“It’s crucial not to give in to powerlessness.” Interview with Professor Danutė Gailienė
On February 24, we woke up in a world that had changed. Since Russia brutally invaded Ukraine, Ukrainians have been bravely defending their freedom and right to exist. Many voices suggest that today Ukrainians are also fighting for the democracy and freedom of the whole Western world.
In the Baltic states and Poland, our response to this war in Ukraine is particularly strong. We identify with Ukrainians, and we’re angry at the apathy of other countries. This war has triggered a collective trauma that we Lithuanians have experienced due to the Soviet occupation and repressions. We’re asking ourselves, what if we’re next? How can we live in this reality of war and constant threat without causing harm to ourselves while still helping Ukrainians as best as we can? I explore these questions and more in conversation with Professor Danutė Gailienė, a lecturer of clinical psychology and researcher of collective trauma.
I want to start our conversation by discussing an example you share in your book What Have They Done to Us: Lithuanian Life Examined Through the Lens of Trauma Psychology. You write about Norwegian ships during WWII. Both commercial vessels and warships were prepared to engage in combat at any moment. Some of the commercial vessels were never attacked. After the war, Norwegian psychologists started researching PTSD experienced by these sailors and uncovered a fascinating phenomenon. Those sailors who were on the ships that were never attacked didn’t experience any real physical danger. However, the post-traumatic effects on their psyche were as strong as those who had to engage in combat. Why did this happen?
It’s due to the human mind and imagination. Particularly in such critical moments as the one we’re currently experiencing, our minds can be both a friend and an enemy. This situation is uniquely human: because of the mind, we can spend a long time in this psycho-physiological state of stress. When we experience this stress, brain activity increases and certain biological processes of the body get switched on.
There are three biological responses to stress: fight, flight, and freeze. Biological beings react to danger in these three ways, but humans can get stuck in these response mechanisms even after the immediate threat is no longer present. In the Western world, we live a stressful life fraught with pressure. We seek achievement and can see potential threats even in such things as a possibility of failure in our careers.
“What we are experiencing now is war trauma, even though we all experience it to a differed degree.”
When the pandemic started, many interviewers pressured me to define the pandemic as a time of collective trauma. I didn’t see it that way and I didn’t utter this phrase, because it was not trauma but rather intense stress and worry – a time of unpredictability. Yes, to some individuals who experienced painful loss, it was a traumatic experience. However, we can’t call it trauma on a collective level.
Through the lens of collective experience, there was no threat of conscious killing or destruction, no one was attacked with a gun, our country and its institutions didn’t collapse – they all continued working. Right now, we have a different situation – there’s a real threat, real deaths, real bombs, real shelling of maternity hospitals. And we know that this threat is real for us too. What we are experiencing now is war trauma, even though we all experience it to a different degree.
All of us are affected, including people engaging in combat, refugees, and those of us who are forced to live under this potential threat. Here we can remember this analogy of Norwegian sailors: knowing that you are facing a potential threat can be profoundly traumatizing.
How is this state of facing a potential threat connected with our intergenerational trauma and experience with Russia in our history?
Our history is definitely a very important factor. For example, your generation hasn’t directly experienced these historic events. Here we can see how the intergenerational system, also known as the three-generation phenomenon, manifests in the living relationship between grandparents, parents, and children. This connection isn’t just about formal knowledge. It helps situate those historic events in the present.
The war in Ukraine has immediately become reflected in my private practice. Some patients have already started planning how they may emigrate, and how they can take their children to a safe place. Why is this reaction so significant even amongst people who have never experienced a direct threat? It’s because their father said, “It was the same then. People had also said that the Americans would come to help.” And how does a father know this? A grandfather probably told him, “Don’t believe this. It’s not the first time they’re promising that Americans will come to defend us.”
That’s exactly what I mean when I talk about this living narrative in which the feeling of vulnerability once experienced in the past resurfaces again. We didn’t have centuries of safety and peace in our country. Therefore, everything rapidly comes to the surface: the January events [13th of January 1991], forced deportations, repression, and numerous atrocities committed by the regime. And from even deeper in the past: the first Soviet occupation, Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, forced emigration, the second Soviet occupation. Some shameful things also surface: anticipating the imaginary “liberation” by Russians, thinking that we shouldn’t resist. While these ideas exist quietly on the margins, this false narrative isn’t strong and hasn’t gained much support in our society – which is something we can be glad about.
What has also become apparent is our resilience. Today our society is dominated by decent and psychologically healthy people who can distinguish between good and evil. Even those who didn’t care before have now become aware because they have their minds and hearts. There aren’t many of us wandering in the dark.
As a country, as a nation, as a society, and a community – what can we do to prevent this historical trauma from dragging us all into self-harm or creating even more pain? How can we live through this difficult situation and help Ukrainians in the most productive way?
The collective historical trauma that has resurfaced is actually driving us to take action. Just because this trauma appears doesn’t mean that it is harming us. Yes, in some individual cases people can be retraumatized because they experience horror. However, on a societal level, these situations are making us more realistic, more motivated, and inspired.
“Another layer of this war is to protect our everyday lives, our normalcy.”
Our history teaches us that even in the most hopeless situations we can resist and fight back, even when we find ourselves facing a tank with our bare hands. Resistance doesn’t only happen in the physical realm. There’s also a wide realm beyond – that of symbolic and cultural resistance. What led unarmed people to stand up in front of a tank with their bare hands? We exist in a shared atmosphere, shared emotions, determination, and direction, and we decide that this is what we’re going to do. In the current circumstances, Ukrainians have made a decision – they will not give up. In this instance, even the resurfacing of collective historical trauma can have positive outcomes rather than be traumatizing.
When we consider today’s circumstances, feeling anxious isn’t wrong. Being calm isn’t always good because anxiety is appropriate to the current situation. Who can stay calm? Increased sensitivity, heightened emotions, feelings of helplessness, and anxiety – that is all completely normal in this context. What’s really important is to ask yourself: where is this leading me? Is this demoralizing me, or is it actually motivating me to act, to contribute, to help, and sometimes when I’m not able to help, focus on protecting myself?
I’ve noticed that people don’t appreciate our everyday life at the moment. We’re all striving to be heroes and do something – but that’s only one layer. Another layer of this war is to protect our everyday lives, our normalcy. Each and every one of us need to fight for our normal – if we have a job, let’s do it well, if we have commitments, let’s stick to them to the best of our ability. It’s not true that in light of this threat everything else becomes irrelevant.
“There’s no greater happiness than living the truth.”
Perhaps things will become irrelevant if we have to pick up a gun and fight, but that’s a different story. We shouldn’t create stories that aren’t real. Right now, we are not in a war zone, even though we are very connected and very close to it. However, right now we shouldn’t let our fantasy create something that isn’t happening here.
People are feeling guilty for living their normal life. That’s deeply unfair. If you like meeting your friend for a chat and having a piece of cake – well perhaps that’s your way of fighting this war. I remember a story from WWII when one Polish woman was asked how she survived the terror of war. She proudly said, “I tailored my own dress and went to the hairdresser.” That was this woman’s individual fight against Nazism – she defended normality with all her might.
In your book, you argue that the acknowledgment of inflicting trauma is very significant in trauma psychology. Germany took responsibility, dealt with the consequences, and paid for the damage it caused post-WWII, whereas Russia never did that. I want to ask you to imagine what today’s Russia might have been had it acknowledged not only its heroism but also the trauma it caused others and the crimes it committed?
Russia would be a happy country with happy people since there’s no greater happiness than living the truth. Lithuania fought for this happiness and won as if by a miracle because we quickly realized the direction in which we wanted to go. That direction wasn’t a given. There were many obstacles, but we managed to move towards the right direction fairly quickly. We moved towards independence. Where did this potential for independence come from? Here we should also consider our intergenerational connection and memory. The parents of the members of my generation still had a connection with the interwar independence. We had this living narrative telling us what it meant to live in an independent country and what the occupiers did to us. This living narrative was then and continues to be our strength today.
In the Baltic states, we had this great happiness of building democracy. Democratic countries are happy countries. Inevitably there are many discussions and dissatisfaction in these countries, but in them we are free. We fought hard and gained our freedom, and so as a society, we have been collectively crafting this narrative about ourselves: what happened to us, who suffered, who suffered less, where we contributed to the injustice ourselves. What’s most important is that our societal discourse wasn’t dominated by non-truth. It wasn’t taken over by some lie. The great tragedy of Russia is that this is exactly what happened there. The same KGB agents took over the government and embellished the narrative, but inside all that remained were lies and half-truths.
On an individual level, we understand that the worst person is actually deeply unhappy. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t resist them, that we can just allow them to do bad things and cause harm. We cannot. The same applies to us on a collective level.
Before coming here today I listened to a NARA conversation with academic Lina Strupinskienė about the reconciliation of the Balkan countries after the Yugoslav wars. It highlighted how, having survived the wars, people there are still very injured and antagonistic. Everything has been covered with a fresh coat of paint but their open wounds are still pulsating, and the war threw their societies back decades. Today I also saw a leaflet published by psychologists, sharing advice on how to talk to child refugees, how to inform them about the deaths of their relatives. All of that is trauma that will get woven together into the future, leading to unavoidable consequences. What potential challenges might we expect in our region? What should we look out for and be aware of?
Yes, the war is already happening and we are already affected by war trauma. The consequences of war are difficult and varied, lasting a long time. Some people’s lives are forever altered, as is the case for the orphans you mentioned. This doesn’t mean, however, that their lives are doomed. Rather, it’s a fact that some changes are irreversible.
Having said that, we are presented with an opportunity to be realists, to see what is actually happening here. My heart aches when I speak to Germans, especially leftists. There is even the term Putinversteher (translates to “someone who understands Putin”). I’ve had many discussions with them. However, their arguments are all demagoguery. When I pressure them with concrete facts, they shift the discussion to some generalizations. “Well, this is politics, it happens everywhere” and so on. Here in Lithuania, we have a “vaccine” for this. We have all been “vaccinated” against Russian propaganda, and this is extremely valuable.
It is interesting that you touched upon this. A friend of mine is a theater director in Germany. She shared her insight that, having lived through their Nazi past, Germans tend to see the answers and the truth in the present-day Russia because Russians defeated fascism. Even though they have been dealing with their collective guilt, it still remains so vast that it prevents them from seeing the reality of the situation.
Germans have been stuck in their collective guilt so much so that without realizing it they’ve become completely egotistical. We could say that this collective acknowledgment was a very positive step for Germans since their country wanted the truth and had the courage to admit the harm it had caused. Our consciousness isn’t dominated by collective guilt since historically we were the ones who were harmed and our territory was occupied. Yes, we have wounds that still exist – we did play a role in Holocaust, but we didn’t initiate it. We have officially acknowledged the harm we caused and I hope that we continue to deeply reflect on this dark legacy.
My colleagues from the Balkan region have told me that in Lithuania we are lucky to have this historical clarity: the occupiers came, and we kicked the occupiers out. There are places where history is a lot more complex.
Bringing our conversation back to the Germans, they did courageously admit their guilt. Sadly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their reality didn’t expand. They strongly resisted the idea that there was another criminal, that there was an opportunity to neutralize them. The collective trauma of Germans prevents them from seeing other people’s trauma and pain.
I sometimes think about the teenagers of today: having spent a couple of years in the pandemic, they are now facing war. It seems that they haven’t really experienced the normal functioning of society. How might this experience affect them?
We can look at this from a few different angles. Would it be better if these teenagers had too much of everything, were spoiled, and didn’t know what they wanted? Or is it better for this generation to be slightly shaken but still live in relative peace, with some restrictions and anxiety? We can philosophize about this, though I don’t know the answer. It all really depends on society, on a loving family, on multiple factors.
“Sometimes people can suffer and be more traumatized when they are living with anxiety and worry for a long time but are unable to do anything about it.”
Perhaps being shaken might help us build resilience? When we talk about trauma, we always talk about two components – vulnerability and resilience. The resilience of a person, a society, a country, is a very particular factor. We have to trust it. Yes, there’s always a risk that we might get hurt but equally, there’s a chance that we will become stronger and more resilient. Even when we take into account the statistics of individual trauma, around 80% of the population experience what we would define as trauma in their lifetime. What are the consequences of that? In the long run, usually, only 2-7% of people experience a post-traumatic disorder. Ultimately, humans are resilient.
What protects us from the effects of trauma?
First of all, it’s the ability to take action. Second, it’s social support. If you have people who support you and you can take action, this can protect you from post-traumatic stress syndrome. If we told Ukrainian soldiers today that they are being traumatized, they wouldn’t agree. They have an opportunity to take action – to protect their country. Sometimes people can suffer and be more traumatized when they are living with anxiety and worry for a long time but are unable to do anything about it. That’s why we need to fight for our everyday life, not just worry about it.
It’s crucial not to sink into despair early on, and it’s crucial not to give in to powerlessness. Our fight can manifest in the small things – as I said, carrying on with your duties, sticking to your routine, and looking after your health. How can you be helpful if you’re unwell? Our worrying doesn’t help Ukrainians in any way.
This war is completely different because we are experiencing it in real time through the media. We have smartphones and are exposed to videos and images from the war every minute. We no longer need to wait for the evening news or tomorrow’s newspaper. We are consuming images of war like never before. How should we handle this new intense stream of information?
Indeed, that’s a completely new phenomenon. Trauma in a traditional sense means that you are either in a traumatic situation or you’re not. Even the academics emphasize that trauma is defined by coming into contact with a deadly threat – not something you can experience through the media. If you have experienced or witnessed your relatives being tortured, that is trauma. However, if you have watched a movie about war, that is not trauma. That’s how it used to be defined for a long time. Now our understanding is changing.
“We must switch off, look after ourselves. Otherwise, our brains will remain in a constant experience of trauma. That is very dangerous.”
Through the media, we can remain in a prolonged traumatic situation and our brains can be constantly stimulated. That’s how our magical thinking works too. When we consume these images and videos, we imagine that we are in control of the situation. As if we could be safer if we can just stay constantly informed. Unfortunately, that is not true. In fact, by consuming these images constantly, we end up becoming helpless participants without respite.
Here I can only emphasize the importance of personal responsibility – we must switch off, look after ourselves. Otherwise, our brains will remain in a constant experience of trauma. That is very dangerous. Instead, we should work on increasing our own consciousness and the consciousness of others, and we must retreat into our own reality, our own everyday life. Personal discipline is key.
Some people are blaming us for not feeling guilt when the atrocities were happening further away from Ukraine, for example in Syria or Libya. What would you say to this?
I think this is a natural effect of being a neighbor. If my house was burning, I wouldn’t be waiting for someone to fly over from Syria to help me – I would be waiting for my neighbors to help me, I’d expect my relatives to understand my hardships. It’s impossible to look after the whole world, but there are good people everywhere. When we’re faced with adversity, it’s the duty of our neighbors to help.
And yet, the metaphysical guilt is universal. We were hurting when Putin started bombing children in Syria. We were feeling even more hopeless as we couldn’t directly see our support reaching the people of Syria because they were further away. Right now, we can see our acquaintances and neighbors organizing aid and driving to Ukraine in their vans, evacuating people. That touches us deeply.
Sometimes I feel guilty if I take a break from the news about war. I feel that if I witness everything that is happening, perhaps I will help Ukrainians more, perhaps I will be more righteous. However, it seems that in the long run, this isn’t psychologically sustainable.
People have suddenly become existentialists. They are all pondering questions about guilt, responsibility, the order of the world and its meaning. On the one hand, it’s good, but on the other hand, you need to understand a thing or two about guilt. I am reminded of Karl T. Jaspers, a philosopher who explored the concept of guilt in his work. Guilt can be real: judicial, moral. If the feeling of guilt surfaces, you need to check in with yourself and ask, am I guilty or not guilty? And if I am guilty, then what am I guilty of? You can make amends in order to absolve real guilt. However, he also identifies metaphysical guilt, which is part of human life. If injustice is taking place somewhere in the world, you feel guilty. That’s metaphysical guilt. Jaspers claims that metaphysical guilt can only be absolved by God.
If we come back to Earth for a moment, we can approach guilt in a different way. We cannot avoid guilt. If we feel guilty, we need to check if we can do anything about it, including looking after ourselves. And then we need to acknowledge our reality – there is guilt on a global scale which we will have to live with.