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The First Cut

Updated: Jun 29

June 28 is our world’s birthday. And since some say one can’t have the cake and eat it too (no idea why, I have and eat it all the time!), let’s instead celebrate with a bit of food for thought, discovering what this birthday cake is layered with.

Students of International Relations might be the first to behold and bite into this layer cake, realizing no other day can equally claim to have shaped modernity on a global scale. Gloomy me, I felt it fitting to mark the occasion in my IR101 class by listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the opening track from their 1969 album Let It Bleed.

We did bleed, still do: As the Stones and Merry Clayton hauntingly sang “a flood is threatening my very life today” by war, rape, and murder, we couldn’t help recalling October Seven (Hamas’s “Al Aqsa Flood”). Gimme Shelter seems to have the massacre and its aftermath written all over it. In a Hobbesian world – where “man to man a wolf” – everybody begs “gimme shelter,” and all too often finds their protective Leviathan dying in the sands.

But it was another line we lingered on: “War, children / It’s just a shot away.” And while the Stones had Vietnam in mind, another, earlier and deadlier, war was literally “just a shot away.” 110 years ago, today – on 28 June 1914 – Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb pulled the trigger on the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. World War One commenced a shot, and a month, later.

June 28 didn’t accidentally host Princip’s shot. For his visit to Sarajevo, poor Ferdinand chose Vidovdan, “Saint Vitus Day” (28 June on the Gregorian calendar). Personally, the Archduke should have noticed the mismatch between the patron saint of dancers, and himself: the rigid 50-year-old dude was bored by literature, arts and social life (but was big on hunting!).

Politically, the heir of the aging Emperor Franz Joseph should have also known what Vidovdan meant for the Serbs: the 1389 Battle of Kosovo between the Serbs-led coalition and the Ottomans. This early modern preamble to the contemporary “clash of civilizations” ended with mutual destruction: both armies were wiped out, their leaders killed. Yet the battle ultimately paved the Ottomans’ path to dominate the Serbs, who gradually mythologized their collective trauma into a defining, defying, moment of their cause: Collective trauma as a call for national triumph.

But the Vidovdan layers of trauma did not end with the onset of just one world war. Over four years, twenty million dead, and twenty million wounded later, the Allied served the defeated German-Austrian-Ottoman coalition their own layer of the cake. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles coalesced two avenged traumas in both space and time: it was signed in the Palace’s Hall of Mirrors, where in 1871 the German Empire, upon defeating France, was proclaimed; and the deal was done on, well, June 28.

Another layer was added when the Great War turned to World War One, making room for Two. In just 43 days, Nazi Germany defeated France. A week later Hitler made his first and only visit to Paris, now German-occupied territory, and went to see Napoleon’s tomb, saying “That was the greatest and finest moment of my life.” You can guess what date the Führer chose for his visit.

Adolf Hitler, Paris, occupied France, 28 June 1940
Adolf Hitler, Paris, occupied France, 28 June 1940

The Vidovdan cycle of trauma and triumph did not end with Hitler. On June 28, 1989, as tensions mounted between the different constituent republics and ethnic communities of Yugoslavia, the Serb leader, Slobodan Milošević, addressed a cheering crowd of a million at the Gazimestan monument on the Kosovo field – marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle. “Today, it is difficult to say what is the historical truth about the Battle of Kosovo and what is legend. Today this is no longer important,” he proclaimed and pledged to do what is important: stop Serbian victimization, if need be, through “armed battles.” Such battles will soon ensue.

Our world wasn’t born on June 28 merely because Ferdinand died some 110 years ago, or even because the assassination and its aftermath effectively shaped the geopolitics of the past century. It was born under the mark of June 28 because we’re all trapped in a Vidovdan cycle. Hurt people hurt, humiliated people humiliate; and collective trauma often becomes a perpetual motion machine, like one of M. C. Escher’s lithographs, substituting blood for water.

It certainly looks that way in Israel/Palestine. For years, responding to scholars who argue that Israel is a post-traumatic society, I suggested that it is in fact pre-traumatic: it is driven more by a sense of dread about a future catastrophe than by the ghosts of the past. October 7 changed that. As the horror unfolds before us, we witness, viscerally and in real-time, night in day out, how collective trauma becomes both transgenerational and transnational, cutting across ages, indeed centuries, and political boundaries. It is pernicious and infectious, entwining the collective and the individual, the political and the private. What was first noted about children, even grandchildren, of Holocaust survivors now seems universally applicable.

A PTSD world? If so, we may all need one big therapeutic chaise longue – or maybe just the opposite. The statistics on mental health are alarming. For example, self-harm has almost trebled from 2.4% in 2000 then to 6.4% in 2014; among females aged 16 to 24 self-harm increased from 6.5% to 19.7%.

But is therapy a cure or a culprit? I recently watched Real Time with Bill Maher, which I often enjoy and agree with, where Maher joined with author Abigail Shrier to ridicule how young people scour their past and present for any hint of trauma, then run to therapy for a fix. In her Bad Therapy, Shrier decries the prevalent notion that “An ideal childhood meant no pain, no discomfort, no fights, no failure—and absolutely no hint of ‘trauma.’” It has created, she argues, the loneliest, most helpless, depressed, and fearful young people ever.

It may be so. When our kids fear the dark, should we turn on the light or help them be, and see, in it? I side with the latter. Coddling young people, especially on campuses, from complex, often cruel, realities, may breed “generation snowflake,” who can hardly muster the grit required to fend for themselves and effectively fight for what’s right.

But as Maher’s derision turned to trauma, I recoiled. True trauma is no laughing matter. Granted, subjective experiences are confusing, and can be misleading. Memories are not always reliable (I’m still sure that Mr. Monopoly wears a monocle!). But averting our eyes from the pain in someone else’s, dismissing their “alleged trauma” is to coddle ourselves from the cruelty that is indeed out there.

As for toughing out our traumas, we’ve already noted above how older hardy generations managed that feat; it wasn’t exactly a great story of success. There ought to be a better way.

Whatever it may be, it should mind the misnomer: PTSD is an odd designation, its “post” fails to see what “trauma” truly is. Its etymology goes back to the Greek name for “a wound, a hurt”; trauma is not the injury that happened, but the lingering wound it leaves. People with PTSD live after suffering an injury but still carry the wound. Experiencing trauma is not about remembering things passed but reliving them, eliciting not déjà vu (“already seen”) but déjà vécu (“already lived”). Thus, soldiers with PTSD do not merely recall what happened. They actually relieve it.

As do we all, in our own private warfare. A couple of weeks ago I was leaving home for the university, humming a tune, head in the clouds, walking down the familiar path, when I suddenly felt a sharp pain. Some dry razor-edged branches of an untamed tree punctured my face. I was lucky: my glasses saved my eyes. Bandaged, I made my way back to the crime scene, only to feel a sudden rage towards someone I used to know. Why? It made no sense. She wasn’t there and had nothing to do with it. But there it was, in me, the wrath, perhaps, I dread say, hate. Then, in the car, I recalled the tune I was humming before my encounter with the nefarious branch, “The First Cut is the Deepest,” and by and by connected the dots. The deepest wound can infest all else.

Time heals all wounds, they (who?) say, and surely it does. If “time destroys all things,” even lingering wounds are no exception. Everything is passing, and, for the impatient, suicide can speed up the process. And while evolutionary instincts may impair our chances of killing ourselves, an emotional suicide is easier, and more culturally acceptable. If we can learn to detach, to feel less, to love less, to sever the limb with the First Cut, the hurting should stop.

Healing alive is a harder ask, and task. This is partly because trauma both hurts and comforts, for it helps us name our autobiography. We are, in many ways, the sum of our fears. Still, we truly only fear one thing: pain. It’s the potential sources of pain that we’re scared of. Trauma captures a unique place in this matrix since it offers a semblance of certitude, deep and visceral. The future’s potential for pain is invariably unknown. Past’s pain, however, is proven, etched in our mind, often our flesh. It can readily become our main source of fear – and main sense of self: The trauma explains us, justifies us, preoccupies us.

How can you both sustain and transcend your trauma? How can you both retain trauma for your sense of self and move past it for your wellbeing? Arguably, by regaining agency through trauma-based identity. Trauma gives us our fiery dragon, and if we learn how to tame it, we can ride it, become our life’s true heroes. Now we can turn fear into power, scars into tattoos, transform our moments of fragility, shame and humiliation into our source of pride. In a curious plot twist, the past, not the future, drives our purpose. Sitting in the editing room of our life-film, the story telling may never feel so invigorating as when we make the First Cut into the Final Cut. We can now wear our wound as a badge of honor.

This move has the allure of bad faith, the escape from freedom. Trauma may well be modernity’s most popular form of emotional determinism. It is perhaps not surprising that the feeble scientific evidence for the epigenetic sources of transgenerational trauma became so popular. It apparently excites us. We can now become the wound from womb to tomb.

“Trauma bonding” captures one offshoot. A scientific term that gained popular credence, trauma bonding suggests how trauma bonds the victim to their abuser, as the latter sparkles harm and indifference with intermittent displays of affection.

But is it just that we are bonded to our abuser by the trauma, or is it also that we become bonded to the trauma by the abuser? This may be a far more insidious form of trauma bonding for it creates the semblance of getting to “know ourselves” by sitting next to our supposed core, while effectively trapping ourselves in a cocoon that can only be open – and thus may never open – from within. Tellingly, we personify our wound: the past haunts us, the trauma terrorizes us. They are not. We do – through the ways we attach ourselves to trauma.

And detach ourselves from people, from our capacity to care, to love, to experience true intimacy – losing trust in humanity. It’s not the assassination of the Archduke but of our soul that we should worry most of all.

I was recently taken by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in its HBO adaptation, especially the relations between Lyra and her abusive mother – and both with their dæmons: the animal manifestations of a their inner-selves. In a lovely conversation, Pullman mentioned how he came to realize what distinguishes Lyra: “she’s capable of enormous affection… both giving affection and inspiring it,” from the depth of death to the heights of love.

Perhaps, in our own non-fictional world, we can learn a thing or two from the ways some animals attend to their wounds: licking them. Chemically, we know why it works: saliva contains the enzyme lysozyme – a complex protein with potent antibacterial traits.

Perhaps we can also learn a thing or two from Lyra too. Ultimately, if there’s any true healing it’s in helping one another. And if licking each other’s wounds might be too gross (and not altogether safe), we might as well turn to another fine source of lysozyme: tears – sad and glad.

A week before the Vidovdan 1914 assassination, on the longest day of the year, Bertha von Suttner died in Vienna. A radical pacifist, von Suttner wrote Lay Down Your Arms!, for which she became, in 1905, the second female Nobel laureate (Marie Curie got there first, in 1903). Decades later, Anne Shelton drew on von Suttner’s novel, and sang “Lay down your arms, And surrender to mine.” The Stones too concluded their wounded plea for shelter with a pledge: “Love… It’s just a kiss away, kiss away, kiss away.”

Whatever oldies like me may say about June 28, in the last generation it has stopped, for whatever reason, sending bad global omens. I’d like to think this itself is an omen, that one day, somehow, a bearer of the vicious Vidovdan cycle will come to break it. They will surely deserve a most delicious cake, and - as St. Vitus wanted all along - go dancing!

Happy birthday! 🎂

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