Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis

“Bringing up the Rear” Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC.  Photo by Charles Payne.
What is it about some American service members that enable them to bounce back from something like a POW experience, which may include daily conditions like filth, disease, starvation, torture, murder, and unscrupulous behavior among fellow prisoners and guards? Is it possible to transcend those experiences and make meaning of them in ways that allow one to heal and move on? How does one survive these stressors and manage to do things well, like get married, have a family, and live a productive life for decades after the traumatic experience? This study explores these questions.

Transcendence is an under-appreciated aspect of human experience with potentially significant positive contributions to the study of “spiritual fitness” and resilience in the military (Mullen, 2011), two factors attributed to successful navigation of the military life cycle. Transcendence, as a possible influencer of resilience, can be tracked in various forms, including narrative. I propose that resilient American service members who survived and bounced back from something like a POW experience, and wrote about it later, left traces of transcendence in their stories, which can be studied.

I also propose that transcendence is native to the human experience and can be conceptualized as an experiential meaning-making process, rather than an event or state of being. In my model of transcendence there are at least two possible outcomes. The first outcome, stabilization of one’s sense of self, enables the person to more firmly root him or herself in a response to the question, “What am I?” The second outcome, extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, in space-time, gives the person coordinates in moral space and allows the person to draw from those coordinates in future situations, particularly those that might be morally challenging. Eight memoirs of American POWs from two time periods were analyzed: World War II and the Vietnam War. The memoirs were selected based on public availability and known resilience of POW survivors (no known attempt to commit suicide within five years of discharge).

Anti-transcendence, an “anti-process” and a contrary to transcendence, is a necessary conceptualization because both transcendent and anti-transcendent events are found in the human condition. Although failure to make meaning of personally relevant transcendent events does not necessarily carry negative consequences, failure to make meaning of personally relevant anti-transcendent events does carry a downside risk of destabilizing one’s sense of self and fracturing or disintegrating connections within and beyond oneself. Anti-transcendence as a possible precursor to destabilization of one’s sense of self, fracturing or severing of deep ties within and beyond the self, and as a possible catalyst to something like anomy (a form of meaninglessness), has received virtually no attention in the literature, yet has the potential to contribute to a larger discussion around related issues like moral injury, depression associated with PTSD, identity crises, and suicidal ideation. The figure below is a partial representation of my model of transcendence and anti-transcendence.

The results of this study challenge existing notions of transcendence as an event or state of being, and offer evidence of an alternative, trackable, conceptualization of transcendence. The study also offers a method to track transcendence in written narrative form, and to detect instances of both transcendence and anti-transcendence, as well as their outcomes. The resilient American service members in this study all appear to have processed transcendent and anti-transcendent events in ways that yielded patterned results, whether in regard to one’s sense of self or to extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Although resilience may not necessarily equal immunity to such symptoms as post-traumatic stress, transcendence and resilience together may be intertwined in ways that contribute to more robust coping or adaptive behavior, such as one of the memoirist’s decisions to tell his story and seek professional help for his PTSD symptoms after recognizing their persistence. The study of transcendence and its connection to resilience may also contribute to a broader concept of well-being, like the notions of human thriving or human flourishing.

A final word about transcendence: although this study is limited to the examination of transcendence at a personal level, there is also support for the notion that it can occur at a collective level. Peter Berger (1967) made three observations that are relevant to the idea that transcendence is a native dimension of the human experience, individually and collectively. First, world-building is a biological imperative for the human person: “The world-building of man is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution.” Second, world-building by the individual man is never separated from society: “Man’s world-building activity is always a collective enterprise. Man’s internal appropriation of the world must also take place in a collectivity.” Third, in the process of world-building, “man, by his own activity, specializes his drives and provides stability for himself.” I point this out here to show that there may be much more to transcendence when compared between the individual and collective levels; the potentially therapeutic outcomes of stabilizing one’s sense of self and making extraordinary connections within and beyond the self may exhibit phenomenal effects if the process is adopted organizationally, with due care to maintain the integrity of a person’s religious, cultural, and ethnic senses of identity. If, in future studies, transcendence can be identified more strongly as a positive predictor of resilience, it may play a role as a therapeutic mechanism, individually and perhaps even on a more communal level.

[1] M.G. Mullen (Admiral, US Navy), “Chairman’s Total Force Fitness Framework,” CJCSI 3405.01, J-7 (1 September 2011).
[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

Cabrini Pak, PhD, recently earned her doctorate in Religion and Culture at The Catholic University of America and is on a two-year global assignment with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. She was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence. This is an excerpt of her dissertation, which studies transcendence in resilient American service members in two major war periods. Her dissertation will be publicly available later this year. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis”: A Dissertation by Cabrini Pak, Ph.D. Director: Dr. William Barbieri, Ph.D.