Why ‘Trauma’ Is the Word of the Year

In 2018, none of us escaped the punishment of trauma

At the U.S. border in 2018, there are children in cages. It is a real thing happening. It will be remembered forever. Even though it is forgotten every moment.

I was a refugee. At least for a small portion of my life, in some small sense. My mother and I were homeless twice, once when I was seven and again when I was 15. I don’t think much of it now, though I am beginning to. It is coming back to me in dreams and visions, like a song I used to know the words to but have long since forgotten. I have managed to sleep under a roof almost every night of my life. Even today, when I crawl into bed, I marvel at the reality of having a place to live, at the heft of a comforter against my body. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it. The answer, of course, is nothing.

The first night we were without a home, it was winter. So cold that our car wouldn’t start at first. We lit out into the night, looking for any warm place, which turned out to be a Long John Silver’s by the side of a Maryland highway. From there, my mother made calls from a pay phone while I sipped on hot chocolate that the staff gave us. I remember the feeling of being inside the only lit building in the world. Outside of those windows lay the abject, the darkness, something I did not have words for then; I only knew that it terrified me. The quiet between the occasional car on the highway. The snow falling so silently and carelessly over everything. It could be said that the cold of that night, the dispassionate darkness of it, settled somewhere in my body and never left. I can always feel it lurking. There probably was a moment when I did not feel that darkness or even know of its existence. But that homeless night — a night laid at my child feet by four centuries of brutality, of poverty and violence, of limitless hate, and an entire continent’s obsession with the ruination of my ancestors — arrived and split my young self into two. One child who knew safety and love. One child who knew isolation and death.

I beg of you to care about this. But I’m not sure that you do. I beg of myself to care about this, but I’m not sure that I do. Sometimes I cannot. Sometimes it is easier to watch Netflix and eat potato chips until I fall asleep. The problem with that kind of sleep is that I never want to get up from it. But I wake up the next day and force myself into life. I text friends, I go to work, I take care of my children, I tell people I love them. I know now, at 44, that not caring is how I play and replay my trauma on myself, and how I play and replay it upon you. I know that trauma is toxic and contagious. I know that it sometimes makes people reject me, it sometimes makes me find people who will reject me, and it sometimes makes me reject myself.

At the border, there are children in cages, separated from the people who love them by the people who hate them. And make no mistake: It is not law or patriotism or self-protection that puts children in cages. It is only malice. That is all it can ever be. You cannot put children in cages without believing they are not humans. And you cannot believe children are not humans without abandoning your own humanity. It is not just family separation happening at the border. It is separation of humanity. Which makes it trauma, because trauma is separation.

It is a schism in the church of the soul, a ravine slashing haphazardly through the bedrock of a person. Trauma takes things that should be at one and splits them into two. Children and safety should be at one. Humanity and caring should be at one. The traumatic event is the event that tears these things away from one another. I often see it in my mind’s eye as a lightning bolt, slicing the brain down the middle, cleaving the spirit into two, leaving fractal scars that crawl forever in every direction. And for the rest of days, for the rest of time, the two parts of the self, those parts that have been split, will seek unification. Reification. For the rest of time, the two will search for one another. Trauma is the force that splits one into two. Trauma is the unaccompanied pain and grief of the eternal quest of two to become a whole one. Trauma is everything we do, every action we take, every lie we tell, every person we hurt in that desperate fumbling attempt to become whole again.

The irony of trauma is that even though it happens so deeply inside a single person, so quietly and close to the bone, it is never personal. It is shared, and it is collective. You cannot keep it to yourself. It is handed from one person to the next like a strain of herpes or, if you like, a fruit cake gifted and regifted every year during the holidays. My father’s trauma becomes my mother’s trauma. My mother’s trauma becomes mine. Whose will mine become?

What I saw in 2018 was this country being quickly submerged in a flood of collective trauma. No one is safe. And more important, no one should be. “Suckers try to hide like the struggle won’t find them,” raps Mos Def (aka Yasiin Bey) on “Auditorium,” his 2011 masterwork. “And the sun burst through the clouds to clearly remind them. It’s everywhere.” Like many artists, his attempt is to seek liberation by casting his trauma as not just visible but unavoidable, a concept that is inherently anti-supremacist.

This country is built — capitalism is built, patriarchy is built, whiteness is built — on the idea that trauma can be offloaded on the least of us. Because this country and capitalism, and patriarchy, and whiteness are all constructions of supremacy. And there can be no supremacy without inferiority. This, indeed, is why we even have a “least of us” to begin with. This is why we must have black men in jails, children in cages, women unprotected in rooms with predators, trans people in morgues. This is why these people must not be listened to, must not be believed when they talk of their pain. Because it is in their silence and invisibility that they capture and cloak all of our trauma. This country is constructed on the idea that trauma is something you can build a wall in front of and keep out. As if it were water. As if it were people. But it is not. It is air. It is weather. It is pollution. You cannot pollute one part of the earth without the whole earth being polluted.

What has made this year so uncomfortable for so many is that the trauma refuses to remain where it has been cordoned off. Those of us who have carried it are no longer willing to do the work of protecting those of us who have not. We want you to feel our suffering. We want you to carry it with us. We will not be quiet or satisfied until you do. It is too late for all that.

This is the year my trauma becomes yours. Must become yours. This is the year your trauma becomes mine. This is the year the trauma of the children at the border becomes the trauma of the country that put them there. There can be no hiding. You must either heal yourself and each other, you must either reify yourself to your humanity, reify children to safety, reify whatever you are hiding from with the truth that will not take no for an answer, or you will be swept away. There is no border big or small, concrete or virtual, inside or outside that can protect you. This is the year you must surrender to your humanity and to the humanity of us all.