Vodka and TV

Whenever I would ask my grandfather about the war, he would clam up like a spy. Actually, he really was a spy. Grandma would then begin showing me his military photographs, how he learned the language, how he arrived in Germany and, of course, happily show off his medals. At the age of 12 I wanted to know what it was really like in the war. But Grandpa would only wave his hand at the TV, as if to say, watch “Seventeen Moments of Spring.” I would watch, be impressed, and then ask again, “But tell me something about you.”

Silence. He drank habitually, like all of his war-time buddies from the front lines. And then it seemed he would begin to feel better. He would begin to smile and cut out paper swans for me. Apparently the port wine helped him for a while to forget what was terrible to remember. Then I, taking advantage of the moment, would ask him again about the war, and again I would not receive an intelligent answer.

Jordan Petersen, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, discourses about the phenomenon “falsification of experience” brought about by internal trauma. Quoting Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky, he states that a person going through some kind of traumatizing experience, be it war, a difficult childhood or being orphaned, accumulates a certain number of unbearably negative memories.  These memories are impossible to live with. You must push them from your consciousness out of necessity to escape the pain and shame.  Do you remember the films about veterans who, long after the war was over, all the same would wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, because they dreamed of scenes they would have been glad to forget?

To remember such things is intolerable. To forget — unsuccessful. What to do? There are only two possibilities. Sedation (alcohol, narcotics or other kinds of dependency) or falsification of experience. But, as a rule, one doesn’t exist without the other.  Attempting to “forget” the traumatizing experience, a person begins to unconsciously invent another way to interpret what happened so that it won’t cause so much pain or shame.  He begins to compose “other versions” of what happened. Of course, he knows that he indeed informed on his neighbor, and then at night the black sedan arrived to arrest him for questioning, and then someone else moved into his apartment. But since to speak of this openly is akin to death, and he can do nothing to change anything, the person begins little by little to convince himself that everything is not quite so. Most likely all this can explained in another way.

When a person goes through a kind of hell without seeing any exit, an intolerable sense of pain and shame arises within him, which forces him to “explain” what he is experiencing by some plausible means. To live as a divided self is not possible.  The person must either forget, erasing his memory with the help of some kind of crutch, or else falsify his experience, having convinced himself that everything is not so bad. Or even better, both one and the other. When 30 years ago they began to intensively research the phenomenon of post-traumatic syndrome, which is observed in almost every veteran, no one considered that these very same symptoms were characteristic not only of veterans but also of any person growing up in a dysfunctional family or society.

The need for the falsification of experience is one of the fundamental consequences of chronic stress. To tell oneself the truth about what one actually sees is unbearable. One must either constantly lie to oneself and maintain within oneself faith in the deception, or else forget. This is how there arises the need for a constant rejection of reality. A person experiences a chronic need for “myth,” which interprets reality such that it is not tortuously painful. The higher the degree of shame, the easier a person latches onto “myth”. But such mythologizing is no more than a crutch. Tomorrow there will be a hangover, and another big dose of myth will be required. Again a big falsification of experience, but again great shame. The circle of lies closes on itself. It is a vicious circle.

The searches for an effective therapy for veterans of the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars led to some interesting conclusions. When a person brings out into the open his shame and pain, the structure of his brain changes. In other words, the synaptic bonds, formed by numerous repeated negative experiences, are broken. The chemical structure of the brain is changed. The greater and the more often a person consciously brings out into the light that which was buried under a thick layer of self-deception, the greater probability that the negative memories will cease to stimulate pain and shame.

The first thing that Adam and Eve experienced after sinning was shame.  Then – flight. Then an invention manufactured from fig leaves to cover their shame. In this is a universal metaphor of our fallen spiritual dynamic.  Shame — flight — falsification of experience — and still great shame. But Christ is our covering and our clothing. Whoever is clothed in Him has already quit hiding anything. Change begins with the refusal to deny the obvious. Grandpa didn’t clam up because he didn’t have anything to say, but because he didn’t want to remember. He, like many others, chose fig leaves — a crutch and a TV. But we are free. When Peter saw the huge catch of fish, he understood who was before him, and he was ready to give up in shame.

“Go away from me, for I am a sinful person.”

“Don’t be afraid. You will be fishing for men,” answered Jesus, and Peter did not run away.  He did not run away because suddenly the shame was gone. Gone also was the need to lie to himself. From that time on, his brain began to change.


(This post was contributed by my Russian friend Evgeni T.) 

Comments

  1. Because the post above was written in Russian for a Russian audience, some of the references may be unfamiliar to an American reader.

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