Feeling, Relating, Existing

On emotion and the human dimension

The Boston Marathon Bombing as a Collective Trauma

The bombing at the Boston Marathon “portkeys” us back to other such traumas.

A patient began her session with me last Monday afternoon by telling me about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I felt a vague, dark foreboding for the remainder of the afternoon, until I arrived home to a message from my oldest daughter, Lisa, letting me know that she was safe. I had known that she was going to participate in a fundraiser run in Boston for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind, but I hadn’t consciously remembered that it would take place last Sunday, that it would be organized by the administrators of the Boston Marathon, and that its finish line would be at the same place where the tragedy occurred. Realizing this, I understood my dark foreboding.

In my book, Trauma and Human Existence, I characterized the essence of emotional trauma as a shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life—the illusory beliefs that allow us to experience the world as stable, predictable, and safe. The shattering of these illusions by trauma brings us face to face with our finiteness and our existential vulnerability, and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. Obviously, the Boston Marathon bombing is a terrible trauma for all those who were injured by it, directly witnessed its devastation, or were closely connected with its victims. But the tragedy also constitutes a collective trauma for all of us who feel the horror of it at more of a distance. A tragedy like this brings us face-to-face with our existential vulnerabilities—vulnerabilities to harm, death, and loss—and the existential vulnerability of all those we love and, perhaps worst of all, the limitedness or our ability to protect them.

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I describe our era as an “Age of Trauma,” because the tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides—by global diminution of natural resources, by global economic collapse, by global warming, by global nuclear proliferation, and by global terrorism. These forms of collective trauma threaten to obliterate the basic framework with which we as members of our particular society have made sense out of our existence and derived a sense of security.

It is not surprising to me that people have been comparing their reactions to the Boston Marathon bombing with the emotional impact of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, for, in my view, it was the tragedy of 9/11 that initiated the Age of Trauma here in the United States. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered our collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. The Boston Marathon bombing, coming out of the blue like the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center and slaughtered more that 3,000 people, in addition to being a collective trauma in its own right, is reanimating once again the feelings of terror, vulnerability, and powerlessness spawned by the attack of 9/11. It is what I characterize as a portkey to retraumatization.

What do we need emotionally in our Age of Trauma? We need to be able to bring our feelings of anxiety and existential vulnerability into dialogue with our fellow sufferers, so that these painful feelings can be held and better borne within relationships—what I call a relational home—rather than being evaded by means of the grandiose, destructive resurrective ideologies that have been so characteristic of human history.

Copyright Robert Stolorow

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D. is one of the original members of the International Council for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, which stems from the work of Heinz Kohut.

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