Having steeped myself in the study of the experience of trauma from violence, I have looked at many angles of the experience: how it disrupts beliefs and our orientation toward our view of the world, its moral and political reality and implications, physical manifestations and disruptions, psychological symptoms, etc. Central to these investigations is how trauma disrupts experience itself or how trauma is disruption of experience. The moral implications of this disruption in trauma are extensive.
I think this is where the importance of thinkers like John Dewey take center stage in helping me understand why traumatic experience is so disruptive to the person undergoing it and, here, he brings out key reflections about the nature of experience that bear the most potential when trying to make sense of our own trauma and our needs for harmonious experiences after traumatic events. It is in his Art as Experience where we find his mature writing on the quality of experience in everyday life.
Experience Should Not Be, But Often IS Anesthetic
Dewey makes a comparison between non-esthetic or anesthetic experience with what an experience actually is. However, he notes that the non-esthetic experience is one we are all too familiar with. Much of our experience, Dewey thinks, is a kind of “drifting” (41). He states:
There is no interest that controls attentive rejection or selection of what shall be organized into the developing experience. Things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift. We yield according to external pressure, or evade and compromise. There are beginnings and cessations, but no genuine initiations and concludings. One thing replaces another, but does not absorb it and carry it on. There is experience, but so slack and discursive that it is not an experience. (his italics, 41)
The value of what Dewey says here reflects how our actions and emotions are out of attunement with our environment, so much so that our conscious intent is absent, leaving our experience devoid of meaning. In this sense, we feel as if things are merely happening to us rather than us being engaged or having a definitive interest in the goings on of life. We do not process the experience in a way where, through the processing, meaning arises. I think this is absolutely true to the extent that many of us get lost in our day to day routines and our emphasis on being productive rather than really living. We tend to allow activity and happenings to take the place of proper processing, reflection, emotional resonance, and the value of what we are doing. Drifting is similar to being lost. In drifting, we are lost in our experience. Our self does not enliven through proper engagement, processing, and evaluation of what we are doing.
On the other hand, Dewey explains that anesthetic experience can be a kind of going through the motions. Dewey explains such experience as “dominantly practical” (40). He continues, saying:
The activity is too automatic to permit of a sense of what it is about and where it is going. It comes to an end but not to a close or consummation in consciousness. Obstacles are overcome by shrewd skill, but they do not feed experience” (40).
In this example, we might think of how many of us proceed in our everyday life at work. We get the job done, but we do not enjoy what we are doing and we are certainly happy when it is over so that we can be released from its relentless demands. On the one hand we have “aimlessness” (40) and on the other hand we have “mechanical efficiency” (40), but neither provide us with an experience that is qualified as an experience which, as Dewey expresses, needs to have “esthetic quality” (41). What both anesthetic varieties share in common is the deadening of the person. We lose our living engagement as a vital creature in an enriching world.
Experience Should Be Esthetic
So, we might ask, what is an experience if not these two things? For Dewey, an experience reflects the organic flow of the subject in attunement with their environment. To be in this organic flow is to be fully immersed within one’s environment and relationships, but, also to be deeply engaged and invested in the goings on. There is an interplay between doing things and processing things, as well as a “sense of growing meaning conserved and accumulating toward an end that is felt as accomplished of a process” (40). In other words, the anesthetic experience reflects a breach in our attunement or harmony with the world around us and with our relationships with other people, both of which create the meaningfulness that can arise within our experiences. Such experience reflects a rift between our openness to experience and our action within experience. Esthetic quality, therefore, reflects our ability to harmonize with our environment, the world of objects, other creatures, and human beings in a way that expresses our sensual and conscious engagement, both of which produce value or meaning. The meaningfulness of experience occurs precisely because we are openly engaged in the experience and actively invested, so that our experience becomes enriching. Meaning is the natural outgrowth of our attunement to the conditions of experience in any given case.
Interference with Esthetic Quality in Experience
Dewey discusses several kinds of problems that lead to an experience failing to have esthetic quality, but most predominately is our modern tendency to divide and specialize forms of knowledge and activity, including dividing knowledge from activity itself. For example, he explains that:
Compartmentalization of occupations and interests brings about separation of that mode of activity commonly called “practice” from insight, of imagination from executive doing, of significant purpose from work, of emotion from thought and doing. (21)
Further, we remove our sensible nature from our considerations of what information we deem as valuable, so that what we experience through the senses remain below our conscious awareness so that we do not see their vital role in our practices and intellectual pursuits. Senses “yield to conditions of living that force sense to remain an excitation on the surface” (21), says Dewey. Needless to say, our senses become a force of distraction rather than an integral part of our openness to experience. The value of these ideas reveals the necessary integration of our sensual engagement with the world, so that our experiences are infused with feeling, rather than feeling being set aside as too distracting or being reduced to a mere distraction. One of the most important contributions that Dewey can give us about experience is how, in modernity, our experiences tend to be more and more disjointed or disrupted, without organically flowing into a culmination of meaning. We might think of a paradigmatic example being the emphasis on multi-tasking, where we must constantly start and stop tasks to take on others that we also start and stop, moving back and forth among multiple tasks without really experiencing any of them. On top of this, we find an increased push for mindfulness, which cannot really be fostered under such conditions, so it tends to be relegated to our private time, which many find in decreasing capacity. Needless to say, our modern conditions tend to regulate experience in ways that decrease its quality and lead to us asking, “What is the point!?”
Trauma as a Form of Disruption
Traumatic experience may be understood as a form of disruption, so that when we are traumatized, we are stopped in an important way. It is an experience that is difficult to find a growth of meaning within. With the combinations of psycho-physical discombobulation that distort the emphasis on survival vs. the sophisticated modes of language and meaning processing, the undermining of our views of the world in regards to our own safety, and the moral degradation of the self, resulting from the violation of our bodies and minds, both of which co-condition our sense of self-belonging, the self as we know it loses its grasp on the world and sometimes even its desire to make such engagement. We are out of harmony with our environment, but without our prior resources to engage and reinvest. In a sense it is a radical loss of meaning rather than the growth of meaning because it undermines our trust in our own ability to interact in the first place. The undergoing of such experience, needless to say, is overwhelming and very difficult to process and the actions we take are often out of attunement with our conscious intent because that no longer has its resting place in the world or even in our body in the same way. Actions and decision-making become difficult and even small efforts can feel like overwhelming obstacles. And yet, the world expects us to move on. In fact, the world often offers us recourse to further experiences that have lost their experiential quality and luster, moving us forward in the repetitious haze of lost meaning. Our experiences, in trauma, become anesthetic, a kind of aimless drifting, being lost to the world or a mere going through the motions to get through the day, to lose ourselves long enough to get the job done. But, what it is not, is an organic flow of invested engagement culminating in the growth of meaning.
Qualitative Experiences for those Traumatized as an Obligation
The task for addressing trauma under this discussion becomes one of asking whether what we are doing to address trauma and those under its conditions are actually ones that help re-attunes people with the world or if they are merely treating its symptoms. We have to ask what kind of experience is one having in a women’s shelter, for example? What kind of experience is a refugee having when entering our country? What kind of experiences are we offering our veterans when they return home? How has trauma disrupted their ability to have quality experiences? We must address obstacles to the re-engagement of their integral self with the world, be it work, home, and a variety of other relationships. We must address their ability to feel alive again. Are we giving them experiences that enliven their sensual, intellectual, and willful contact with the world so that they can be open to the world again? Too often the answer is “No.”
What Dewey offers us is the absolute importance of harmonizing experiences as a way to reconstitute the value of our human involvement, the linking of our sensual, intellectual, and active selves as a dimensional wonder in its immersion in the live environment, reawakening wonder, trust, feeling, consciousness, and even faith that such immersion will culminate in meaning, in a meaning that we can share, in the meaningful growth of the human spirit as expressed through so much flesh and bone. We might say that we carry with us a duty to ourselves and others to make our experiences imbued with the living force of meaningful interaction and that all healing can only come when this is dutifully recognized as an ultimate value, one that carries with it the deeper purpose of our human relations. Treating harmonious experience as an obligation that we have reminds us of our duty to provide enriching opportunities of engagement that bring us in vital relationships with each other and the larger world. This obligation may be said to be moral to the extent that our human relationships with each other and the larger world require care, a care that can only thrive under proper conditions. We must be mindful in whether we are drifting in our duties or falling into the habit of going through the motions. Deadening anesthetic conditions lead to a deepening apathy, so that we must be vigilant to work against our own apathy, especially when we have the duty to help others in our professions, for why should others care if we do not? Care, therefore, is a vital moral force that orients us to the world and in order to care, we must first be open, active, and alive.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York. Penguin Group, 1934. Print.