WHENEVER I SEE heartbreaking photographs of grief-stricken civilians in war zones -- like the pictures pouring out of Lebanon -- I wonder how they do it. How are the survivors able to turn their attention away from all the loss and destruction they’ve seen and suffered to refocus on whatever remains of the details of their daily lives?
Americans, mired in the culture of confession, tend to fetishize both memory and the need to testify to tragedy. We’re convinced that repressed memories should be resurrected, and we cheer the survivors of trauma who muster the courage to “speak out.” From the Alamo to 9/11, when national tragedy strikes, we defiantly declare that we’ll never forget the horror.
But at what point does fixating on such memories only prolong the pain? And isn’t a certain amount of denial required to allow survivors to, well, survive?
We know that those who live in war zones naturally seek to put tragedies out of their minds so they can continue to fend for themselves and those who depend on them. War correspondents long have marveled at people’s ability to carry on with their mangled daily routines under the worst wartime conditions. In fact, focusing on the day-to-day is sometimes both an individual and collective response to the trauma of war. People try not to give in to fear and sorrow, not only to move on but to show the world what they’re made of.
It is only when hostilities cease that survivors even have the space to properly grieve. Grieving is a form of intense remembrance that helps survivors begin to forget.
Of course, psychologists tell us that true forgetting is neither possible nor desirable. It’s how people remember, they say, that determines who, and if, survivors of trauma ever recover a sense of normalcy in their lives.
“There are some things that need to be forgotten as organizing principles in one’s current life,” says UCLA sociologist and psychoanalyst Jeffrey Prager. “The people who organize their lives around the memory of trauma can, in a sense, suffer from a failure of forgetting.”
German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger once attributed his country’s remarkable post-World War II recovery to a form of collective denial. “Insensibility,” he wrote in his essay, “Europe In Ruins,” “was the condition of their success.”
Three years ago, with the intifada raging, I spent a week in Israel asking everyone from cabdrivers to artists how they coped with the daily threat of terror. I was amazed by how many people simply fixated on their routine and played the odds: If I go to the mall at 4 o’clock today, what are the chances of my encountering a suicide bomber?
Even two trauma psychologists I interviewed in Tel Aviv declined to speculate about the long-term psychological and emotional effects of living with that kind of stress. They said they were too busy responding to the most recent crises.
Yet, as many people as there are who must be treated for the trauma of war, remarkably there are even more who recover on their own. While psychologists theorize about the origins of such resilience, they aren’t clear as to its precise ingredients. Harvard Medical School’s Judith L. Herman, one of the nation’s leading trauma experts, thinks it has something to with the quality of one’s attachments to others and an individual’s ability to balance the “desire to be silent and the need to scream from the rooftops.”
In his 1986 Nobel lecture, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke of this tension between memory and forgetting. He asked: “How are we to reconcile our supreme duty towards memory with the need to forget that is essential to life?”
If we only knew.
In the meantime, the fact that resilience happens, that victims of violence persevere, that some survivors can find that balance, offers a little consolation as we watch the horror unfold.