Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis

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“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.
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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.

REFERENCES
[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. 

The notion of dependence

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Beethoven’s death mask by Josef Dannhauser

Alberto Arruda was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence” and is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Lisbon.

During the various sessions of our seminar, the notion of dependence was often mentioned in one way or another. I have decided to write a brief note on this notion in the hope that it might spark a discussion amongst philosophers, theologians and psychologists alike. This note assumes the form of a reflection on a text; and author, that is, I think, a very unlikely candidate in the context of our sessions: Descartes. Perhaps for this reason, and given our prevalent Aristotelianism, I thought this exercise would be interesting, since it challenges some of our dearest assumptions.

 

A brief note on dependence

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“I am not an animal!” protested Spartacus, the very same thought that famously puzzled Descartes in his Meditations. And even though both men were protesting in a similar way, they were not protesting about the same thing at all. While Descartes was complaining about the fact that he couldn’t possibly be reduced to the animal begotten by his parents, the slave was complaining about the fact that he could not be reduced to an animal just because someone had decided to treat him like one. But where the slave might have pointed to the fact that, much like his owner, he also had parents, and perhaps even siblings, who worried about him, Descartes would have maintained that the dependence exhibited by his animal nature did nothing more than conceal his real dependence on God. Now, this is a genuine difference. Although both complain about being reduced to something they know they are not, the nature of Descartes’ complaint is about concealment, while the slave’s is about what is, for him, painfully manifest.

 

If Descartes had lived to encounter, say, Beethoven’s death mask, perhaps he would have maintained, much like Aristotle, that the mask was not the likeness of Beethoven at all. But, where for Aristotle the now dead Beethoven was no longer Beethoven, I mean, that particular depiction was merely the depiction of a Beethoven now missing a part, Descartes would have maintained that the mask of the dead Beethoven was certainly not the likeness of the real Beethoven, but then again, no mask could ever have been – dead or alive.

 

So, an alive and well Beethoven, that is, an intact Beethoven as Aristotle would say, really never was ab initio Beethoven. And now, I can’t quiet imagine what privation meant for Descartes, nor what a status quo ante could have meant for Descartes in relation to both the deterioration and the many privations our bodies do suffer. But I do understand one, I suppose, fundamental aspect of his argument – namely, that the real Beethoven may very well still be somewhere (that is, if he, or it, is still somehow able to think). And this is not exactly the same as saying that the real Beethoven has only now genuinely come to be, I mean, now after the death of his animal part.  For if we were really thinking about Beethoven’s soul, we would have to be thinking about the Beethoven who sinned, the one who sinned through that body, the body now depicted in that death mask. So this Beethoven, the dead Beethoven, was, even for Aristotle, who certainly did not puzzle about the salvation of his soul, not necessarily the Beethoven who used to sin and repent, but certainly the one who did all of those actions and composed all that music, the music that somehow many of us grow up with. But still, what about the question: who was the real Beethoven for Descartes? He was not the body depicted in his death mask – and we do have this intuition, especially when we miss someone who has died – so who was he?

 

And now we know that the reply is challenging and difficult, for he never was that body, nor his thoughts, and certainly not his actions. And so he was not part of the history we inherited. He was always, genuinely, his thinking, but not the falsity he sometimes thought about. Beethoven was, like I am, and so are you, his thinking when it was true. So the evil genius could have robbed him of a world, he could have robbed him of his acting, and I suppose of his sins and redemption, but he could not have robbed him of the faculty that God created, the faculty of proper thinking. And so, Descartes argued he was his thinking; he argued that he was his dependence on God, and now I say dependence, because he could not have created truth, for he was far from perfect, and also, because he could not exist without truth. So Descartes, and Beethoven, and you, and I are our dependence on God; we are, if you want, the faculty we exercise but have not begotten, and so we are all equal before God. Therefore, when any of us takes drugs, we are, for Descartes, so it seems to me, giving the biggest offence we can. We are polluting the very gift we received from God, destroying our election, and really, genuinely, destroying ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another thought: Descartes somehow had the intuition that he was somewhere in his body, but not like a pilot is in a vessel. This takes away any hope we might have of putting matters in a way that is as clean and simple as talk about separable glassy essences, ghosts in machines and otherwise. And I think there is a lot in this that can be used to somehow detach his theory from an official doctrine of Cartesianism, although I do not dare to dispute that there is a great deal of merit in what has been achieved under this rubric.

But still, what about the thought concerning pilots and vessels? The Descartes of the Meditations never thought about something like occupying more than one body. I suppose such a thought experiment did not seem necessary to him, as it does to a lot of us nowadays. The uniqueness of occupying only one body seemed, perhaps, trivial to him. He did not argue much for it, and so he did not argue much against it. Given his hyperbole, he could have never conclusively known that he had occupied only one body; and I think that there would not be much advantage to doing so, since truly knowing what one is would not be improved by a putative change of body. So Descartes’ argument mentioned uniqueness of body, but not, as we would be tempted to think, in the service of some kind of uniqueness of experience. And now, I have to admit, that at least I do believe in such uniqueness of experience. And as I hinted at before, I do not find this uniqueness entirely void of theological significance either.

However, if we think about it, his metaphor is near perfect for his purpose. Any pilot is far more dependent on his or her vessel than Descartes thought he was on his body (at least this is what he wished to establish with his argument). No pilot is yet a pilot if he or she has never had a vessel, or at least the chance to pilot one. And the pilot who now lacks a vessel is certainly not half a pilot, although he or she is in danger of, perhaps, never again doing what a pilot does. And now we see that for Descartes what I truly am, my thinking, would still be possible even if I did not have a body, as long as God, who I truly depend on for my conservation, would grant me some true thoughts. And so, it seems, I am less dependent on my body for being me than a pilot is on a vessel for being a pilot, even though we are both equally dependent on God for existing at all.

Interview with Alberto Arruda, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Alberto Arruda is
postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Lisbon. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Tomorrow’s blog post is by Arruda, “The notion of dependence.”

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Alberto Arruda: I am from Lisbon, Portugal. I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lisbon.

VW: Tell me about your research.

AA: My research interests are mainly in the connections between the philosophies of mind and action, moral and political philosophy, and also Wittgenstein, Anscombe, Marx and Hegel.

More specifically, my most recent research interest is concerned with trying to understand philosophically what ‘worrying about someone’ means. By this expression I simply mean that I have been trying to think about what this characteristic exhibited by humans (worrying about each other) means in virtue ethics and the development of virtues, also regarding the notion of a person.

In relation to this, I have been trying to better understand the notion of perfectionism, especially how in some political systems perfectionism was both destructive of persons and the apparent justification of a higher good for that political community.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

AA: My main non-academic interest is music.

 

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

AA: I am looking forward to serious and exciting discussions, and to learning about new perspectives that will help me when considering the problems I study.

Interview with Carissa Phillips-Garrett, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Carissa Phillips-Garrett is Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Houston. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Carissa Phillips-Garrett: I grew up in San Diego and it still feels like home even though it’s been almost 10 years since I lived there full-time. After undergrad and before starting my PhD, I lived in the Republic of Georgia, South Korea, and Canada, before moving to Houston where I live currently. I am finishing my PhD in philosophy at Rice University, and after living in Houston longer than I’ve lived anywhere else as an adult, Houston feels like home, too.

 

VW: Tell me about your research.

CPG: I work primarily at the intersection of ethics, moral psychology, social and political philosophy, and ancient philosophy. Because of my interest in virtue, flourishing, and political communities, I am naturally drawn to Aristotle, so my work involves bringing Aristotle into conversation with contemporary philosophers.

My research as a whole concerns relationships (both personal and broadly social) and the common good. I am interested in the social ties that bind us to one another, the virtues, emotions, and practices that sustain and undermine these ties, and the moral demands that arise from our relationships to one another. I also explore the role that moral identity plays in sustaining virtue and happiness.

The escalating social and political tensions over the last few years highlight the importance of learning to listen and dialogue with those who are very different than ourselves. My work is now turning to examine the role that mercy, charity, empathy, and social relationships might play in promoting understanding and a commitment to the common good within our social and political communities.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

CPG: I enjoy traveling and exploring new places, reading (mainly historical fiction and philosophical sci fi), playing board and card games, and visiting museums. I also love the the beach and water sports more generally.

 

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

CPG: I’m really looking forward to participating in interdisciplinary conversations about the relationship between goodness and happiness, how we develop ethically, and the value of friendship. While I really enjoy my own discipline (philosophy), I am looking forward to having discussions and being challenged by participants from other disciplines.

 

Interview with Summer Session Participant Ellen Dulaney

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Ellen Dulaney s a PhD student in Psychology at Depaul University. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Ellen Dulaney: I am originallly from Knoxville, Tennessee. I have also lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I completed my undergraduate degree at Hampshire College.

VW: Tell me about your research.
ED: Using psychology’s methods of inquiry, I research the self and essentialist beliefs about the true self. Additionally I study whether the self can provide a personalized access point to constructing meaning in life for each person. I research these topics because I am interested in understanding human Being, the phenomenological experience of selfhood, and what conditions can enable each person to thrive. 

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this seminar?
ED:  I am very excited for the opportunity to hear from precise and passionate thinkers from such a wide range of traditions. I value interdisciplinary input on my topics of interest very highly, and am sure I will learn so much during each of this seminar’s discussions.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?
ED: My non-academic interests include painting and photography; surrealist and impressionistic painters; the cultures of Japan and Southern Appalachia; socially-conscious punk and rock music; and science fiction, fiction, and noir films and literature.

Interview with Cabrini Pak, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Cabrini Pak is
a Teaching Fellow with the School of Business and Economics and a PhD candidate in Religion and Culture at the Catholic University of America. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Cabrini Pak: I grew up all over the United States, having lived on the East and West Coasts, north and south.

VW: Tell me about your research.

CP: I am currently working on: integration of personal identity and ethical frameworks in context shifts, particularly for military service members; the role of transcendence in resilient American POWs; moral conflict, ambiguity, and injury; suicide; spiritual resilience; transcendence as experiential process rather than as “event” or “state of being.”

The “Why”:  The human person in the 21st century world is often reduced to individualistic jumbles of needs and wants (material and immaterial), which the global marketplace then feeds from & caters to. This creates a rather pernicious feedback loop that ultimately results in the objectification of the human experience and human beings, individually and in groups. Exacerbating this problem is the disturbing rise of human trafficking (especially women and children) to fortify industrial supply chains that really just feed the vices.

I hope that my research can help recover a more holistic understanding of human flourishing, individually and in groups. Deeper conversations about human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, and a “common good” need to return to the public square. Time-space horizons can be stretched to include a telos that informs the activities we engage now and anticipate in the future. It goes back (for me) to integrating personal identity (which is social in nature) with ethical frameworks (which are cultural products).

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar? 

CP: I am really looking forward to just meeting people from different fields and hearing their stories, their thoughts on these topics. Very much looking forward to hearing what our speakers have to share, especially regarding what progress or shifts they have seen as the project itself unfolded.

VW: What are your non-academic interests? 

CP: Seirenkai Karate (2nd Dan), photography, exploring the outdoors, and delving into the lives of the saints.