The Wisdom of Trauma – A Christian Review

Book Reviews, theology

The Wisdom of Trauma is a documentary produced by a nonprofit organization called, Science and Nonduality (SAND). SAND’s mission is inspired and informed by cutting edge science aimed at healing people through an understanding of the interconnectedness of our physical, social, spiritual, and creative wellbeing. The Wisdom of Trauma presents the work of Dr. Gabor Maté. Dr. Maté is a retired physician and infant Holocaust survivor of Socialist-occupied Hungary. His expertise ranges from addiction to stress and childhood trauma.

In this article, I will present a detailed overview of the content of The Wisdom of Trauma, with analysis of it’s themes in a Christian review.

The Wisdom of Trauma – A Christian Review

Overview

The film proposes trauma affects people in greater ways than previously thought. It also argues that “working through trauma can teach us so much wisdom, and can reveal the beauty of our existence, that because of our trauma we have lost.” In other words, despite the darkness brought by trauma, we can learn from it and transform ourselves and communities into something beautiful and productive. The intended audience of this film is anyone affected by trauma (either directly or indirectly). It also invites professionals to become trauma-informed to foster environments where healing can more easily take place.

Dr. Maté believes one major problem affecting wealthy societies across the world is trauma. It’s a zeitgeist, he says, and argues that trauma is the “template for virtually all afflictions, mental illness, [and] physical disease.”  He further proposes that “our traumatic responses and imprints are not ourselves [but] we can work them through and thus become ourselves.”

Dr. Maté believes we can solve the problem of trauma in society. We can maintain our societal advancements, technologies, and achievements. The film does not focus on who is to blame for trauma! Trauma is multi-generational, Dr. Maté explains. Trying to follow trauma backwards in order to find who’s culpable is a distraction. What matters is our awareness of it now, and our human capacity to empower ourselves toward healing. To do so, however, requires education concerning the effects trauma has on both individuals and communities.

“It’s through a dynamic emergent process of confrontation with the truth that solutions will arise. Trauma involves a lifelong pushing down, a tremendous expenditure of energy, into not feeling the pain. As we heal, that same energy is liberated for life and for being in the present. So the energy of trauma can be transformed into the energy of life.” Dr. Gabor Maté

Presentation:

What is trauma and why is it a zeitgeist?

According to Dr. Maté, trauma is the overwhelming threat you don’t know how to deal with. A common misconception is that trauma happens to you. Dr. Maté disagrees. He says “trauma is not the bad things that happen to you, but [is what] happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you.”

The terms ‘abuse’ and ‘trauma’ are often used interchangeably. This is mistaken. Abuse is something that happens to you. Neglect is something that happens to you. How your self imprints those experiences is trauma. This distinction is important because you can be traumatized without having been abused.

Why does Dr. Maté believe trauma is a zeitgeist. Zeitgeist is a general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.

According to the film, trauma is a zeitgeist because of the growing problems with health and well-being in wealthy regions around the world. According to the film, Roughly 1/5th of youth alone are diagnosed with anxiety. Mental health conditions in youth, like depression, and developmental problems like ADHD, are on the rise. Youth suicide saw it’s most recent zenith in 2020. In any given classroom, roughly 1 in 5 teens are likely thinking about suicide. 64% of prison inmates have six or more adverse childhood events. Trauma leads to addiction, both socially acceptable and not, to cope with our pain. Trauma is also (potentially) a root cause of physical disease, including cancer.

The film discusses Dr. Maté’s research into these claims. It seeks to persuade viewers that human health and well-being has been divorced from vital aspects essential to our being human. And that trauma is both symptomatic of that and widely prevalent.

Problems in our cultural apparatus

Parenting

Dr. Maté says children don’t get traumatized because they’re hurt. They get traumatized because they’re alone with their hurt. “You don’t need all the privations of war, racism, abuse, and violence for trauma to occur,” says Dr. Maté. “Just parents alienated from their own gut feelings in such a way that they would let their infants cry when that child is desperate for a relationship.”

An element of parenting often missed in our culture, is the role we play in regulating our child’s emotions. Many parenting methods intended to create independence instead traumatize children. This is one reason it’s important to understand the distinction between abuse and trauma. Parents who use these methods are not being abusive per se, but are unwittingly traumatizing their children. Traumatized children are not independent children. Only those who develop secure attachment can really be said to be independent. Secure attachment involves interdependence.

We often think of “bad” parents as those who are abusive, trapped in poverty and bad relationships. And we think of good parents as those who are financially stable and demand much from their kids. They have their children in every kind of activity, and push them for good grades in school, and have them apply to the best colleges. This can also be traumatizing according to Dr. Maté’s research. The film highlights some experiences of homeless people who grew up in wealthy and active families.

Relationships

Our childhood trauma inevitably manifests itself in our various relationships. Whether these relationships are romantic or platonic, we enact our worst fears. If we fear abandonment, then we do things which abandon ourselves or may abandon others.

The fear of abandonment, Dr. Maté says, is normal because human beings are social creatures. We’re meant to live in community with others and not be isolated. A fear of abandonment is a fear of isolation. The problem is not the fear per se, but in our response to it. Fear of abandonment is unhealthy when it results in destructive or sabotaging patterns.

Traumatized people may also fear love. If we fear love we will avoid self-love or have a distorted sense of it. In other words, we won’t see ourselves as worthy of love and so we neglect our needs. Or, we distort healthy self-love through narcissistic tendencies.

Childhood trauma often results in anxious or avoidant attachment instead of secure attachment. These patterns then develop in our various relationships, often nonconsciously.

Addiction

Dr. Maté explains that addiction is “any behavior that a person finds relief in the short term and craves, but suffers negative consequences and cannot give it up.” Anything – not just drugs or porn, but work and relationships can be addictive as well.

The reason people get addicted has nothing to do with disease and little to do with individual culpability, according to Dr. Maté. Addiction is an attempt to escape suffering. Dr. Maté emphasizes, it’s normal to want to escape suffering. That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with the addiction itself. On the contrary, Dr. Mate seeks to heal addictions.

The addictive vice, however, is a symptom of trauma. Some reasons given for addiction: self-esteem, freedom, connection. These aren’t bad things in themselves. But to heal the addiction, you have to heal the trauma. To heal the trauma, you have to know what caused the trauma and then work through the pain of that trauma. Though finding causes for your particular trauma are necessary for healing, blaming others is useless. Placing blame may satisfy the traumatized that they are not at fault for the trauma, and they do need to know this. But placing blame can become toxic in itself when it is the barrier to taking responsibility for the work of healing.

Problems in the state apparatus

Are we free? Dr. Maté says, “Insofar as we are not conscious, we are not free.” Are we making decisions based on full awareness or non-conscious responses from childhood trauma?

“Our society rewards grandiose, cunning, and aggression with power.” Those people who rise to the top “are shut off from their humanity. They’re the ones that set the rules, and they’re the ones that often control the funding.” Dr. Mate. That politics and materialism are getting worse overtime is a manifestation of societal trauma. Could it be that the political chaos manifesting in our culture today is a direct consequence of the reciprocal nature of trauma, human action, and culture?

Schools

Teachers and curriculum are not trauma-informed, and they contribute to the trauma by ever increasing the pressure on children to perform. School funding is based on test performance. This is supposed to pressure teachers to perform, but since it’s the kids who are taking the tests, kids are on the hook to prove teacher performance. The quality of national education rests squarely on the shoulders of children.

Criminal Justice

There’s a disconnect in the minds of criminals between their culpability for their actions and personal responsibility. This is not to say that criminals shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Rather, the system incentivizes criminals to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Childhood trauma reveals more; not to remove responsibility but to give proper context to the action taken. In doing so, convicted criminals can actually turn their life around.

Juvenile Justice is worse! The Juvenile Justice System magnifies childhood trauma. This explains why underage offenders can’t get out of “the system” once they’re in. They’re introduced to a system wherein their own trauma, likely being the cause landing them in the system, is then magnified by the system. The system reinforces all the adverse childhood events and deepens the trauma-wound. It’s “worse than oblivious” according to Dr. Maté.

Medical Establishment

The state sanctions an established medical bureaucracy. This bureaucracy divorces the biological aspects of health from the social, emotional, relational, and spiritual aspects of health. This effective monopoly of healthcare, results in a materialistic view of the individual wherein people are seen merely as automatons. One methodology of medicine is permitted, and its sacrosanct.

And that’s not to say that allopathic medicine per se is a problem. It’s a monopolistic administration of it that’s a major problem. One of several examples Dr. Maté offers is in the field of dermatology. Steroids are often prescribed for various sorts of ailments caused by stress. But steroidal medications are copies of cortisol, which is itself a stress hormone. So we treat stress with more stress.

Racism

Racism through the lens of trauma makes so much more sense. Understanding trauma as multigenerational and so the felt effects of the past manifest today, makes sense.  The problem of systemic racism from the perspective of critical race theory seems antithetical to the presentation of racism in this film.

The key difference between understanding racism as trauma instead of through CRT is the lack of blame-shifting and the emphasis on healing. CRT focuses on blame and perpetuating racial trauma through theories of white culpability. However, understanding racism through the lens of trauma emphasizes:

    • increasing knowledge and general awareness for trauma in ourselves and others, and
    • self-empowerment of the traumatized to heal.

Though the film’s producers undoubtedly desire you to hear the lived experiences of those affected by racism, they don’t seek to be retributive in resolving these problems. In one of the special presentations offered during the debut week of The Wisdom of Trauma, was a dual interview of two Native American women in New Mexico.

One woman named, Woman Stands Shining (a.k.a. Pat McCabe), answered a question from Dr. Maté about how to not stay angry all the time. Woman Stands Shining explains her anger towards white people for about two years. She says she had to experience the rage for the Spanish Conquistadors who killed her ancestors at Canyon de Chelly.

What she learned was that “if there’s any rage (and sorrow) to be had, it’s for all of us to have.” She explains that there is one race and we all exist together regardless of our ethnic and cultural backgrounds. “We can’t separate anyone out. ‘Mother earth’ only acknowledges humanity as a single species. There’s no, ‘Oh great the Apaches are doing great over here, but you Swedes are totally blowing it. So you’re out!'” Woman Stands Shining says she can now say without a doubt that she believes in “equality of the races.”

This is what I’ve learned from my own experience in becoming aware of what Native Americans have endured. Listen to their stories! Just acknowledge them. Recognize their humanity and the pain they’ve endured. Don’t look at it as an indictment of racial supremacy, but of the evil we’re all capable of. There’s no sense in self-loathing, blame-shifting, or self-flagellation. There’s no sense in acknowledging so-called white fragility. I never had to hate who I was and where I came from, in order to acknowledge what happened to Native Americans and to demand an end to the systems that perpetuate their pain.

Why is there wisdom in trauma? Because we can turn our own traumatic imprints into something that can be used to help others do the same with their trauma. It doesn’t deal with the blame – or the cause – because we get a causal regression that goes back in time to the first trauma. It allows us to move forward, and heal.

Challenging paradigms & a non-reductionist, non-dualistic approach to healing

We don’t respond to what happens; we respond to our perception of what happens. Of all possible interpretations of our perception, we automatically default to the worst one. This is negativity bias. This goes back to childhood trauma – we’re responding to our past.

A traumatized person may believe others have a negative view of them, but really, it’s our projection of our self that is so negative. If we always see that other people are the cause, then we are victims and helpless. If we understand that we’re the source of negative bias, then we are no longer victims, but very powerful because that means we have the power to change.

Trauma is multi-generational so finding a culpable person is moot. If a child is traumatized by a parent, it’s because the parent was traumatized by their parent, and so on. This doesn’t negate the responsibility we have to stop doing trauma-inducing things once we’re made aware of them, or of the individual to heal. Instead, it reorients the context of the trauma in relation to what a person must do to heal – away from victim mentality, and toward victor mentality.

Dr. Maté says we have two fundamental needs as human beings: attachment and authenticity. Attachment develops in infancy, and is absolutely non-negotiable. Adults can learn healthy attachment, it just takes more effort. Authenticity is to connect to our true self and gut instinct. “By meeting people where they’re at and treating them like human beings and not trying to change them actually opens up the possibility of transformation for them.” In other words, we cannot make others change by forcing conformity to outward behaviors. Instead, if we accept all that a person is now, it manifests an opportunity to make real and lasting changes themselves away from destructive patterns of behavior.

Trauma-informed culture

To be trauma-informed, doesn’t mean that you know how to spot abuse or trauma in others. It means you see that underneath that traumatized persona there’s a healthy individual who’s never found expression in this life. It’s not so much about healing (although you do heal) or ridding yourself of memories of what happened, but to help the traumatized person expand so there is space for all the emotions.

Holistic medicine

Probably, most people reading will read the term “holistic” and cringe. This term is often associated with “quackery” or some kind of fake medicine. But what this documentary emphasizes is the whole human being. Human beings are not reducible! And therefore our health (and thus our healthcare) cannot be reducible to any given single characteristic or factor. The conventional system reduces healthcare to the biological. And though medicine has made great strides in this kind of health care, it has neglected or failed to answer health care from our mental, spiritual, and creative needs.

So to be holistic in healthcare means to take health and well-being on the whole, to include and consider the non-reductive nature of human beings. Holistic healthcare is that which considers the whole person as non-reducible and dynamically integrated. To heal trauma, we must understand that it has multiple causes. It involves multiple factors and dimensions of experience, and the road to healing is not also not singular in approach. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, but does involves more than the biological aspect of the whole person.

Identity

What’s the prognosis for trauma? How do we heal? Dr. Maté insists that a healthy expression of the identity of the self is the healing salve for the wound of trauma. Trauma silences the true self – pushing it aside so that your true identity doesn’t find expression. Healing from trauma means helping the true self find expression. This requires work to heal, and though we don’t get rid of our trauma, by developing our identity, we give our true self a means of expression. That true self learns from our suffering and is able to transform it into something beautiful and beneficial to others.

Analysis:

Dr. Maté says at the beginning of this documentary, that our job as humans is to learn from our suffering. As Christians, we (should) understand why suffering exists in the first place. Sin is the ultimate cause of suffering, however, this is no reason not to take trauma seriously. But American Evangelicalism has largely lost sight of this. In turn, a myriad of unbiblical teachings that ignore or even contribute to trauma exists even within the church. But Scripture also says that we learn from our suffering so that we may comfort others.

2 Corinthians 1:4 [the] God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

So, Christians have this in common with what this documentary has to say about trauma: we are supposed to learn from our suffering so that we can connect with others.

Reassurance

Dr. Mate discusses the necessity of human relationship, especially from the perspective of early childhood. Reassurance is something that should be offered to us by our parents, caretakers, and other relationships to varying degrees. One thing I’ve noticed is the resistance among some Christians to offer reassurance in their relationships. But it occurs to me, that one major reason why Christian orthodoxy emphasizes preaching the Gospel from the pulpit every week, and not deviate from the Gospel, is because human beings are wired to need reassurance.  If the Fall resulted in the first trauma, then that traumatic imprint reverberates throughout history.

Roughly 125 times in Scripture, God tells us not to fear. Some Christians interpret this as a command that we must obey, but it seems more like this is an offer of reassurance that fear is unnecessary because of God’s love for us. But no where in Scripture does God appear to tire from offering us reassurance. So part of the community of the body of Christ, will necessarily involve offering each other reassurances that we are safe and loved.

“Confrontation with the truth …”

“It’s through a dynamic emergent process of confrontation with the truth that solutions will arise. Trauma involves a lifelong pushing down, a tremendous expenditure of energy, into not feeling the pain. As we heal, that same energy is liberated for life and for being in the present. So the energy of trauma can be transformed into the energy of life.” Dr. Gabor Maté

This quote is striking! Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, who has inspired innumerable men to change themselves, has been calling for essentially the same thing. Start telling the truth! Rachel Denhollander has been calling for the truth in the case of Larry Nassar. Aimee Byrd has been calling for the truth to come out about spiritual abuse in the church. And these are just a handful of examples. But the common theme here is that confrontation with the truth is the first step to finding solutions for a very real problem: trauma.

But Dr. Maté’s quote is striking for another reason: “As we heal, that same energy is liberated for life and for being in the present. So the energy of trauma can be transformed into the energy of life.”

Shortly after my divorce, I found myself thumbing through quotes on Pinterest. Only a handful stuck with me, and this was one of them: “don’t be afraid of your story, it will inspire others.”

Why does God allow us to suffer? This is a major question which often prompts people to leave the faith. I don’t think God “allows” us to suffer. I think sin causes our suffering (trauma), and God shows us the practical remedy for suffering (trauma) by giving us comfort and then telling us to share that comfort with others.

2 Corinthians 1:4 [the] God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction (read: trauma) so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Several other passages affirm this, Ps. 86:17; Is. 12:1; Is 49:10; Is 51:3; Is 66:13; Jn 14:16-26; 2 Cor 7:6-7 and others.

Some Christians reading this might think that since Dr. Maté is not a Christian, that we cannot learn anything true from him. I disagree. Though we must be careful to not dogmatize science, it’s none the less a process of discovery – discovering the truths of God’s creation. And God has written truths into the fabric of reality to stand as a witness to Him, even to non-believers. Non-believers can discern truth to some degree. There are some areas where I’d say Dr. Maté fall short, the primary one being that any religious belief is suitable for addressing spiritual health. This, of course, I would disagree with Dr. Maté on.

Dr. Maté does explore Shamanism as one route to spiritual healing. Part of the reason for this is to demonstrate the medicinal benefits of psychedelics, which Shamans in various parts of the world already use in their religious practices. Though Christians shouldn’t pursue Shamanism for spiritual healing, the scientific evidence supporting psychedelics as a treatment, might be worth taking seriously were it uncoupled from religious practice. But more to the point, I think, is the necessity of spiritual wellbeing in the Christian life and it’s relation to the health of the whole person. Moreover, attempts to coerce Christian belief and culture on people for the sake of their well-being is also not an answer. You can’t force healing anymore than you can force faith.

A non-reductionist philosophy allows for us to accept and embrace the dynamic complexity of the world, of society, of groups, and of individuals. Understanding this helps mitigate the problems that arise from reductionist views that oversimplify, overgeneralize, and even misdiagnose problems. Reductionist worldviews inevitably lead to toxic prognoses and prescriptions for how to respond to what ails us.

American Evangelicals tend toward “confronting others with the truth …” but fail to realize that it is the individual who must confront themselves with the truth. 1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5; Gal 6:4 to name a few.

The ‘other’ orientation of the Evangelical brand of confrontation means we cannot solve our problems. Solving problems starts with us dealing with ourselves, not dealing with others. It’s only through dealing with ourselves that we can come to have healthy relationships with others. So even when we’re speaking about how to deal with someone else’s problems, the solution is to start by dealing with our own. This holds true for every other aspect of life, and that’s one of the points the documentary is attempting to make.

This, by the way, does not mean stay in abusive relationships and fix yourself to fix your abuser. It means, you take care of yourself by leaving the abusive situation.

Christians calling attention to the problems of authoritarian parenting, culturally traditional gender roles in marriage, singleness, lack of friendships, porn addiction, and spiritual manipulation and neglect by church leaders, all point to (without realizing it) how the zeitgeist of trauma is directly affecting the body of Christ!

Abuse vs Neglect vs Trauma

Though Scripture doesn’t use these terms, the concepts are certainly there. And we have categories for them. Abuse? Sins of commission. Neglect? Sins of omission. Trauma, as I’ve already explained, I think could be said to be the real manifestation of the effects of sin on people.

How does the body of Christ deal with trauma? How does the institutional church deal with trauma?

If Christians fail to understand trauma more generally, then we will never understand the egregiousness of some of the worst causes of trauma: sexual abuse, domestic and institutional violence by the state, and military combat.

How we view and deal with addiction, depression, anxiety, ADHD, emotional processing, hormonal imbalances, postpartum depression, and so many others is a reflection of how Christian institutions view trauma. Many Christians want to turn to Nouthetic Counseling (misappropriately dubbed “biblical counseling”). There are plenty of resources available to explain why Nouthetic Counseling is not helpful, even contributing to these problems. But, at the very least, Christians need to have a conversation about trauma and get it right!

(I do not believe that the Christian anti-abuse community is on the right track with this. They’re focus is on justice, and though justice is a necessary element to certain kinds of abuse or neglect, justice is not what solves and heals trauma.)

Why identity matters

The concept of identity has become very important to me because it’s been a part of my healing process. And until I saw this documentary, I did not understand why. But my intuition was screaming that identity matters and Christians must develop a more robust understanding so that the church really can be a place where we can heal.

Identity should not be a vague platitude as we often get in devotional expressions of our “identity in Christ.” If we have an identity in Christ, then there is transcendence between Christ’s identity and our interaction with the world. When Christians talk about identity, I think they get scared. Especially given the nature of so-called “identity politics.” And so pastors and theologians just stick with the safest thing: remind believers that they are “identified with Christ,” and let everyone sort out the details. That probably is the best thing pastors could do, but leaving it there is ultimately a source of frustration. Because any attempts by non-Christians to develop a concept of identity is met with criticism from the church, even very harsh vitriol. Just the concept of self-care or self-love has been controversial.

But if our God, in Christ, truly holds all things together, then that means God’s existence impacts our existence. And if Christ, through the Holy Spirit, dwells in us, then that means Christ’s presence in us must impact our presence. And if we are transformed, regenerated, sanctified, and called to love one another as Christ has, then the only reasonable conclusion is that Christians must have an authentic individual identity. One that incorporates the manifestations of essential doctrines of the faith like the Imago Dei, Regeneration, Sanctification, Christian Conscience and Liberty, Vocation, and others.

I highly recommend viewing The Wisdom of Trauma. I think it’s a missing piece to a complex puzzle. And could be a source for positive change in our hurting world. It will obviously have some things that are challenging for some Christians to hear. Both in terms of religious practice (eg. Shaminism) that we should reject, but also in terms of parenting practices, which Christians broadly (I think) need to re-evaluate. On the whole, I don’t think the message is antithetical to Christian orthodoxy, and in fact, I think it’s probably the most loving presentation of the reasons why so-called “Christian culture” is not always Christian – or right.

How Useful Was This?

Do you have any feedback, suggestions, or questions about this page?

abusechurchfaithjustitiallovetrauma

Kerry Baldwin

independent researcher, author

B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

bitcoin

bc1qz0jz965ndescwuwsecyrgmr0l5js442w7g4860

ethereum

0xE185Bb3db61C40E3B09EF1a7479e31C0A23a617E