European School of Governance, research note #240117 by Adrian Wagner
Keywords: metamodern, blackforestmetamoderism, trauma, collective trauma, traumaticevents, collectivememory, gentlegrowth, actionresearch
This research note embarks on a philosophical exploration into trauma, prompted by Martin Heidegger’s assertion that “Science cannot think.” As an action researcher for over 15 years, I want to invite readers into a co-reflection on trauma’s nature, intertwined with questions of belonging, healing, and societal impact. The note challenges the conventional understanding of trauma, proposing it as an intelligent function of our nervous systems, a survival mechanism. Through metaphors and personal reflections, I want to unveil the complex dynamics of freezing in response to trauma, offering a nuanced perspective. Two poignant moments from my past— my mother’s battle with cancer and my choice to endure physical pain—serve as entry points to understanding the protective and limiting aspects of trauma. Overall, this is an inquiry with readers for a collective, meaning-making dialogue, challenging the notion of science as a mere accumulation of results and opening a new clearing for co-creating meaning.
„Science cannot think.“
When I first heard this quote, I was startled, and it took time to let it sink in and to digest the deeper meaning of it. What is science and how in our age of technology do we relate to the art of reflection and introspection? This research note is an experiment. It is in the true sense of philosophy (as the ontological foundation of all science) a thought experiment and an existential phenomenological introspection of a topic very dear to my heart. It is also more than that, it is an ongoing co-reflection with a dear colleague of mine. Finally, it is an invitation and an opening (dare I say a clearing) to you as a reader to join this place to shine new light on my experiences as an action researcher.
My action research journey is an inquiry I have been living into for over 15 years. It invites questions of belonging, transgenerational healing and trauma and the relationship to politics, democracy and social change that became alive for me when I first left Europe to travel in the Middle East as a young man. Ever since there is a sense and intuitive knowing, deep in my body and heart that we are actually acting out a lot of old patterns in our day-to-day politics, rather than meeting and truly experiencing and co-creating, our potential as human beings. Central to my broader research focus on collective trauma integration is the question: What is trauma? What is my understanding of trauma? This research note is an invitation to share with you the personal reflections of my own journey with these questions and some insights grown from experiential knowing rather than propositional knowing.
My response to trauma
When reflecting on the word I realize a certain unease that comes naturally with it. There is a sense of danger and alertness that I feel and an impulse to look away. At the same time, I am hearing it more and more often in the last few years, people seem to use it in all kinds of different contexts. There are Trauma summits online and trauma yoga offline, there are trauma-informed coaches and trauma-aware teachers. Yet, my unease to some extent grew the longer I inquired and studied trauma. The question regarding what “trauma” as a word, concept and framework facilitates comes to my mind as mirrored by a good friend and colleague. And while I am not able to let go of the word in my own research, I also feel the need to lean more into a deeper personal understanding and reflection of the felt experience of and wisdom of my experiential knowing.
Trauma as an intelligent function
On my own journey of researching and working with trauma there was one statement that stayed with me and still has a deep impact when I contemplate on it: „Trauma is an intelligent function of our nervous systems at a given time helping us to survive.“ Could it be that trauma is not something bad that we need to get rid of? That trauma is more than an annoying obstacle in our daily lives to get stuff done. This statement widened my gaze and facilitated a gentleness to be with more ease around the topic itself. It helped me recognize when I feel like I want to look away, it helped me to stay with what is, rather than wanting to be somewhere else. At the same time, I realized how even in the academic discourse the term itself is still not easily defined and understood. Some view it quite broad, others define it very precisely. In my understanding it often leads me away from relating to it fully, and towards the danger of talking about Trauma. Coming across this metaphor informed and formed my personal understanding in a deep way.
A metaphor for trauma
Personally, I love metaphors, they enable me to feel more fully and experience what otherwise stays as dry definitions or technical explanations. Drawing on this and reflecting on my research on trauma recalls a story I heard at a collective trauma training with Thomas Hübl: Imagine being a river that flows with all her experience while gently growing a path towards the sea. Rain and snow fall and subsequently they melt into the river adding to her experience, integrating them in the bigger stream of life that she is. Now something happens, a traumatic event, and that river freezes. Even if there is still water flowing underneath the ice, the snow starts to pile up and the river disappears from the visible eye. The image of Trauma as frozenness is something I can also personally relate to with more ease. Reflecting on my own experience of freezing in times of threat and great uncertainty facilitates for me a deeper understanding of trauma. Therefore, I would like to share two personal experiences and some reflections on them with you.
Being afraid of the fear of losing my mother
I remember a time before leaving Europe for Israel at the age of 19. I met my mother in Forum 3, a youth and culture centre where I was doing my civil service (back in those days it was still mandatory). I was already a bit overwhelmed as I had recently moved from living in a nature centre almost alone for one year on the Swabian Alb to living in the city centre of Stuttgart. Half a year before I found out that my mother had cancer in her breasts. For me it was deeply troubling, and I was very afraid of losing her. My dad had lost his mother because of breast cancer when he was 17. My mother had chemotherapy and I had not seen her for a few weeks. I remember the feeling of shock when she came to visit me and stood before me in my room. She was not there anymore, her long blond hair was gone, but that was not the point. It was more a feeling of not feeling her. I felt as if she was hidden in a shell, her body weak and numb. The thought and feeling of having lost her already made me freeze inside. It would take quite some time to realize how in that moment my freezing was an appropriate trauma response. How my system shut down in order to continue to function.
Reflecting on my younger self
Looking back today at my self, I feel a lot of compassion for that young man. Trying to find my own way in life, being afraid but also very proud. Not fully able to relate to the breast cancer of my mother and myself in a more mature way. I don’t judge him from where I am at right now. The compassion took time to grow. Today I can feel his numbness, loneliness, and the hug he would have needed in those days. I also feel how any form of advice about trauma would have not worked out since I was way too proud, trying to do it by myself. Today there is a gift of being able to be in touch with that younger self. It facilitates and invites a gentleness: I realize how it is less what we see, describe and advice to people and much more about how we relate. A gentleness facilitating a co-reflection on my fears would have been something very precious in those days.
Choosing physical pain to not feel fear
A little later but still around that time my trip to Israel approached. I had never travelled outside of Europe. The images on the TV when Israelis left the Gaza Strip fighting settlers that did not want to leave were intense and troublesome. Today I would say I was afraid, back then I could not allow myself to fully feel where I was at. I closed down while preparing for the three-week Grace Pilgrimage for a future without war. It was supposed to happen with activists mainly from Germany, Portugal and Israel/Palestine from Sea Genezareth to Jerusalem. I packed my bag with too many books (later when walking 20 km a day I very much regretted the heaviness). I did not want to leave them at home because I was so eager to learn and to know more (Later I would find out that books provide you with a lot of information but not necessarily understanding). Being a wrestler in those years I trained to be fit, but I was not in contact with my body, with my emotions. I pushed through things so as not to feel, to be strong. Just 10 days before leaving I hurt my left shoulder. The pain of it provided a welcome distraction from the insecurity and fear I had. And to some extent not only internally but also on a muscular level I froze again.
Reflection on my younger self
Being where I am today, I cannot help but notice how I was shaped by an old-fashioned idea of masculinity. I see myself as a young man who was struggling and overwhelmed, not allowing myself to rest or to have access to a safe and nourishing space where I could share my fears and emotions before leaving on such a dangerous trip. I notice how much effort it took back then not to feel the numbness and the pain underneath. Coming from a part of Germany where work is supposed to be painful, I also realize the cultural dimension and the patterns of patriarchy in it. Often it is much easier to actually have a real physical trauma, a broken bone or nose, something tangible to deal with rather than the emotional intensity of the wounds of our souls. There is a sense of impatience I recognize when seeing him in his youth, and a sadness and empathy I feel for the loneliness of his struggle to grow his own identity. And I also recognize and realize that this younger part of myself back then was also brave. It took a lot of courage to leave Germany and go to Israel on my own.
In my reflections, I’ve come to realize that trauma may serve as an intelligent function, allowing us to survive overwhelming experiences by slowing down the pace of feeling, a beneficial response to threat. Yet, it also freezes those moments in time, consigned to the backlog of our internal storage, where they are hidden until revisited again. My experiences in Israel and the Middle East deepened my understanding of conflict and the quest to unravel the mysteries of thawing frozenness collectively and individually and I am very grateful I found the courage and went there.
As we conclude this co-reflection, I also want to express gratitude: Thinking and thanking, rooted in a shared etymology, opening our inner worlds to the outside. Consider this: What if science, rather than an introspective reflection, often embodies frozen thinking? Following the phenomenological tradition, a living co-reflection widens our gaze and creates a clearing for co-creating meaning. Could it be that science can become more than an accumulation of results, manifesting indifference, and becomes a thankful exploration of the beauty inherent in reality? And how can we co-facilitate this melting of abstraction in our research practice to start with living experience to co-create a shared understanding?