Volf on remembering trauma rightly, ch. 1

Recently, Scot McKnight at JesusCreedbegan blogging on Miroslav Volf’s new book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World(2006, Eerdmans). It was his blog that turned me on to the book and I commend his blog as one of the best on the net. Rather than try to compete with his thoughts, I intend to relate Volf’s work to the clinical aspects of dealing with trauma.

Some background first. Volf is a theologian at Yale (His Exclusion and Embrace book is also commendable). He emigrated from Yugoslavia to the US but back in 1984, he suffered psychological abuse at the hands of communist interrogators in his homeland. He was held against his will and accused of being an enemy of the state. He describes his abuse as “mid-level”, greater than an insult and yet less than severe torture. One man in particular, “Captain G,” provided the harshest abuse. After it was over, he found himself struggling with ongoing and intrusive memories of what happened:

…my mind was enslaved by the abuse I suffered. It was as though Captain G. had moved into the very household of my mind, ensconced himself right in the middle of its living room, and I had to live with him. I wanted him to get out of my mind on the spot and without a trace. But there was no way to keep him away, no way to forget him. He stayed in that living room and interrogated me again and again….gradually I pushed the Captain a bit to the side and arranged to live my life around him….My success at sidelining the Captain, however, left the main worry about my relationship to him almost untouched….How, then should I relate to Captain G. in my imagination now that his wrongdoing was repeating itself only in my memory? How should I remember him and what he had done to me? (various quotes from ch. 1)

Volf then lays out his goal for the book: exploring the “memory of wrongdoing suffered by a person who desires neither to hate nor to disregard but to love the wrongdoer.”Explicitly Volf asserts that memory is not merely a passive activity but an active response to life. He does not suggest that we can choose NOT to remember but we choose HOW we remember. We are active participants in the meaning-making of our memories. This book attempts to lay out how to “remember rightly.”

Clients who remember their traumas often feel consumed by painful (and often condemning) memories. And Volf rightly points out that these memories shape the person’s relationship to “every social setting” and not merely the relationship with the abuser. Counselors enjoin clients to “name” their abuses so that they can put to rights the world, where abuse is seen as injustice and not excused through false names (e.g., secret love, deserved punishment, submission, etc.). Most want to NOT remember these painful events and hope counseling/healing will either help them to remember without pain or not remember any longer.

Volf lists common questions one might have regarding these painful memories:
Can I somehow make positive meaning out of my abuse?
Can I find meaning in life even if I find my abuse meaningless?
Do I see what happened to me to be an anomaly in a good world, or a sign of all the evil around me?
What does it mean to love the wrongdoer?
Is there a right form of condemnation of my abuser?
Can I imagine a world where I desire no longer to label my abuser as such?

Volf knew that he must love his enemies (not a warm fuzzy but a sense of “benevolence” toward them) but his mind often screamed out the opposite.

So, how does one who has been abused by another remember the abuse “rightly” (the way God sees both victim and abuser)? I will give similar summaries of his subsequent chapters to see if we can find helpful thoughts for those struggling with the way their lives have been shaped by the perpetration of evil against them.

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Filed under Abuse, book reviews, christian psychology, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffering

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