PTSD, Counterphobia, and Resilience

Is myth or stoicism more effective for working through trauma?

Posted Mar 14, 2019

Living in So-Cal within commuting distance to Camp Pendelton, I have come into contact with a significant amount of PTSD in the community.  For just one example, the other day I pulled into the gym parking lot and noticed a sticker on the back of a Hummer.  It was an exploding bomb with the comment “I had a blast in Afghanistan.”  I was initially struck by the cynicism until the driver door opened and a young man with a prosthesis on his left leg stepped out.   What initially appeared cynical, suddenly reflected stoicism.  

I first encountered what has become popularly known as PTSD in the mid-1980s.  I was working as a fitness trainer at the Kinetic Fitness Center in Denver.  The clientele was upscale and there was one gentlemen who always came in with an intensity that impressed me.  I couldn’t figure what made him tick, but always enjoyed his intelligent, engaging conversation.  Turns out he was a Vietnam veteran.  In Nam he was posted as a Helicopter pilot.  Incredibly dangerous assignment with a high fatality rate, he told me numerous stories of being shot down, shooting an elderly woman before she shot at him, and his uniform riddled with bullet holes. Miraculously he lived.  In some way he couldn’t believe he was alive.  Thus his intensity made sense, as if he was still in shock.  He also told me it was thrilling and he often took his motorcycle on the winding Colorado canyon roads slightly stoned trying to recreate the adrenaline rush.  Over the years I have learned every individual deals with trauma uniquely.

Shortly after penning “Extreme Experience, Psychological Insight and Holocaust Perception” (see my previous post) I was contacted by a chaplain stationed at NORAD in Colorado Springs.  At the time, the military was dealing with the rash of suicides (ten years on the problem still exists).  The chaplain had read my article “Redeeming the Unredeemable: Auschwitz and Man's Search for Meaning."  He described how his staff was dialoging about the nature of resilience and how to build, grow, develop resilience in people prior to catastrophic events whether man-made or natural.  He wondered whether I was open to dialog. 

I replied that his comments made me think about how therapists, in contrast to historians, approach the world with a different set of interests and needs.  In essence, I was trying to be clear about the Holocaust in an historical sense, and was not necessarily concerned about how to make people well. I never fully thought through those differences.       

In response, the chaplain went into a long discourse on Joseph Campbell and the power of mythological process as a creative venture that attempts to build a bridge between the realm of experience and the inner world of theological, philosophical, and psychological reflection.  Subsequently his reading of Frankl was through the lens of a myth maker, grappling with finding meaning and perhaps purpose for his journey. For the chaplain the meaning of myth is in its ability to magnify the possible, enliven the imagination to embrace the extraordinary within all of us and motivate us to reach that which is thought to be impossible.  He thought that is what Frankl might have been attempting but because of psychoanalytic and medical training was not able to make that leap.  He then concluded that we need to find a bridge for the gap between modernity with it's emphasis upon "facts" and subjective/social/cultural values  to find a path that can guide us beyond the mire symptoms or pathological thinking explicit in psychological reflection toward an integration of meaning into the context of the horrible and extreme human suffering.

I responded by suggesting Campbell followed an intellectual path first mined by Carl Jung.  Then I pointed out that Jung and Frankl followed somewhat similar intellectual trajectories of an immersion in Freud and then a rejection of Freudian biological reductionism through a flight into the spiritual.  In my view Heidegger, Jung, and Frankl follow this trajectory and it is not surprising to me that they all found themselves as fellow travelers in a variety of ways with Nazism.  I thus argued that myths have a danger, on both a personal and intellectual level, that lead people perilously away from reality and the endeavor for truth.  

I also rejected his claim that Frankl was engaged in myth making.  Although Frankl embraced a "super-meaning," it was just belief in the Judeo Christian sense. Frankl wrote his testimony as a scientist who wanted to get an objective grasp on the reality of concentration camp experience.  Like many testimonies this was also an attempt to objectify and manage trauma and the profound dehumanization-victimization of Holocaust experience.  Being profoundly humiliated is a different kind of trauma and it is not surprising that both Frankl and Bettelheim relied on psychological objectification to heal their dehumanization. 

I also rejected his notion that myth making is an effective way to "integrate meaning into the context of horrible and extreme suffering."  Taking a humanist stance, sometimes when staring deep into the tragic condition of humans I find a place that is life affirmative, but it is not a mythical place, it is the deeply human.  Nietzsche described it as "Greek cheerfulness."  The Greeks knew that the happiest man is the one that was never born, and the second happiness is the one who dies young.  In tragedy I do think you can discover innocence and wonder, and of course a whole lot pain and suffering.  For me there lies the daimonic tension of being human.

Our dialog ended after my reply.  My embrace of tragedy as a constituent feature of the human condition probably didn’t fit with his agenda of finding “useful myths.”  However, the exchange was over ten years ago and before I rewrote my book on Frankl.  Now I think I have a more objective perspective.  The dialog originally asked: How to use myth to build resilience in people before facing trauma?  My sense is that a pre-built myth to face trauma most likely implodes in the actual experience of the trauma.  Also, as I was rewriting my book on Frankl I was able to reconstruct the circumstances of his testimony Man’s Search for Meaning.  When he dictates his testimony in early 1946, Frankl had already worked through much of his trauma in his book, The Doctor and the Soul, which he reconstructed in the summer and fall of 1945. Therefore, by 1946 he was no longer in suicidal despair and also had found employment and a place to live.  Perhaps even more significant, he had fallen in love.  Based on this context if I could return to dialog with the chaplain on resilience and trauma I would focus on Frankl’s counter phobic character.  Not only was he an avid mountain climber but Frankl’s therapeutic strategy of paradoxical intention, which is basically teaching a patient to laugh at their irrational fears, reflects his counter-phobic character.  In contrast to building myths to instill psychic resistance before trauma, perhaps building a counter-phobia personality that stoically “had a blast in Afghanistan” or tests limits by riding a motorcycle through mountain canyons is another strategy to consider.