Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the Candle of Hope
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
I’ve been in my 6th decade of life for a couple of years now, and I’ve realized something about myself. I’m a bit jumpy these days. I’ll give you a for-instance: I used to enjoy going to the shooting range or hunting birds in an open field. Nowadays, though, I physically and uncontrollably jump whenever I’m near gunshot. It’s not just gunshot, however. It has to do with loud noises--any loud noises. I believe it is tied to one particular instance about 20 years ago when an emergency situation arose (rather, “exploded”) in my home when my son had a seizure in the next room and hit his head on the kitchen counter on the way to the floor. The next moments were full of trauma and emergent care. After a visit to the hospital, including a CT of the head, all was eventually well, and we tried to get back to “normal”. But here is where I learned the true nature of PTSD. Some days later, while my wife and I were sitting quietly and comfortably in our twin easy chairs enjoying a peaceful morning, a sound exactly like the one that had alarmed us before caused us to jump, and our hearts to skip with fear. Only this time, we looked at each other with tears in our eyes. Although it turned out that it was only a watermelon we had bought the day before that had rolled off the kitchen counter and onto the floor with a sudden and unwelcome crash, internally we were jolted to that recent bad memory of finding our son writhing on the floor. And I began to understand why some combat veterans, upon hearing a car backfiring on the street, will take cover beneath a parked car before their minds can tell them it was nothing to fear. It is an involuntary reaction, sewn into the fabric of the autonomic nervous system by a previous trauma associated with a sound, or in some cases a smell, or some other sensation. So you could say that in one sense my nerves are “shot”, because loud noises cause an unpleasant, visceral reaction. And I’ve never even been to war. To this day, whenever one or the other of us is about to do something in the house that will create a loud noise, we call out “loud noise” as a courtesy to warn the other not to be alarmed.
This is what Jesus is trying to do with His disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. He is trying to say, “LOUD NOISE” to prepare them for wars and rumors of war, earthquakes and roaring seas; i.e., what to them looks like the end of the world. “These things must happen,” He says. But when you see these things happening, “Look up, for your redemption is drawing near.” Our natural reaction to real or threatened calamity is to react with dread, to cower, or to duck-and-cover. Who can “stand tall and look up” when every instinct has taught us to get low and to cover our heads? Every generation experiences this.
Many things conspire to keep us from lifting our gaze, but when we do, it is often then that we can see the promised Son of Man coming. It is only when we stand up and raise our heads that we recognize the presence of Christ among us--even when all seems lost.
How do you hear Sunday’s words from Luke? Does the world that Jesus describes as marked by “fear and foreboding” sound like anything you have experienced? What might you see if, instead of cowering, you were to stand up and raise your head, or to encourage others to raise their heads in the midst of trauma and confusion? Where might you see the promise of the coming Christ?
We will light the “Hope” candle on this 1st Sunday in Advent. It is not an empty hope, but one full of the promise of Jesus Himself.