties seems flippant unless we consider that Lewis was writing from a similar place. His Pevensie children were literally shuttled off to the care of country relatives to shield them from being buried by bombs in the rubble of London.
Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy live out a major childhood trauma. They are separated from their parents. They fear death and permanent separation. Lewis writes in a time where the collapse of sanity and civil society in Europe had also sent thousands of Jewish children as refugees to England. On the heels of their flight, nearly all of their remaining family members were slaughtered.
So when Lewis frames a story of animals who behave as human, he is addressing a world at crisis. He responds with a story of a hidden world which is also in an existential conflict between good and evil. Victory is realized in the partnership between the citizens of that world, the children adopted into that kingdom, and a Lion-to-the-rescue who submits to violent hands in order to unlock a deeper magic.
Later in the series, Lewis describes a return to Narnia, where the siblings encounter animals who’ve forgotten how to speak. Reduced to instinct and survival mode, they are diminished, violent, and no longer relational. We are shown that failing to reason and process truth, can rob us of our humanity. In the face of propaganda and hate taking over hearts and minds, fueling a World War and holocaust, it was a powerful parable.
Revisioning the trauma
Earnest readers discover what the teachers of literature teach— that each time a story is encountered it becomes alive. For every reader, this story is happening for the first time. When I read about Dr Levine’s therapy of language and imagination in his revisioning therapy for trauma, it resonated with literary theory and the way in which language shapes our souls.
The brain engaging with words does not immediately discriminate between the imagination and reality. This is the reason we can read a book and become so deeply part of the experience that we must almost shake ourselves awake when we pause or finish reading. It’s the reason a brief passage or description can create a whole world in our minds, and populate it with people we can visualize and come to know.
Methods of reading
This feature of language is not always considered as we read the Bible. Usually there are two main ways we read and process the Biblical account. In the first, it is taken strictly as a literal lesson and rulebook. The disasters and wars turn quickly into fresh traumas if we do this. When we build a tower of literal understanding, we suffer through it. God is angry— at us. God floods the world— drowning them. God throws down ten plagues, hails fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, strikes belligerent sisters with leprosy, wipes out whole nations. God commands us to kill inconvenient neighbors and the offspring of our enemies.
A literal embrace of lessons, laws and rules also supposes that perfect obedience and thorough knowledge will protect us from harm and show us the narrow path of salvation. It’s an apparently simple formula, but it’s never achieved in the Old Testament narrative of deaths, exiles, and conquerors, or the New Testament persecutions and executions. The Bible as a rulebook is a failure.
The second method, a historical critical approach, excavates deeper soil. We uncover parallel creation and flood tales in the stories of other cultures. We identify Job as an older record than Genesis, and the description of angels, and the resurrection (highly important to Adventism) to be a donation from Persian Zoroastrians. It is important and exhilarating to discover the roots of how culture clarifies the story, but taking a strictly historical view of sociological context quickly becomes its own version of literalism.
In a historically-literal model we are bound to what we can dig out of a decaying and damaged world. We may obsess over mechanisms, instead of mystery for each miracle. We may demand a human sperm donor for Jesus, which deflates the Magnificat and the soul-expanding intersection of God-made-flesh. Faith as the evidence of things not seen requires a freedom historicism alone does not provide. So what can we do to bypass the limitations of thesep two approaches?
We can let the word breathe. We can back away from wrestling the words and let God approach us in the text. While respecting the instructional, and appreciating the historical, we can experience language as a sacred conduit of the living word.
By these means, we enter a relationship as old as humanity. We access the critical link to our origins as talking animals— mammals, primates, conceived, birthed, living and dying just as they do, but with the ability to describe and relate it all. That we differ from other animals, we owe mainly to language— to the nuanced expression of God’s image we bear in our words. In that context, we have the capacity to ponder both the battle for the universe and for our daily moral choices.
Echoes on the theme of loss
Where the Bible directly addresses this relationship, it becomes for many of us, the best source of this divine spiritual conversation. But that expression abides in other words as well— the tensions between good and evil, compassion and suffering, love and hate, peace and violence, play out in the histories, novels, movies, plays, poems and songs of the so-called secular world. There is a sense of what is lost, and what can be lost. There’s the clash of humanity’s inhumanity, and our expectations of justice. The world’s stories hold the same aching longing for love, rescue, family and home.
All these themes bear witness to meaning beyond the literal or historical. Each time we read them, in the Bible or elsewhere, truth is ignited. The breach is crossed for a moment, and the experience of a greater reality is sung millions of times, over and over again. Secular text— woven of the sacred elements of language has its sparks of inspiration, too.
If a great controversy between good and evil exists throughout the world’s literature, might it not be a valid context in the Bible as well? If so, a segment of text in Ezekiel 28 can be a description of a despotic human monarch, and also the memory of a beautiful spiritual being turned evil in rebellion. The literal war and conflict described in Isaiah 14, can also be a spiritual battle between good and evil. It shares the same concept of principalities and powers fighting to crush us as Paul echoes in Romans 8.
In the same way God inhabits the text to illuminate historical and spiritual conflicts, these texts can also move us this morning. We recognize our pride, our pitfalls, and our own arrogance when we read Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Romans. With that awareness the living word might convict us that seizing our own power to succeed at all costs causes harm on a personal and universal scale.
Bible stories are not the only tales of a fragile earth and impending apocalypse. It is a concept that echoes in secular stories of disasters, monsters and heroes to save the day. How will the problem be solved, who will come to the rescue, will the wait be short or long, and how will we cope in the meantime? Within stories of conflict the need for justice to prevail is central and urgent. This is also the baseline for why the disaster in Turkey and Syria strikes us as so unloving and unfair.
If we didn’t see God as needing to address the circumstances of this world, how would we respond? If this was only a physical world, if humans killed by earthquake was merely the intersection of gravity and life— like insects caught beneath truck tires, we’d quickly give up on sending resources and assistance.
But we do question, ponder and persist. With all our words and wonderings, we daily choose to remain human— talking animals able to mourn what God does not seem to do in the face of disaster and death. When we care and help, when we use our words to protest the lost kingdom, we bring it near. For now we echo the words of Paul, and acknowledge we see through a glass darkly. One day, we will join the narrative of the Pevensie children, and the one we know only in part will “no longer look like a Lion,” but be known, even as we are known.
Levine, Peter A., In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books. First Edition, 2010.
Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. London. Geoffrey Bles, 1950.
Lewis, C.S. Prince Caspian— the Return to Narnia. London. Geoffrey Bles, 1951.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from AdventSource.
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