Trauma & Serenity: Yin & Yang?

It is sometimes said that Americans do not understand irony. I don’t think that’s true but there is some logic to the notion that if you are accustomed to having your way irony becomes less tangible; or at least less relevant.

In 1962, at the age of eight, I began to experience increasingly frequent seizures that ultimately kept me out of school and in a high degree of isolation. They went on for a year and doctors at several hospitals were at a loss to explain the cause.

Finally the doctors at The Boston Children’s Hospital performed a diagnostic procedure called a pneumoencephalogram. This was a procedure of last resort that involved removing all of the fluid around the brain and replacing it with a gaseous mixture so that a more detailed x-ray of the brain could be realized.

Unfortunately, they could give the patient no general anesthesia, as that would affect the normal behavior of the brain. You can imagine the pain involved. Now fifty-two years later I can still recall everything about the moment with extreme clarity. Not the kind of clarity that might frighten awake a soldier in the middle of the night but a serene sensation of presence and pain so intense that it transcends the kind of pain we feel when we step on a sharp piece of glass or accidentally shut our fingers in a door.

I wrote a book about my experience. It’s called The Bomb Shelter and written under my literary pen name of Avam Hale.

I’ll give away the ending only because it is the journey, not the destination, which is at the heart of the book. In short, I was permanently cured by the pneuomoencephalogram. To everyone’s surprise, I assure you. Even today the doctors can’t fully explain it but they theorize that my seizures were caused by a form of meningitis virus feeding off the fluid surrounding my brain and when it was removed the virus lost its life support and died.

My long-time friend, however, recently read the book and although he has not the least bit of medical training (he sells motorcycles) he asked me if I really thought it was the death of the virus that caused the seizures to stop or simply the severity of the trauma involved in the procedure. Trauma, he noted, is little understood and can completely realign the brain and the body in ways we don’t fully comprehend.

His question has been with me ever since and I’m beginning to think he’s right. The viral explanation has certainly not quite felt right to me and there is no question that the trauma of the experience was beyond explanation. A doctor friend of mine says that whenever he performed that particular procedure he couldn’t sleep for days

The pneumoencephlalogram is no longer performed. The technology of MRI has rendered it obsolete. Adding credence to the trauma theory, however, my doctor friend, now long retired, wonders if they don’t still perform it when they can find no other explanation for the occurrence of seizures.

The question took on a different relevance to me this past week as I, like much of the world, watched the grieving Nepalese who lost friends and relatives in the devastating earthquake that, at current count, took nearly 5,000 lives. The grieving, and I say this is no way judgmentally or critically, is both intense and extreme.

So, too, was the grieving that occurred in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the Sewol ferry disaster in Korea in 2014, or the inexplicable disappearance of flight MH 370.

While not a medical professional I have to believe it is healthy to grieve in such an uninhibited way. While it can’t wipe clean the memory I have to believe it cleanses the soul in a way I have never been able to do. I, myself, tend to carry my grief in much the same way Atlas carried the world, hunched over in anguish, never quite able to stand upright ever again.

And then I connected the dots. Asians, in general, have suffered much more trauma in their lives than most Westerners. As my Chinese wife says, “Trauma is life.”

The theory fits quite naturally with the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, the idea that reality is defined by the balance of opposing forces. (To the Chinese they are complementary forces, but that doesn’t quite translate accurately into English.) Is trauma the yang? Does it in some way make serenity possible by so disrupting our world that it realigns our perspective and, at times, our very being?

I will say this. For all of the suffering most Chinese have endured, they are a remarkably calm and serene people. They accept almost anything with a shrug of the shoulders and inscrutable calm on their face.  It often makes me think the joke is on me.

There is no road rage. Barkeeps are not forced to remove all glass from their bars late at night so that the patrons don’t turn the bottles and glasses into weapons and slash each other to death. (They actually have a name for it in places like Australia and England – glassing.) There has been terrorism but violent crime is in little evidence generally speaking

Perhaps it is the existence of suffering and trauma that allows the people of Asia to have such a healthy and positive outlook on life. Perhaps the advancement known by the West and the reduction of suffering that accompanied it has brought us comfort but deprived us of the serenity that flows from trauma.

Irony, indeed.

"Life is trauma" says my Chinese wife.  Yet despite the suffering I also find the kind of serenity I have not known since living in the small village of my youth.
“Life is trauma” says my Chinese wife. Yet despite the suffering I also find the kind of serenity I have not known since living in the small village of my youth.

To buy an electronic of hard copy of The Bomb Shelter click on this link:

The Bomb Shelter by Avam Hale

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.