Here’s an absolutely extraordinary letter from a reader:
I am writing you because three years ago, I was almost murdered. (Yes, I know that’s a grim topic, but trauma can still bring insight nonetheless. Please if you use this email, keep my name anonymous as it is my email. ). Three years ago at the age of 24, I was almost beat to death in a bar in the town where I went to college. My entire face was broken. All of it, essentially. The best example to illustrate the damage that I can give is crushing wet cubes of ice to bits. My attacker got a light felony sentence: two months in jail.
The injury caused severe nerve pain. I was on a serious concoction of a myriad of different opioids- including morphine for around a year. I stopped taking the pills because my body was starting to fail: I was unable to defecate or urinate and nearly lost my ability to breathe. The morphine withdrawals were far far far far far worse than nearly getting murdered and far more horrifying because of the complete social isolation of the trauma. Simply put when you have opioid withdrawals you do so alone; you go out to the fields away from the herd to die alone because nobody cares to know what’s happening. Luckily, I was able to survive that as well with the help of God whose presence I felt when I was vomiting and puking my brains during the withdrawals. Later, I was able to forgive my attacker because of God working in me.
I spent two years unable to maintain full time work due to trigmenial neuralagia which is a severe type of nerve pain. Why this even matters is because when you become down and out- a modern leper if you will- you learn a great deal about the state of man and society writ large. This letter is one of despair, not in God’s plan, but in the societal and cultural black hole emerging. I wish to discuss a few themes: let down and how to respond when you’re wronged.
Currently America is in a state of pure shock and has no hope to latch onto because we have abandoned all societal networks. All I see in our society is only despair and trembling. There is no hope for the system, most people have long ago abandoned. There is no hope in the dreams of most Americans. The christian notion of pain or suffering being redemptive is long gone from most, pain, instead, has become an object of derision. There is no presumption that pain has a higher telos or end, it’s simply something to be avoided and reduced for the individual that encounters it. This absence of finding meaning in pain has profound consequences for society writ large. First off, the stock response to pain or let down or any type of hardship has become to lash out in moral superiority-e.g. the Sanders campaign or Trump whenever someone says something marginally truthful about their campaigns.
Case in point our current political elections. The main trope the two remaining populist candidates have been hammering day in and day out for the last year is: you got screwed and now is the hour of discontent by any means necessary. To Trump, and for that matter Sanders, the only prerogative is simply to scream- I’ve been wronged-and expect the whole world to meet your every demand. Both Trump and Sanders are constantly at war with their own nation demanding outrageous things for past wrongs that the system can’t deliver.
One of the lessons that I learned during my time in the wilderness was how foreign trauma and catastrophe are to a large portion of the nation and for others how it is an everyday fact of their existence. More and more the latter group is growing unable to articulate completely and fully the extent to which they have been wrong because they have no communal language to do so. That is largely gone. The only language we have in America to address pain and suffering is how to reduce it; obviously in and out it self this is not a bad thing, but it presupposes that nothing can be gained from pain and hardship. That when you die from cancer, you simply cease to be. That you get shot, even if terribly, there is no good that can come out of it. This believe, that I see growing, that pain can never bring anything good or redemptive is likely to grow and accelerate in dominating the social, cultural, political, and what’s left of the religious landscape for decades to come.
Now to the second part. How do ought America respond to let down? This is a lesson that I first saw in action Spain and secondly in my life. I lived in Spain for about 3 months after I graduated from college in 2012. What I saw in Spain was an economy and a society in far worse shape than America ever has be en: 30% unemployment, high inflation, a receding economy. What shocked me the most however was how most Spaniards responded to the economic crisis-or La Crisis en espanol. Their response had little to do with the total despair that has invaded America. Their response was shocking because it seemed that their world around them was falling apart but many still were good Catholics and Europeans, still filled with hope of a better tomorrow. I have this picture of their demeanor still in my head: imagine the world falling apart, blowing up around you, and all you do in response is to go to Cafe at 6pm, talk to your friends and engage with what’s left your community. There was a certain patience with suffering that most Spaniards that I feel is missing in America.
My host mother told me in Spanish about how terrible the Spanish Civil War in the 20th century was and all the pain it brought to the country. Most of the elder adults have a clear and distinct memory of el Generalissmo Franco. The cultural memory of the last century lessened the blows of the crisis. There was a long lasting patience that most had with their situation that is missing in America. I learned a ton from my time in Spain. Especially how to wait. Time moves slower in Spanish speaking countries. Life isn’t filled with the hustle and bustle of America. They focus on the immediate: friends, family, and faith and community. Engaging with the immediate helped me endure a crisis of my own. Learning to be patient with the slowness of time taught me not to give up hope. Seeing Spaniards cope with the implosion of their society gave me a rubric to deal with my life imploding for a few years.
Americans and America need to learn how to deal with pain. If you respond to pain and trauma the wrong way, which I think we are, it can poison your soul and your life. I believe this is happening to our country. Hopefully this won’t be a long term trend. Letting go of resentment is a key to survival after betrayal and let down. America must do this if we are to prosper.
I can add nothing to this testimony except: Thank you.
Well, I have one thing to add: when American Christianity repents of its therapeutic heresies, and learns once again how to suffer patiently, communally, and in love, maybe we will have something to teach the broader society.