As psychologists reflect on the world’s worst pandemic in over a hundred years, more and more scholarly articles are being published discussing its effects in terms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.* During the past two years, people have described many difficult experiences, including loss of loved ones, long-term grief, loneliness, lack of physical contact, job insecurity, indefinite postponement of career and educational goals and confusion over mixed messaging. There have been increases in the numbers of suicides, incidences of domestic violence, divorce and violent crimes. Counselors and therapists have documented multiple diagnoses of depression and anxiety caused by the pandemic, and many of these include classic PTSD symptoms.
Some of us may be struggling along and doing our best to adjust, sometimes blaming ourselves for not handling things better. But we should realize we’ve been experiencing genuine trauma and should not underestimate its effects on us.
I looked for some Biblical understanding of all this, and I was surprised when I stumbled on some psychological studies of King Saul, the immediate predecessor of Israel’s greatest monarch, King David. If you want to refresh your memory of this classic Old Testament figure, you can read what the Bible says about him in just a few minutes.** It’s the story of a fast rise to the top, where he was never secure because of the rivalry of the younger upstart, David. His sad decline from extreme jealousy, through bouts of madness and ultimate suicide, is one of the Bible’s great tragedies. I’ve studied and even preached about the lessons to be learned from Saul’s life, and I’ve been aware of his bouts of melancholy and agitation. But I had never heard of his psychological journey described as PTSD until I read this article. Acknowledging that the Biblical author attributes Saul’s bad choices to “an evil spirit” that possessed him more and more, the article lists the PTSD symptoms that also fit quite well into the narrative.
Trauma involves a person’s emotional response to unusually great changes. If we step back and view Saul’s life in the context of Israel’s history, we can see that he certainly experienced trauma. From a position as the son of a small tribe’s leader, he was launched into the role of being the first earthly King of Israel. This was against the background of the traditional understanding that this nation was distinct for acknowledging only God as its direct Ruler and King. After 27 tumultuous years struggling to hold onto power, Saul gave way to the rising star of Israel’s royalty, King David, who ruled with unquestioned authority during the glory days of Israel’s monarchy. Talk about trauma — that was Saul’s story.
It’s important for us to remind ourselves that trauma is triggered by things that happen to us, rather than coming from any weakness or sickness in us. The term first became known in the context of war to describe returning veterans who were “shell-shocked” and had difficulty dealing emotionally with everyday life challenges. Since then, it’s been recognized that similar symptoms and thought patterns can result from other traumas, such as traffic accidents, childhood abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters, job loss and flunking out of college. We need to be humble and recognize how deeply these things hurt us, rather than heroically pretending we’re coping with it all. Like Saul, we may fight to keep the crown on our head one more day but pay the price in our long-term mental health and well-being.
COVID has been hard on all of us. The experience of “reopening,” after being either fully or partially shut-down for many months, also involves some trauma, and we’re experiencing it in different ways. Let’s be patient with one another, be a calming force in each other’s lives, rather than blaming one another for contributing to our personal PTSD. Above all, let’s pray for each other.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
** 1 Samuel, chapters 9 through 31.