Thursday, April 20, 2017

Happiness Is (Not) A Warm Gun

A look inside the Emergency Field hospital where patients wounded from the battle to retake Mosul and from ISIS terrorist attacks are treated by brave medical professionals from around the world.

In 6 days I head back to Iraq. Back to the emergency field hospital near Mosul where I was earlier this year. As I've processed working in a trauma hospital so close to an active war zone, having seen so much death, especially the death of children, I realize it will take a long time to unpack all I've experienced. Trauma, like grief, is a sucker punch. It blindsides you, it staggers you, it leaves the mind, the heart, the psyche reeling. It's much like this: the burning fragments of film frames temporarily illuminated by the same fire that is destroying them. Trauma, like grief, changes everything, forever. It clings to our days with a grayness, with nagging sadness, with wondering whether you'll ever be truly whole again.

It is said trauma is "not the thing that happened but the effect left on us by our experiences". Rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and increasingly irresponsible sexual behavior spike among survivors and witnesses to trauma. The suicide rate among trauma survivors is 15X higher than the rest of the population. Isolation, anxiety, depression, loss of appetite for food and fun are all symptoms of a post traumatic experience.* It can feel like a low grade fever of unhappiness, constant and incurable. To be sure, trauma is a toxin, it tires the body, it wearies the blood.

Much of trauma counseling seeks to normalize the effects of trauma, reinforcing the idea that what survivors and witnesses of trauma feel (and do) as a result of trauma are very normal reactions to an abnormal situation. This is a permission to forgive ourselves as much as it is a building block for recovery. It's saying "You are not defective, you've just been broken by your experiences and need help putting the pieces back together". It helps us understand that fatalism born in self-defeat because of a negative response to trauma is a downward spiral. And that coping mechanisms can become a new self-perpetuating prison and actually keep the survivor from starting to heal. Self-loathing and self blame are very real responses to trauma and can be extremely high among first responders. Those that go to help in traumatic situations often feel like we couldn't do enough and wear the guilt and shame of those feelings of failure for years. 

Studies on trauma reveal relationships are the key to coping during and after a crisis. In fact the number one predictor for resiliency after a trauma is existing healthy relationships. Psychologists are also finding that the opposite of addiction is connection. The greatest factor in not becoming an addict and in ultimately beating addiction is healthy relationships. Recently the results of one of the longest, most comprehensive studies on human happiness were released. For 75 years researchers at Harvard tracked the emotional and physical well-being of the studies participants. What they found is no shock, it's been said for years, by many similar studies of smaller scope, the key to a happier and healthier life: good relationships. According to a Harvard researcher, "It's not just the number of friends you have, it's the quality of your close relationships that matters." More specifically it's the amount of vulnerability and depth within those relationships, and how safe we feel sharing with one another. In other words, the extent to which we can breathe deep and be seen for who we truly are, and truly see others the same way. We long for connection, for acceptance, for love. It's the universal human condition. We were made for community, we are programmed to not be alone. 

One of the biggest reasons I am OK is because of a wife and friends that have shared similar experiences with me. They push back against the inertia of isolation that would be my natural tendency. It doesn't mean we effortlessly talk about our darkest days but we do understand each other's silence. We know what the far away look in the eyes means. And we also share a common faith. We know that the most important part of our relationships is the community, the family that we are as believers in Jesus. 

Happiness does come from relationships, and everlasting, perfect happiness, what the bible calls joy, comes from relationship with the One that will never leave us or forsake us. In Jesus alone can we have limitless vulnerability and bottomless depth. In Him alone can we be known completely, He did in fact create us. So it follows then, perfect healing, the truest resiliency, the best inoculation against the prison of our desires can only come from knowing we are accepted with all of our faults, and that we are loved unreservedly and endlessly by the One who proved it by dying for us. And the path forward for any of us is to accept Him, on His terms, and remain in relationship with Him for all our days. 

There are gifts of clarity that can come with trauma, albeit with a heavy cost, like a magnifying glass brings such focus, such illumination, right before it burns a hole in the leaf. I fear death less, I cherish life more. We're so fragile, all of us humans. I also hate evil more, and realize that fear is its most powerful weapon. And I know that being good is more than just behavior, more than just abstaining from wrong. Good's gotta be brave, and it's gotta fight back. And that sometimes the most powerful weapon in that fight is forgiveness. And I learned, by watching people transformed by love, that loving your enemy is not just a suggestion, its a command. And it's evil's greatest fear.

Looking back, sometimes it's as if I am looking at these memories through that magnifying glass again, other times it's a microscope. One can make everything too bright, too volatile, the other too close and clinical. I have found the only way I can look back and consistently see clearly is through the lens of scripture. And though scripture doesn't always give us the answers to the questions we ask, it does however give us the answer in the person of Jesus. Knowing my Savior has experienced the full horror of hell means he understands all I am going through, means He has felt it too. And the Spirit that was in Him through the entire ordeal lives in me. The Spirit of all hope, all peace, all comfort, and all joy. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and will one day raise me to be with Him forever, to the eternal hope that all these things will pass, and that the destiny for the beloved is beautiful, and painless, and never ending bliss. 

One more thing, when I write about my time in Iraq, a wave of guilt tends to wash over me as I remember the mothers and fathers of the children who were torn apart by ISIS, as I recall the many stories of my Iraqi co-workers who have lived under the dark shadow of terrorism and war most of their lives. I would never, will never place my experiences on the same plane as theirs. These words are for the others like me, who have had similar experiences. Who have suffered trauma or seen it. For those medical professionals and relief workers who go to help. These words are to honor them. They are my heroes, mostly because they don't see themselves that way. For my EFH people. I love you. If you ever need to talk you know how to find me. We're all in this together. 

We have been broken by our experiences, He is putting us back together. xoxo

*Other symptoms of post traumatic experiences can include aggressive, erratic or self-destructive behavior, disassociation or memory blanks, numbness and the lack of ability to concentrate. Many people experience sleeplessness and irrational fears.You can read more about the symptoms here. If these symptoms persist for more than 30 days they can be PTSD. Please see a counselor.


  1. Thanks, Mark. Being at the EFH reminded me that believers often walk on a narrow path between fear and faith. Courage is born not by denying there is something to fear, but allowing faith to engulf it so that we may respond in love. Blessings, aam