My mom said good bye to her day job last week. She’s a psychotherapist and had invited a Dutch professor, Dr. Ruart Ganzevoort, who talked about men, spirituality and trauma. (One of my moms specialties was working with men and lately, traumatized men). It was a very interesting lecture and brought home to me something that had somehow not quite registered: that my mother is interested in spirituality too. It really is a family trait.
As I said – a very interesting lecture. For instance, it seems that research has shown that men are likely to become less spiritual or religious after trauma, where women are likely to become more religious/spiritual. Ganzevoort’s theory was that this is because men become more independent and more closed up after trauma. Women too often close up after trauma, but they will become less independent as well – as a general rule. This is partly to do with what society expects of women versus men, of course. Religion tends to make people more social (=less independent) and more open. Which is generally what women do as well. That was the paradigm of the evening anyhow (and my summary of it, without taking notes – hope I got it right).
This means that traumatized men have a particularly hard time. They are less likely to be able to use spirituality as a support – yet when they’ve grown up religious, the religious imagery they grew up with will play a part in their way of dealing with stress whether they like it or not. Why? Because religion and sorrow are interlinked in any spiritual tradition.
Let’s go over a few religious traditions so you’ll see his point:
- Buddhism: Buddha left the safe haven of his childhood after having been faced with the truths of old-age, disease and death.
- Judaism: The main stories in Judaism are about the persecution of the Jews, how God has punished them and how they survived anyhow.
- Christianity: Jesus dies on the Cross, wondering why God has forsaken him.
- Islam: Muhammad overcomes his enemies.
- Hinduism: The Mahabharata is a story of war and family strife. The Bhagavad Gita confronts the eternal question: should one keep one’s hands clean or live in the world to do one’s duty?
- The American dream (aka The Secret): starting out poor and becoming rich through one’s own exertions.
I’m leaving out the theological explanations that make each of these stories palatable to the ordinary believer. That is perhaps one of the functions of religion: to make sorrow and adversity palatable in our day to day lives. But for people who have to face the deeper sorrows – loosing a child, surviving war, incest – these stories are not enough. In the stories there is always a happy end. Buddha finds enlightenment. The Jews will be saved at the end of time. Christ got resurected. Muhammed DID overcome his enemies. The war in the Mahabharata does end. Arjuna finds God. In the American dream the poor person DOES become rich. Those endings are what make the stories palatable. But for those living in poverty without a way out – the fact that some have overcome such things is not always enough. These stories can help one keep going, giving hope, but they can also make one bitter. Why didn’t God save ME?
This is the eternal existential question. In the west it has become crystallized in the question of Evil: if there is a Good All Powerful God, how come there is Evil? For those of us who don’t believe in a God outside creation, the question changes. But however the question is put – the facts of sorrow, of stress, of adversity and evil can’t be denied. For most of us it’s still possible to believe the universe in general a positive place. We trust we will not be run over by a car on our way to work. We trust that when we ask for directions, we will usually not be lied to. We need this trust. It makes it possible to act. But what if that basic trust gets violated? That’s the question people who have lived through trauma have to face. Religious cliché’s are not likely to help them – whether men or women.I guess that’s where therapy comes in.
[Most of the examples in this blogpost are rephrased from the lecture by Prof. Ganzevoort – just wanted to share]