Magazine article Humanities

After Shock

Magazine article Humanities

After Shock

Article excerpt

MAlNE JUST LIKE ODYSSEUS, MODERN SOLDIERS CAN have long journeys recovering from painful injuries and memories. But their healers, too, can suffer from burnout and exhaustion. At After Shock: Humanities Perspectives on Trauma, a conference organized by the Literature & Medicine program of the Maine Humanities Council, more than 150 health professionals, writers, artists, academics, state humanities staff, veterans, and family members gathered in Washington, D.C, to explore how literature, theater, and writing can be a bridge between caregivers and patients of trauma.

Through the Literature & Medicine program, created in 1997, some two thousand physicians, nurses, receptionists, therapists, lab techs, and administrators have read and discussed literature together in small groups in twenty-five states and Argentina. Among the outcomes for participants: more satisfying communication with patients and colleagues, greater understanding of how diverse cultural and socioeconomic perspectives affect patient care, and less burnout.

At the conference in November, war's aftermath was a dominant theme. In a keynote address, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay told his own story of writing the acclaimed Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. WMe working with veterans, Shay heard echoes of the pain suffered by soldiers in Homer's Riad. Over and over, Shay heard his patients say, "I died in Vietnam (or Iraq, or Afghanistan)," or "It should have been me," when a best buddy was killed. Achilles offered similar laments, Shay said, after his closest comrade, Patroklos, was slain.

Trauma, Shay suggested, comes not so much from war's violence but from a "moral injury" made up of three key elements: betrayal of what's right, by someone who holds legitimate authority, in a high-stakes situation.

Classical literature, participants learned, is an ideal vehicle for exploring deep psychological and emotional scars. Unlike contemporary works, which may be fraught with ongoing political division, the classics allow readers to focus on universal themes.

Roberta Stewart, a Dartmouth College professor of classics, said, "We need to engage with our veterans as thinking human beings, not just as patients." Accompanying Stewart was a Vietnam vet who had taken classes offered by Stewart at his local veterans' center. Alan Oakman, who had never before read a classical work, reflected on what he learned from the Odyssey. …

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