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The Trauma of Evil

How do catastrophic phenomena affect the human psyche?

What are the psychological effects of massive disasters like this week's cyclone in Myanmar (Burma) that may have claimed as many as 100,000 victims? The 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami in which more than 200,000 perished? Hurricane Katrina? The recent mid-west twisters destroying property and killing eleven people? For many of those who barely survive such events, cheating death, the symptoms of acute stress disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder will likely be present, requiring some therapeutic intervention. What are the psychological, theological and philosophical issues victims of such tragedies struggle with? And what about the rest of us who witness such terrible suffering even from afar? Are we immune? How do catastrophic phenomena affect the human psyche? What are the emotional, existential and spiritual consequences of cataclysmic events such as cyclones, floods, famines, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other so-called acts of God?

Let's first make a distinction between natural evil and human evil: While, as a forensic psychologist, I generally write in this blog about evil deeds--human destructiveness-- now we are speaking about nature's own evil. Evil is an existential reality, an inescapable fact with which we all must reckon. (I discuss the controversial notion of evil in Chapter 3, "The Psychology of Evil," in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.) Virtually every culture has some word for evil, an archetypal acknowledgment of what Webster defines as "something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity . . . . The fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing." We see human evil every day in its various subtle and not-so-subtle forms. But when evil strikes in suprahuman, transpersonal, cosmic occurrences such as drought, disease, and tragic accidents that wreak untimely death and destruction on multitudes of innocent victims, how do we make any sense of it? The biblical Book of Job addresses just this subject, as do major religions worldwide. Psychotherapists and mental health workers such as Red Cross counselors who deal with victims of evil are confronted daily with these profound questions: Why is there evil? Where does it come from? If there is a God, how could he or she condone it? Why me? Or why not me, as in the case of "survivor guilt."

Most of us try hard to deny or avoid the reality of evil: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Or we attempt to neutralize it, dismissing evil as maya or illusion, as in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is tempting to deny the reality of evil entirely, due to its inherent subjectivity and relativity: "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," says Shakespeare's Hamlet, presaging the cognitive therapies of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.

But, even for the emotionally detached, spiritually enlightened or geographically distant observer, the grotesque spectacle of natural evil can be subtly traumatic. This is especially true for individuals with a history of previous trauma. Patients suffering from ASD or PTSD are initially in a state of emotional shock or psychic numbing, as psychiatrist Robert Lifton termed it. They have been precipitously exposed to either natural or human evil, or both, and unable to psychologically process the experience. Denial is no longer a viable defense. They feel out of control, victimized, helpless, powerless, frightened, disillusioned. Often, they also feel angry about what has happened. Angry at god. Or with fate or life itself. They have abruptly been stripped of their childish belief in life's inherent fairness. Their Weltanschauung (worldview) has been shattered. Many will never be the same. Like Humpty Dumpty, the bits and pieces cannot be put back together exactly as they were. Rather, victims of evil must somehow reconstruct themselves anew, psychologically assimilating this devastating experience and its implications into a more mature, realistic Weltanschauung, a reconstructed, sturdier, more flexible platform or foundation upon which to stand in life--one which can withstand, accept, and even embrace the existential facts of anxiety, suffering, disease and death. A revised worldview which recognizes and honors what philosopher Alan Watts called the "wisdom of insecurity." Perhaps one with a more realistic religious or spiritual outlook, such as Job's transformed recognition of god or Yahweh as the ultimate source of both good and evil; or a more sophisticated psychological understanding of the non-dualistic concept of the daimonic in psyche and nature.

These existential, philosophical and theological questions run deep, and can be consciously or unconsciously stirred up by such unsettling events. Natural disasters psychologically shake the very ground of our existence, causing us to question the fundamental nature and meaning of life--and death. They force us, in the starkest possible way, to face the existential fact of life's slender, tenuous thread: that being can at any moment become non-being; that death is always but a breath away; that the basic structure we daily depend upon for meaning and safety is in reality transitory and fragile. Such calamities can sometimes lead to precariously dangerous states of mind: depression, nihilism, panic, even psychosis. They can negate one's sense of security and predictability, leading to severe anxiety states. And they can rattle our religious faith, resulting in despair and, sometimes, even suicide. So it is imperative that psychologists are properly prepared to address such philosophical and spiritual issues in ways which will help victims courageously face and deal constructively with the perennial problem of evil: evil of both the human and natural variety.

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