As I scanned the overnight fax reports clipped to the pile of medical charts on my desk this morning, I learned that one of our teenaged patients had been discharged from a residential psychiatric facility. The girl was admitted for observation after voicing suicidal ideation, thoughts that surfaced after she was informed that she would have to testify against the perpetrator who raped her a year ago. In spite of the fact that the perpetrator admitted his guilt, the legal system dictated that the girl would still have to face him once again—this time in the public setting of a courtroom.
Modern psychological theory has it that a victim who has suffered intense trauma needs to tell her story in order to heal. Healing is a process that takes place over time. Some of us heal faster than others, and some of us need to tell our story more than once to work through it.
There are those theorists who maintain that reliving a traumatic incident ad infinitum might serve to sear the trauma into the victim’s memory to such an extent that it will never be erased. In short, the more we relive a traumatic event, the more likely we are never to forget it.
Communal groups, whether small or large, might also find that collectively revisiting traumatic events serves to heal. As human beings, we do have the need to commemorate those fellow creatures victimized by some tragic event—a war, an attempted genocide, a terrorist attack. In some ways it does us good to ponder and reflect. It helps us work through our collective grief—something we need to do in order to heal as a community, as a society, as a nation.
Yet there is a danger that lies in revisiting such events ad infinitum. That danger has to do with rekindling our anger and hatred for those who perpetrated the horrendous act. When our collective anger flares, we relive not only the trauma of the historical event itself—it also serves to harden our hatred and prevent us from allowing ourselves to heal as a community, as a society, as a nation.
On this 9th anniversary of 9/11 I arose early to read through several opinion columns in the press. Largely, columnists fall into one of two camps: those who prod us to maintain our vigilance “lest we forget what happened on that day,” and those who advocate a sincere attempt to separate the perpetrators—the militant fanatics—from the major religion with which they have come to be identified. Some advocate the use of “free speech” to decry the enemy, while others strive to emphasize the need for peace and reconciliation.
As a nation, how do we commemorate the victims of 9/11 without fanning once again the flames of hatred?
Such thoughts ran through my head as I began my day seeing patients in the office.
I spoke at length with a father about his obese son, giving him some practical tools to help the boy move toward a healthier lifestyle.
I counseled a young man suffering from depression, attention-deficit disorder and drug use.
My last patient of the morning was the youngest daughter of a Muslim family that I have known for more than a decade. Her mother brought her to see me because the child was complaining of a sore throat and belly ache. During the course of the visit the mother pointed out the nits in her daughter’s hair. Suddenly, she began to cry.
“I don’t know how she get this,” the mother told me through her tears. “None of my other children ever have such a thing. She bathe every day. I make sure she have clean clothes to wear to school. We are a clean family.” And then, exasperated, she sobbed, “I am so ashamed.”
Here the daughter began to cry as well. “She don’t want to tell her teacher because she afraid that the other children will make fun of her,” the mother said.
I reassured the mother that head lice was a common malady in young school-aged children, that it had nothing to do with personal hygiene, and that it was fairly easy to treat. I wrote out a prescription and explained to the mother how to apply the preparation. “You’ll have to comb the nits out afterwards,” I told her, “but she will get over it.”
As I handed her the prescription I noticed an intricate henna tattoo on the mother’s left hand. “Today is holiday in my religion,” she explained. “Eid-ul-Fitr, the day after Ramadan ends—a day of forgiveness, a time of giving and sharing. That is why I do this, to remember.”
All of us set aside special days to remember—some to commemorate, some to ponder and reflect, some for feasting and celebration.
Perhaps the time will come when one day we will agree to set aside a special day to reflect on one more thing: forgiveness.