On the second of July we said goodbye to Elie Wiesel, one of the greatest humanitarians of our time. Born 30 September 1928 in Romania, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel bore witness to the “haunted universe” of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His harrowing experience as a teenager is recounted in Night. Translated into 30 languages and selling over 10 million copies, Night is about remembering: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”
Memory is really one of the most magical capabilities of the mind; it is vital to identity and brings meaning to our lives. But traumatic experiences can breed memories that we wish we could forget. What happens then?
1. Trauma disrupts our equilibrium: From the Holocaust to the eruption of violence at a peaceful protest in Dallas to ongoing stress due to chronic illness, traumatic experiences can lead to upsetting emotions, frightening memories, and increased sense of danger. Traumatic experiences can also (or alternatively) leave you feeling numb, disconnected and unable to trust other people. The more frightened and helpless you felt at the time of exposure, the more likely you are to wind up feeling traumatized.
2. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are the mental health conditions that most commonly emerge in the wake of traumatic experiences. In a way, they are different manifestations of remembering the trauma and not being able to constructively or fully metabolize the painful memories.
3. There is help available if you or someone you know is suffering from a traumatic experience. It’s really important to get the right treatment since the wrong treatment can actually wind up being re-traumatizing and leave you feeling worse off. It is common to want to withdraw when we feel overwhelmed by depression, anxiety or PTSD, but isolation typically makes things worse.
4. Trauma can spread. This is called “secondary trauma” and can happen when you feel traumatized by someone else’s experience. For example, secondary trauma is a major consideration for first responders who are called on to assist in many traumatic situations. Young children are also at particular risk for secondary trauma because their emotional maturity may limit their capacity to understand and cope with the traumatic stress they experience vicariously. Widespread postings on social media of recent events like the Youtube videos of the murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul can also dramatically increase the risk of secondary trauma for many individuals.
5. Remembering traumatic events can be extremely painful. Certainly that was true for Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, this is true for the peaceful protesters in Dallas and the crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice. Columbia University scientist, Christine Denny, can actually manipulate the brains (of mice) to turn memories on and off. Wow. I know there have been times when remembering has caused me so much anguish that I wished she could have put one of her futuristic electrodes in my brain, too.
But Elie Wiesel knew that forgetting is not healing. It is true for each of us individually; it is true for us collectively. And so as we remember Wiesel for his courage to remember, let us take up the mantle of remembering and find our way to healing in the wake of the recent traumatic events of our day.