My family accidentally ended up at the movie theater the other night. We set out for a spontaneous, rain-cancelled-baseball-practice night of bowling, but the last-minuteness of our idea resulted in disappointment as we learned that all the bowling alleys in town were past capacity. We settled for Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which fell short of its surprisingly enjoyable predecessor.
My main take away from the movie was one scene in which teenager Billy Batson-transformed-into-adult-superhero seeks therapy over his feelings of inadequacy in his pediatrician’s office. The doctor reminds him that he neither sees adult patients nor provides therapy but, upon Billy’s insistence, offers a diagnosis anyway. Billy’s problem, the doctor surmises, is that he has “imposter syndrome” resulting from trauma experienced in childhood. The scene’s point—to depict the ridiculousness of a buff, cape-wearing adult superhero seeking therapy for insecurity in a pediatrician’s office—succeeds, but beyond its silliness, a cultural mantra prevails: human beings are the passive products of past traumas.
“Trauma” is a trendy word these days. A generation ago, only a few specialized people used it, but today, it’s everywhere. I recently heard a talk in which someone described the experience of school children going back to school after Covid lockdowns as “traumatic.” It’s a hot topic on social media as people explain trauma responses and warn others of potential triggers. People lightheartedly throw “trauma” around in casual conversation to describe any experience that makes them feel uncomfortable.
When the term first made its way into the common vocabulary of mental health professionals over forty years ago, the definition of a trauma-causing event required a near-death experience or actual or threatened serious injury or violence. However, since then, the definition used by the American Psychiatric Association has broadened to include merely experiencing an adverse event or even learning second-hand about someone else’s traumatic experience. Culturally, we see this broadened definition in everyday language. It has become a descriptor of anything that doesn’t go our way. Stuck in traffic? iPhone malfunctioning? How traumatic! Trauma language is a cultural fad. It’s everywhere.
Trauma is real, and I’m thankful that mental health professionals now universally realize that events from our past often have long-lasting, physical consequences. However, using the concept to describe normal human trials cheapens the experiences of those who genuinely suffer from traumatic events. Further, the deterministic language we use about how trauma inevitably effects certain outcomes ignores the existence of a very important human response—resilience. Some people experience real trauma and are able to overcome it without long-term consequences. In fact, credible research shows that ninety percent of people exposed to trauma never develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Trauma is appealing as a concept for several reasons. First, it provides a simple and tidy explanation for very complex human experiences. It provides answers to questions humans have always sought to answer: Why am I having these struggles? Why do I feel this way? If we can root present struggles in a past event, we have an explanation, and explanations help us feel more in control.
Second and related to the first, trauma is appealing because it provides a narrative that removes human agency. As Joel Paris, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at McGill University, explains, “An emphasis on the environment offers a point of view that places responsibility not on patients, but on forces beyond their control.” If I’m like this because of past traumas that I’ve experienced, then I can’t really help it. I’m no longer a responsible agent; I’m the victim of my experiences. Billy Batson-turned-superhero can’t help “imposter syndrome.” Afterall, he’s experienced trauma.
Here’s my concern: When we see trauma as a deterministic force that has the power to overcome human beings and control their lives, we discount two things. First, we discount the grace of God. God is the healer of his people (Exodus 15:26). We are not the sum of our past. Just as God can separate us from our own past sin as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), he can restore us to full health, even after traumatic experiences (Psalm 41:3).
Second, when we rely on trauma as the primary explanation for our struggles, our treatment ends up focusing on the past rather than the present. We have no control over what has happened to us. We do, however, possess agency in the present. We can, by the grace of God, begin the long, hard journey of change. We don’t have to stay where we are. God has given human beings resilience to rise above adversity. If we don’t believe it’s possible, we may never make the attempt.