Some might find it unusual for a psychologist to be talking about the soul. But it really is not. Psychology has evolved far beyond Freud’s conception of man’s behavior being determined by struggles with his basic drives/instincts or the behaviorist view that psychology should focus on human behavior, rather than what is inside of us. In fact, in my work as a therapist, I often find it particularly helpful to focus the client on matters of the soul. Let me be clear about this—although my personal views are religious, I do not necessarily mean that talking about the soul includes talking about God. In fact, I believe atheists can also relate well to discussions about the soul. My definition of the soul is this: an essential core within us and something that is separate from our other parts (mind, body, ego, emotions, etc.), which elevates us, broadens our perspective and helps us to rise above and beyond petty concerns.
In my newly released novel, Never Forget My Soul (publisher: Guidelight Books), I explore how awareness of the soul can transform the lives of even very troubled individuals. The book follows the interactions of six people in a group therapy setting. Two of the patients (Adam and Joe) have forebears who were survivors of the Holocaust. These two men carry a family legacy of chronic discomfort, social disconnection, and spiritual emptiness. (Ironically, Joe sees himself as bold, active and passionate, but the truth is that he is profoundly disconnected from other people and from himself.) In the story, flashbacks to the war era demonstrate how past traumas evolve into psychological and behavioral dysfunction in survivors and their children. What Adam and Joe need to learn is that, in one’s search for happiness, there is something that matters much more than our stated beliefs or our pursuit of goals. What matters is how integrated we are, in other words, that we can flexibly attend to and make connections between our internal life, the lives of other people and a spiritual truth to which we can devote ourselves. For the religious, that spiritual truth is ultimately serving God, but the nonreligious can conceptualize it differently. The nonreligious could call it meaning, purpose, or something greater than themselves, but call it what you will, if we lack it, we all eventually find life empty and dissatisfying.
My novel is based on the groundbreaking work of Dr. Yael Danieli, who, more than thirty years ago, started studying Holocaust survivors and came to a startling discovery—so many of them thought that no one could actually believe that the horrible stories they were telling about the war were true. Based on this observation, Dr. Danieli developed her notion of the “conspiracy of silence,” which arose because the world was too afraid to really listen to and emotionally take in the stories of the concentration camps and mass killings. The stories were just too chilling and raised too many doubts about the fundamental goodness of man. Dr. Danieli also developed the idea of vicarious traumatization, meaning that the listener to the story of trauma is so overwhelmed by its horror that he reacts with trauma symptoms himself. This vicarious traumatization was an additional reason for distancing from survivors telling their stories.
Through her work, Dr. Danieli described four types of family systems that arose from the Holocaust experience. These types are 1) Victim Families, 2) Fighter Families, 3) Numb Families and 4) “Those Who Made It.” I will not get into a description of the characteristics of these families here. All I want to note is that survivors and their families developed different ways to reestablish some level of normalcy in day to day living, but, at the same time, they exhibited some characteristic types of psychological dysfunction. One cannot truly understand individuals within these families without understanding the prior trauma and the ways of acting and being that developed within each family type. I also want to note that the last category, “Those Who Made It,” is in quotes, because these individuals appeared externally successful, but psychological scars and lasting effects were there, which still can be seen in the second and third generation.
I believe the most important reason for psychologists to make space for the soul in their work is that there are some issues that only make sense when you discuss them from the perspective of the soul. In order to recover from their legacy of trauma, it is not enough for survivors and their children to develop more positive thought patterns or engage in anxiety reduction techniques. They need to admit that their souls are troubled because profound inhumanity is, by its very nature, a wound to the soul. They need to experience and express the feelings of emptiness within their souls and find a profound source of hope to sustain them.
The Holocaust legacy that I discuss has never been more relevant. As I write this post, Lithuanian officials are actively involved promoting Holocaust denial and treating war era anti-Nazi resistance fighters as war criminals. It should be noted that almost all of Lithuanian Jews were exterminated, during the war, and many Lithuanians assisted in this process. For more information about Lithuanian Holocaust denial, see the chilling trailer for a documentary about it at http://rewriting-history.org/.
This January 20th will be the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee conference. At this conference, German officials met in 1942 to plan the “Final Solution”— the extermination of European Jewry. It is a time for us to reflect and call upon our own souls, to see how we can promote a world where such things can never happen again.
Copyright © Michael Milgraum, November 2011. All rights reserved.