Reclaiming Stolen Identity

“In the beginning there was faith—which is childish; trust—which is vain; and illusion—which is dangerous.

We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah’s flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God’s image.

That was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.”
(Elie Wiesel, “Preface to the New Translation” of Night)

These words from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel catch the breath in my throat. How is it that someone can so eloquently define the bedrock of my identity and in the same breath rip it out from under my feet? On the other hand, his candid statement leaves me wondering how can someone endure such atrocities and still honestly hold onto any sense of sacred identity?

“Those moments… murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.”

One of the most devastating features of trauma is a profound loss of identity. Traumatic experiences steal away all sense of security and certainty, all assurance of who we are and what we can expect of God.

From childhood Elie had embraced his sacred identity as a chosen one, someone special to God and destined for a life of significance because of his relationship with God. But witnessing the brutal slaughter of his mother and sister, being separated from his father by a gradual, tortuous death, and enduring the unending atrocities of concentration camps stole that identity from him. His body was eventually set free from unspeakably dehumanizing brutality, but his soul remained its captive.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. …
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.”
(Elie Wiesel, Night, pp. 43–44)

I read this heart-rending declaration and I mourn Elie’s profound loss, so deep that it forever devoured his very identity. Is this the inevitable outcome for any survivor of such thorough devastation? What hope is left for life after trauma?

Faith in God may be the source of our ordeals. But it is also the solution.

So I turn back to the Bible and compare Elie’s story with his ancestor Joseph’s. How is it possible that he survived his years of inhuman enslavement and dark captivity and still came out the other side with any sense of sacred purpose, any transcendent personal identity?

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3-5

The critical difference I find in their accounts is that Joseph’s relationship with God survived the fire of trauma.

Like Elie, Joseph’s childhood identity was deeply rooted in a sense of being special to God, of having been destined by God for some great purpose within his family. But his brothers’ brutal betrayal stripped him of those distinguishing robes and embroidered dreams. His master’s heartless disposal branded him as an unwanted object, a worthless commodity. And his unyielding cell walls and iron-hearted chains pressed a message of total abandonment by God deep into his soul.

The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. …
But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.
Genesis 39:2, 20-21

But unlike Elie, when Joseph looked back and retold his story, he could still interpret it through eyes of faith. God had gone with him into slavery, blessing his work so that his master would treat him well. God had held him close in the dungeon, setting him up so that his captors would go easy on him. And God had come through for him in the end, providing him with a captive audience and the interpretive key for Pharaoh’s dream.

“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.
Genesis 45:8

For Joseph, faith in God may have been the source of his ordeals. But it was also the solution. God may have led him into the unspeakable horrors of trauma, but He also carried him back out the other side. True, Joseph could never return to the innocence and lightheartedness of his youth. Most of his former identity was lost and gone forever. But the very core of who he was remained. He had always known that he was God’s. Despite the atrocities of his captivity, despite the seeming abandonment of the grave, that relationship never died.

Sadly, Eli Wiesel’s relationship with God did.
“I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger. “
(Elie Wiesel, Night, pp. 68)

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
1 Peter 1:6-9

I resonate with the struggles of both of these men, though I could never claim to have experienced trauma as severe. The trauma God allotted me rattled my certainty in His love for me to the core. In its wake I rehearsed my own story, crying out to God in desperation to tell me who I was anymore, begging Him to reassure me of who I was to Him. But because I was able to take that agonized question to God, I could finally receive His deeply assuring answer.

In the beginning, when life was rosy and the future secure—
I was His.
In the middle, when life was hell and death seemed the only escape—
I was His.
In the present, while I still watch to discover what new creature He is raising up from the ashes—
I am His.
And in the future, come what may—
I will be His.

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