Two interweaving themes crystallized in the course of my investigations of emotional trauma (RD Stolorow, Trauma and Human Existence, Routledge, 2007). One pertains to trauma's context-embeddedness: Painful emotional experiences become enduringly traumatic in the absence of relationships in which they can be understood and held. The second pertains to the recognition that trauma is built into the basic structure of our existence: In virtue of our finitude and the finitude of all those with whom we are deeply connected, the possibility of emotional trauma constantly impends and is ever-present.
How can it be that emotional trauma is so profoundly context-dependent and, at the same time, is built into our existence itself? An answer to this question can be found in the realization that just as finitude in the form of death and loss is fundamental to our existence, so too is it defining of our existence that we meet each other as siblings in the same darkness, deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finitude. Thus, although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever-present, so too is the possibility of forming bonds of mutual understanding in which devastating emotional pain can be held and better endured.
I have claimed that our emotional kinship-in-finitude has significant ethical implications insofar as it motivates us, or even obligates us, to care about and for our brothers' and sisters' existential vulnerability and pain. Imagine a society in which the obligation to provide understanding for others' emotional pain has become a shared ethical principle. In such a societal context, human beings would be much more capable of owning and living in their existential anxiety, rather than having to revert to the grandiose, destructive evasions of it that have been so characteristic of human history.
A disastrous example of such destructiveness was the Bush administration's taking America to war against Iraq in an attempt to cover over the feelings of terror, vulnerability, and powerlessness spawned by the attack on the World Trade Center. Our need for a context of mutual understanding to hold our vulnerability and anxiety is in the foreground once again in virtue of the collective trauma inflicted by the current economic crisis. President Obama has shown that he has an acute grasp of this need. If we can help one another bear the darkness, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.