PTSD Spirituality: Can PTSD Enhance Empathy, Guilt, Hopelessness?

This PTSD Spirituality essay examines the following question: What if the PTSD allowed your mind to think in esoteric form and heightened empathy to where the weight of the world is on your shoulders and everyone’s pain makes you feel guilty and hopeless all the time?

Earlier we covered some necessary background to take on these questions.  Namely, could self-inflicted trauma lead to PTSD-induced moments of ecstasy or mysticism?  In summary: inauthentic trauma, that is trauma done for the purpose of attaining a mystical experience, will fail to provide an authentic mystical experience.  This is true if one approaches the topic from a Christian theological perspective, or if one views it in terms of shamans and shamanism and the appropriate categories of religious anthropology.  Neither God nor your soul can be mechanically manipulated.

Questions of Redemptive Suffering and Sanctification

The question of can PTSD heighten our empathy so we will feel “the weight of the world,” and then acquire a sense of guilt and hopelessness from the pain experienced by others, is a relevant question give the recent tidal wave of PTSD.   This will be true whether one experienced the PTSD-producing trauma as a civilian or while in military service.

At a deeper level this question asks us about redemptive suffering, enhanced awareness, despair, and compassion.  Each of these can be elements of our sanctification journey.

The sanctification journey is a lifelong path where we try to learn and live holiness and perfection.  Every person is on this path if they know it or not, everything we think and do propels us closer to perfection and holiness, or it allows us to fade away into the ant-virtue of egotism and self-worship.   And, egotism and self-worship is the absence of God; in other words, Hell.  As has been said by others, Hell is the absence of God.

Ideally, our sanctification journey is where the our four right relationships with God, Our Self, Our Communities, and the Creation, become ever more perfect.  If these relationships deteriorate then we become alienated from the four relationships.  If the positive relationships go to zero and the person is fully alienated, then we are not surprised (but still sorrowful) if they then engage in self-harm or suicide

There is a part of the sanctification journey where one feels the pain of sin upon the Creation and also on other human beings.  The sin may be our own sins and/or the sins of others. Part of the repentance process is to understand how one’s own sin has not only harmed us ourselves, but how our sin has harmed others, harmed the Creation, and has disappointed God.  In the shamanic journey something similar also happens, but the vocabulary is more anthropological than theological.

If one is afflicted with PTSD it is not unusual to start to feel heightened concern or even guilt for what is harming others in the world.  Why is this?

PTSD often makes us feel too much or not feel anything at all.  PTSD pushes us to the extremes and tries to destroy all elements of trust and any relationship.

Sometimes we may feel too much and it seems as if every bit of bad news was our doing and as if we are responsible – even though we had absolutely nothing to do with it.

We will intellectually know we are not guilty or responsible.  But yet, our PTSD makes us feel responsible deep inside.  True, this can also occur with no PTSD background at all.  But when PTSD is factored in, the feelings of unnecessary guilt and responsibility are magnified.

This enhanced sensitivity can lead one to feelings of hopelessness or the temptation to despair.  If the individual thinks they must fix it all on their own, then they will despair.  If they realize they need a higher power and the community to fix things, then they will survive and thrive.

If a person’s PTSD soul wound is severe enough then they are very susceptible to despair.  They see no hope for themselves, or others, or the Creation. 

They may eventually choose to despair because it can be harder to hope than to despair.

Some of us are thrust into despair unwittingly due to our traumatic soul wound and our lack of understanding of how to deal with it or how to ultimately heal from it.  Some of us choose to enter despair as it is an easier path, less work: Some of us are sucked into despair and others jump in head first.  Hope, after all,  is a muscle and it needs daily exercise.

The dimensions of heightened concern and empathy can be exercised and grow into one of two paths.  The heightened concern that the PTSD soul wound may generate can lead one to a path of despair or to a path of compassion.  As mentioned before, it is easier to despair than it is to be compassionate.

Hope and compassion require us to maintain an awareness for the well-being of others, especially those who are worse off than we are in terms of spirituality, economics, and physical health.  In Catholic theology this pathway of compassion often manifests as the preferential option for the poor.  Wealthy people usually disavow this theology because it means they would have to give up some of their material wealth to benefit others who are often of different skin color or social status than they are.  People who are rabidly against the preferential option for the poor usually spend very little time studying the Old Testament Prophets, the Gospel of Luke, or the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles…the loss remains theirs.

Some trauma inflicted soul wounds make us feel the pain and suffering of others more acutely than we would have done before.

The redemptive suffering aspect of the soul wound is that we may become more aware of how others suffer.

We then must choose between:

a) Surrendering to despair and lethargy, or

b) Developing our compassion for humanity and the Creation.

Depending on how we are doing we may oscillate between despair and compassion.

In Sum: Is it a Life Sentence?

We ought not to feel too surprised when we find ourselves being more sensitive to situations we used to be indifferent to.  Those who care for those with PTSD should not be too surprised when a PTSD sufferer wants to steer clear of activities which they used to enjoy.  I don’t watch too many war movies these days, and I don’t play modern warfare style video games.  The experiences depicted in them are not my own, but now, due to my PTSD I am too sensitive to them, same with crying or distressed babies.  Those who care about us need to give us some space where we don’t have to embrace things that we are currently too sensitive about.  If we are to heal, then we need some space to heal.

Heightened sensitivity and empathy can go in and out like the tide.  When we are closer to one of my PTSD anniversary dates, I tend to be more sensitive.  I have to take better care of myself and allow my wife to help me.

As with all things related to PTSD, we need to make assessments of how we are doing.  How sensitive are we to triggers?  How sensitive are we to the suffering of others?  How guilty do we feel – even when we know we have no reason to be?

Eventually we will find a happy – or at least tolerable – medium.  We need neither be at the extreme of feeling nothing, nor the other extreme of feeling every single thing.  Over time as we learn more about our PTSD, learn more about who we are at our authentic core, we will be better equipped to live in right relationships with God, Our Self, Our Communities, and even the Creation itself.

We are never without hope.  There is always hope if we take risk and let it be there with us.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z  (The next essay will deal with the question of What if because of the pain it allowed you to have premonitions?)

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