08/13/2010 12:30 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Collective Trauma and Existential Anxiety

In my efforts over the last two decades to grasp the nature of emotional trauma (, I have shown that its essence lies in the shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life--the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable contingency of our existence on a universe that is unstable and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face to face with our existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats.

I describe our era as an Age of Trauma because the tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides--by global diminution of natural resources, by global warming, by global nuclear proliferation, by global terrorism, and by global economic collapse. These are forms of collective trauma in that they threaten to obliterate the basic framework with which we as members of our particular society have made sense out of our existence. They create a vague state of anxiety--an existential anxiety, about our own existence and the existence of all those whom we love.

My radio interview of 7/30/10 extends these ideas to an understanding of the impact of particular collective traumas, such as the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, catastrophic earthquakes, the Holocaust, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the context of global terrorism, and the BP oil spill: (