The Shared Vision Our Country Needs is Up to Us Common Folk
“With all the scandals and anger at Trump, 45, how come he’s still in office?”
I’ve been hearing this question more and more lately.
Some activists and journalists fear that the constant state of alarm and panic-producing news could become our new normal: our outrage could become numbness. Complacency could easily follow.
I see social health factors at play, too.
When we think of trauma, we often think about its impact on individuals, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and mental illness. We also think about psychologists, therapists, and the many professionals who support trauma healing. Rarely do we recognize that trauma also operates at a collective level, across groups, be it families, ethnicities, organizations, and countries.
My 16 years of research on how different systems (child welfare, welfare, housing, mental health, physical health, education and legal systems) affect mothers who lost their children to foster care revealed that trauma has a common molecular structure that shows up in all levels of society from how we treat ourselves to how we interact with groups — of any size. What this molecular structure does is trigger us into a familiar pattern of victimhood and powerlessness through familiar patterns of interaction. This is nothing more than the brain following its most familiar neural pathways forged by trauma. In other words, it’s like your brain can choose to take the highway or the backroad. It chooses the highway because it’s familiar and the wider road — even if you’re just going a few blocks away.
Many of us are familiar with how this happens in an individual’s mind, but few realize that this happens collectively too.
What we know from trauma survivor work is that this repetition, this journey down the same neural pathway, over and over, while often painful, is also an opportunity to break the cycle. When a person invests in their own healing, we learn something from each iteration: the life lessons are a gym of trial-and-error that eventually breaks the cycle all together. When we are in denial and don’t learn from the events, the repetition is uselessly painful and we forsake the opportunity to break the pattern.
Collectively, we are in denial. We do not recognize our collective trauma as causing the cycle; nor do we recognize the opportunity to break free from it.
In these first months of the Trump administration, multiple traumas are being triggered, one group at a time, in a repetitive reaction to provocative cues. The result is a cacophony of reactions, red flags, and warnings. But because we are in denial about collective trauma being in the driver seat, we are not really learning from the repetition.
Jews recognize signs from the abuse of state power and warn about the rise of a new holocaust.
Native Americans see the total disregard for native lands and warn against a worsening of the relationship between USA-native relations that compromise the very survival of native communities.
Latin America warn us about the risks of other rise of unchecked nepotism in state power and the rise of a military coup.
Domestic violence survivors, recognized from the campaign trail, that 45 is a textbook abuser, who undermines the stability and sanity of his victim. Survivors warn against losing ourselves in reaction to the constant state of crisis.
Given all these warnings, what is holding us back from definitive, effective action?
Never before have I seen so many groups, at the same moment, wave red flags. This is trauma at its strongest, being repeated at a national level. Trauma is in the driver’s seat, leading this insane ping-pong championship of provocation and reaction. For survivors, the result is a tremendous loss of power. We must change what we are doing.
Firstly, we must create spaces where we learn collectively from our warnings, just the way, in individual therapy, we process what we can learn from the most painful individual circumstances.
Third, we must take fear out of the driver seat. We are in a state of victimhood, panic and earth-shaking fear of repeating past atrocities. We must stop reacting to provocations; it is critical that we connect with our personal power and exit survival mode.
Baldwin said it best:
“You think that your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” James Baldwin
Taking trauma out of the driver seat requires that we scream and react less and let the best of ourselves drive, instead. What is missing is a message of unity, of trust in ourselves and our movements that allows us to transcend our victimhood into a new state of collective being and power. We must let our anger and frustration unite us in the face of a common ideal of a country where all state atrocities cease. We do this, by letting go of denial, acknowledging our collective pain, and learning from the past and the present. We can reinvent ourselves, in community, with a common purpose, intentionality, and vision in a way that makes us proactive and productive.
As we do this, 45’s provocative twitter-feed will no longer matter.
Trauma survivors know this works. Trauma can be transformed, pain can become power when we learn from our past and take responsibility for our future. This is as true for individuals as it is for groups.
It’s time for a shared vision for our country. Our administration cannot do this: it is too committed to driving trauma, loss, and divisiveness. Stop expecting this administration to do what is now ours to do. We must create that vision, live by it, and let it drive every moment of the day. This time, a vision is critical for humanity to not only survive, but thrive.
Want more? There’s a lot happening in the next year:
My blog: Trauma is a Two-way Street is a series on how trauma dominates group dynamics and tools for transformation.
My book, Give me Back My Child! How the U.S. System Kidnaps Children, will be out in 2018. It exposes how different systems work to shape the ‘child industrial complex’, through the lives of six mothers across 14 years.
In fall 2017, I’m starting a podcast series that features front-line workers, advocates, and activists in conversation in several systems.
To stay in touch and find out more, go to www.DrRitaWrites.com, and leave your email, so that we can let you know as new information is available.