Not to paint with too broad a brush but, We the People have been traumatized.
New York Times Opinion writer Peter Wehner’s essay asserts this morning that “The End of Trump Can Be The Beginning of America.” I agree. It can, but it won’t be if we do this next part of our collective journey too fast, too mindlessly, too ambitiously. We must watch our step.
Mr. Wehner cites examples, “This is a text I received from a prominent conservative Christian minutes after President Biden’s Inaugural Address: ‘I broke down sobbing. It’s been a long five-and-a-half years.’
“Shortly after that, Scott Dudley, senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Wash., emailed me a note that said, ‘I never thought I would be moved to tears watching a Democratic president get sworn in, but I was. It just felt so good to hear someone who understands and loves this country and constitution, and is an honorable person, take the oath. I’m praying for healing.’
“I’ve had conversations with others who tell similar stories,” continues Mr. Wehner. So have I, but I’ve also had conversations with people who tell me they feel like toast, or fried, or burned out, or like a tenement, or in slow motion, or easily startled, or so very, very tired. I could go on, but I won’t. These are trauma symptoms, Beloved.
But the biggest, most insidious, least helpful of all the trauma symptoms I’ve witnessed is that our psyches encode them, not as narratives, but as abbreviated, sensory vignettes, flashes, in some instances with total, sense recall, and in others, murky, clouded, gaseous images of existential threat.
What we’re looking for here is a narrative. Narrative is what allows humans to put trauma down as done, over with, complete, not happening now, happened in the past. In order to construct meaningful narrative, Beloved, we must enter what Mike Dooley calls the “jungles of time and space.”
What happened? No, really, what happened to cause us both individual traumas and collective traumas? We must start to ask these terribly vital questions in order to move forward.
The Editorial Board of The New York Times wrote a piece yesterday claiming that “emergency aid should last as long as the emergency.” Claudia Sahm, in today’s Times, echoes them. “The question too many lawmakers seem to be asking is, ‘How much is enough?’ while ‘When have we done enough?’ is the better question. When those 10 million jobs still missing are back, when the half of families who have lost income from work are made whole and when those who had to leave their jobs because of extra parenting burdens begin to return — that’s when relief should turn off.”
That’s one trauma: the economy — fear of eviction, an inability to feed ourselves and our children, no heat, no A/C, no warm clothes. Here are some others in a random list: the virus — fear of death, fear of contagion, fear of permanent isolation, fear of loneliness, fear of medical malpractice, fear of vaccine mishandling. The political machinations — fear of misinformation, fear of disinformation, fear of not being represented, fear of dubious ethics, fear of power misused, yes, but also abused, fear of power used against us, fear of profit motives over safety, fear of freedoms taken from us, fear of too much government, fear of not enough government. The fears are legion.
Fear undergirds every trauma, Beloved. It always has. The work needed to heal trauma is the facing-down of the fear, but not as Bruce Willis after a car chase, explosion-ridden, hero’s journey tough guy. That sort of behavior sends trauma and its deleterious effects underground. As the title of a book on my shelf reads, “Feelings Buried Alive Never Die.”
No, they come back to haunt us. All these fears may be laid at the feet of the 45th president. Not only did he engender them, he lit the match and fanned the flames. That psycho-sociopath wounded all of us — whether we voted for or against him. At this point, even the Proud Boys’ leaders are saying, “Well, at least 46 is telling the truth.”
Peter Wehner again. “President Biden inherits a nation sicker, weaker, angrier, more divided and more violent than it has been in living memory. But if we’re fortunate and wise, we will allow the traumatizing effects of the Trump years to catalyze a rededication to ideals we once cherished in public life but cast aside during the Trump era: honor and integrity, compassion and decency, and old-fashioned competence. America is fragmented but also chastened, perhaps ready to rise again. If it does, when it does, it will be after too many tears have been shed and too many hearts have been broken.”
So far, the traumas I’ve mentioned have touched many of us personally, but there are others, that touch fewer of us personally, but are as painful if not more traumatic. Consider these words from Peter Baker which represent that our politically fractious factions disagree on what unity means.
“Mr. Biden and his allies, however, argue that unity means something different than concession — more of a change in culture, not splitting the difference on policy plans. After a presidency that salted the wounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and culture, then sought to overturn a democratic election leading to a mob assault on the Capitol, unity can mean a renewed commitment to the broadest values of America. The two sides will still wage vigorous battles over ideas, so this argument goes, but they should be debates of good will rather than search-and-destroy operations.”
Yes, these are over-arching, meta-traumas, if you will, ones that have been built up by years, even centuries, of common life, and all of which need to be investigated gently, kindly, ably, and slowly by the light of a new day dawning. I know, it sounds like yet more work to do, more burden, more trouble, and … it is and it isn’t. What the work to do is, instead, is worthwhile. Because we are worth it. As individuals and as We the People.
Farhad Manjoo writes this morning “Finally, a President Acknowledges White Supremacy.” I too felt relieved that President Biden named it. Naming, Beloved, is powerful. Without naming, we can’t construct a cohesive narrative.
Mr. Manjoo again, “If the United States’ failure to anticipate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was one of imagination, missing the terrorist attack of Jan. 6, 2021, was a failure of perception — a persistent refusal at the highest levels of our government to acknowledge the empirical reality of the threat posed by right-wing terrorists. Terrorism in the United States is overwhelmingly domestic and motivated by far-right ideologies, often racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant.”
At one level or another, Beloved, we are all participants in these prejudices, even if it has been only that we have kept silence. As ACT UP so eloquently represented at the onset of the pandemic we know as HIV/AIDS, Silence = Death.
Elizabeth Neumann was an assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security. She “told [Mr. Manjoo] that there was a sense among many in law enforcement that Americans could not cause great harm — domestic terrorists were ‘lone wolves,’ they were disorganized and uncoordinated, their danger was nothing existential.”
It’s just this idea that allows us to bury trauma, and we must not allow it. Domestic terrorists are not lone wolves, Beloved, basically because that’s not in the nature of wolves. Wolves are pack animals. Any cub scout could tell you that.
It’s also this lone wolf theory that keeps so many of us from sharing our own traumatization, our own still infected, still weeping wounds. You are not alone. I am not alone. We are not alone. In our traumas or in any other way. It is a damaging delusion to think we are.
A Letter to the Editor today from Steven Cohen of New York made me smile. “To the Editor: How extraordinary! Just saying “President Biden” three times seems to lower my blood pressure.” Me, too, Mr. Cohen.
Something else did, too. Poetry. Timothy Egan writes of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, “Her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb,’ was medicine for a sick nation.” Critic Dwight Garner adds, “If her performance made you vaguely feel that you’d had a blood transfusion, it was perhaps because you could sense the beginning of a remade connection in America between cultural and political life. A sleeping limb was tingling back into action.”
It was rare to see, but there was a second pair of words on the ACT UP poster: Action = Life. We are perhaps set to tingle back into action, Beloved. Perhaps, but only if we honor and acknowledge our wounding, and do the work to heal the attendant trauma.
David Brooks asserts “Biden has the right agenda, the redistribution of dignity. A politician can tell the people who have been left behind that he hears them, and that’s words. But Biden wants to present them with a $1,400 check they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, increase the child tax credit to $3,000 and create infrastructure jobs. That’s material proof that somebody in Washington understands what you are going through and is doing something real.” And taking steps to heal the economic trauma.
Mr. Brooks again, “I was shocked by how moved I was by the Biden inaugural. We’ve been through an emotional hailstorm over four years. Suddenly the sky has cleared. It’s possible America may emerge from this trauma more transformed than we can imagine.” He’s right. It is possible.
“The most memorable line [of the Inaugural] was a simple one, that ‘we must end this uncivil war’ that pits Americans against one another.” Our traumas, Beloved, are wrapped in the uncivilities of own and of those we share.
To take responsibility for our own traumas will help us move toward addressing our collective traumas. This is how we build a narrative. A Times critic suggested, “Why not reverse the political aphorism, and govern in poetry after campaigning in prose?”
Here’s a snippet of a poem that has guided my work for decades. It’s by Oregon poet laureate Edwin Markham with slight gender and tense variations.
They drew a circle that shut us out —
Heretics, rebels, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.
Find a big crayon, Beloved, and start drawing circles if you would heal, for your own sake and for the sake of our country.
“[John F.] Kennedy could have been speaking about Gorman when he said: “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
Let the cleansing begin — gently, kindly, universally. It’s time.
Dr. Susan Corso is a spiritual teacher, the founder of iAmpersand, and the author of The Mex Mysteries, the Boots & Boas Books, and spiritual nonfiction. Her essays address the intersection between spirituality and culture. Find out more at www.susancorso.com