Monday, September 24, 2012

Victim mentality

Christopher Coker in The Warrior Ethos (London, UK: Routledge, 2007, p. 102) wrote, “Indeed, our predisposition to regard soldiers as victims encourages them to exaggerate their own vulnerability to emotional and psychological stress. Warriors, like the rest of us, are only human.”

I do not know to what extent the apparent – apparent because of insufficient and imprecise reporting in previous wars – increase in the number of U.S. armed forces personnel returning from Afghanistan or Iraq suffering from some form or degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a function of better reporting or our society encouraging the military to regard themselves as victims. However, American society increasingly encourages all of its members to view themselves as potential victims with multiple vulnerabilities. The litigiousness of Americans is a similar, and also unfortunate, expression of this developing victim mentality.

Before I progress further, let me hasten to add an essential caveat. I am not advocating that people adopt an artificial façade of invulnerability that admits no possibility of psychological or emotional injury. Such a façade is entirely false and impossible to maintain in all circumstances. Such a façade also tends to form cold, unfeeling personalities that preclude an individual experiencing the fullness and happiness that are intrinsic to living abundantly.

Ironically, a naïve, widely held, and superficial version of this false façade, and therefore one that exacerbates rather than minimizes victimization, presupposes that being a twenty-first century American means that one should be immune from all potential threats and harms. This implicitly abdicates accepting personal responsibility when things go wrong, as evident in the successful lawsuit against McDonalds by a person who spilled hot coffee when driving a vehicle with a cup of McDonalds’ coffee sitting between their legs.

Yet sometimes we are genuine victims. The story is told of a Jew standing by a rabbi in one of the concentration camps, compulsorily watching a fellow inmate being flogged to death. He asked the rabbi why it always seemed to be the lot of the Jew to be the victim of such persecution. The rabbi replied: “In this camp, where you can only be a victim or a perpetrator, we should be proud we are the victims.” That story emphasizes it is better not to be a victim but that sometimes being a victim is unavoidable.

That creative tension should characterize all of us, but especially warriors and others who frequently go into harm’s way or who routinely face trauma, e.g., first responders and emergency room workers. People in all of these situations need the strength and resilience that comes from imagining one to be invulnerable. But they also need the watchful attention of a caring community to discern when that strength and resilience have failed and the person has become a victim.

Warriors returning from previous wars did so with explicit medical intervention. This was especially difficult for Vietnam era vets who one day would be facing real threats in Vietnam and the next day be home in the States. Veterans from other wars had typically had long journeys home, permitting them ample time to tell stories to one another, storytelling that facilitated decompressing and healing.

U.S. warriors returning from Afghanistan and Iraq typically participate in a series of interviews and group sessions designed to encourage storytelling for decompression and healing and to identify those individuals with more serious problems. Practitioners (mental health professionals and chaplains, among others) must be careful not to create the impression that everybody suffers from post-combat trauma. Psychological injuries are real and widespread but only a minority suffers from them.

Contrary to popular opinion, suffering is compatible with the abundant life:

"In Christianity's second millennium, Jesus as an abused and innocent victim, hanging dead on the cross, would become the image of holiness. But for a time - for nearly a thousand years - Christianity offered a different image of sanctity: the glory of God was humanity fully alive." (Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 202)

The rabbi in the concentration camp who counseled his fellow prisoner about being victims, like the suffering Jesus portrayed in the gospels, exemplifies making the most of one’s situation, living as abundantly as circumstances permit in spite of suffering over which one has no control. They rejected a victim mentality – until it became the path of living more abundantly. This is true happiness, human flourishing rooted in being fully alive rather than transient and fleeting pleasures.


Gary (NJ) said...

My partner is the head of Veterans' Services at a local university and apparently the more high tech and destructive nature of modern warfare and the almost constant state of high alert stress that it causes is one of the reasons for the high number of PTSD cases which results in about 1 veteran death by suicide every 80 minutes in this country.

A while back, I made a joke to a lawyer about the woman who sued for the hot coffee in the lap and the lawyer told me that that coffee was so hot that it actually melted the fabric of her clothing and caused 3rd and 4th degree burns on her legs. I was humbled. She had every right to sue and win big.

George Clifford said...

With respect to the hot coffee. I'm confident that it was not under pressure and must therefore have been less than 212 degrees Farenheit, and probably much less than that if the hot coffees that I purchase are indicative. Third and fourth degree burns cause considerable discomfort but are from life threatening, and treated with simple first aid. In other words, I think the woman should be responsible for her actions and did not have a legitimate claim against McDonalds.
The constant high alert stress that military personnel experience in Afghanistan and Iraq do seem directly linked to an increase in PTSD cases. The rate of veteran suicide is tragic and represents an unpaid obligation from the nation to its vets.

Gary (NJ) said...

Not to belabor this, but 3rd degree burns cause blistering and 4th degree burns destroy the entire epidermis and require serious medical intervention; first aid won't cut it. She would have been at serious risk of infection and discomfort hardly describes it. I burned my thighs a few years ago from hot tea right off the stove and it was extremely painful. I had to go to the hospital and get a prescription creme for it. Maybe that's why I feel more empathy for her.

George Clifford said...

Thanks for the correction on the burns; I was wrong. Nonetheless, although I feel sympathy for her injurying herself, it seems she is responsible for the injury - unless the cup was somehow defective. Placing a hot beverage between one's legs does not seem to be a very judicious move.