In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, child psychiatrist Bruce Perry recounts lessons he’s learned over the years from working with children who have experienced severe trauma in their lives. In the first chapter, he describes an early experience with a young girl who had been sexually abused over a long period of time. This young girl’s behavior was (understandably) significantly inappropriate, and Perry worked with this girl over the course of three years, trying to impart to her the skills and habits for life that she hadn’t been taught. And though some progress was made, Perry ultimately concluded that his work remained rather superficial and that the trauma this little girl had experienced had significantly changed her brain, distorting her sense of what normal or appropriate behavior was.
It’s generally believed that memories are formed and stored, beginning when people are very young, and that it is typically the new or abnormal things that stand out and catch our attention. So for example, Perry notes that the first few times you learned to sit up, your body was learning an enormous number of things: balance, which muscles do what, the sensation of weight resting on your backside, etc. But slowly, as you learn to sit up, you don’t think about any of those things. You do it without thinking. This is the power of practice and habit. Your brain remembers how to sit up, and signals your body to perform all the requisite functions but it is the presence of abnormalities that will cause you to stop and think about what’s going on: if you experience pain, if you’re inadvertently sitting on something, etc. This is why we can drive for many miles often not thinking about our surroundings, not worrying about staying on the road or between the yellow lines: our brains really are running on a sort of auto-pilot. Accumulated memories and experiences have taught our brains a “range of normal” and so long as the drive remains within that range of normal, we can go on thinking about the children, or the grocery list, or the doctrine of justification without a thought about driving until something signals us to pay attention, e.g. the slow car in front of us, getting tired of sitting, etc. This is a great gift from God, allowing us to truly multitask and not go crazy, having to think about every little detail surrounding every single thought or action. We can walk and chew gum and carry on a conversation with a friend while minding the children all at the same time (most of us).
Perry suggests that with trauma you have something similar going on, only on steroids, so to speak. Trauma magnifies or amplifies the memory process. It seems to speed up the memorizing process, causing the brain’s function of accumulating normalcy to go into overdrive, such that the abnormality of trauma creates impressions of normality. And the longer the trauma lasts, the more deeply ingrained the impressions are. Makes me think of events in nature like volcanoes or hurricanes or earthquakes or floods that can change massive stretches of landscape in a relatively short period of time. Some studies have shown that extreme temperatures and pressures can even play with the chemical make up of matter. This is one of the ticklish aspects of carbon dating. The “normal” constant decay of carbon appears to sometimes speed up dramatically, leaving elements with the appearance of millions of years of decay, when it has actually been through a massive momentary “trauma.” Whether we have been severely sinned against or whether we have sinned against others (or both), the geography of our minds is warped in various ways. This is why we frequently speak and act and think in inappropriate, foolish, and sinful ways without thinking. And this is why we can momentarily convince ourselves that certain sinful actions are justified.
As a Christian pastor, there are a number of fascinating questions that arise from this kind of study. On the one hand, God created the human brain with this wonderful intricacy, and Christians do well to want to study it, understand it better, and seek to harness its natural capacities for healing and good. On the other hand, various connections between what might be described as the spiritual and the physical remain mysterious and no less real either. If the gospels portray anything at all, it most certainly includes the possibility of healing. And this healing is in body and soul. It is intriguing to me that the center of the Christian message is a traumatic event, the murder of an innocent man in the place of guilty sinners. And now we retell this trauma week after week in words and songs and actions. Christians are personal witnesses of a violent crime that has begun to heal our broken hearts (and brains). This horrific event, Christ crucified, is somehow a good trauma meant to undo all the bad trauma. It seems that God’s design is that the gospel preached is meant to cause people to experience this good trauma, to come face to face with this good horror, in order to “renew their minds.”
It doesn’t seem accidental that the Christian Church has historically been a people of liturgy, of repetition, of memory. Jesus told the first Christians to break bread and share wine often in memory of His death. And so for centuries, Christians have met together to remember again and again and again. The promise of Jesus is that in that remembering, He is present. And somehow He is ministering His life to us in the words read and sung, in water poured, in bread broken, in wine shared. His trauma overcomes our trauma. His abuse swallows up our abuse. His shame carries away our shame. His memory remakes our memories.
On the one hand, all of this seems to confirm the New Testament emphasis on the trauma of conversion. When sinners are saved, they have to die — “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). And on the other hand, the same Paul describes the Christian life as a sort of traumatic process, a repeated practice of “putting to death” old habits and patterns of life, reckoning ourselves “dead to sin.” This seems to be what Jesus means by taking up our cross daily and following Him, losing our lives for His sake, in order to find them again.