A few weeks into the pandemic, before the Black Lives Matter protests started, I wrote: “This crisis could bring people together for a time; it could be an opportunity to make real change.”
The economic slowdown we've experienced, a temporary escape from capitalism’s headlong rush towards ego fulfillment, has afforded many of us a rare opportunity to confront ourselves. Many have had no choice but to sit with our own minds and begin to face what we thought we could not. Witness how even these first small steps towards individual healing have had an unprecedented collective effect, a channeling of renewed vitality towards a conscientious fight for justice.
It is no mistake that capitalism, and the institutions that uphold it, drain this force of will from us. Nor is it a coincidence that this global wave of revolution has come in the middle of a worldwide crisis that undermines the foundations of those institutions. We must understand what is happening to us, the human psychology underlying it, if we are to sustain this wave after the economic engine restarts.
I am unreservedly certain that trauma is at the heart of almost everything happening right now, both the unity and the divisions. I also believe that we must reckon with this trauma—see it, acknowledge it, understand it, and continue to heal—to achieve the future we want, on a personal and a collective level.
I once heard trauma explained as what happens to the nervous system when a person is presented with a threat, and their adrenal system kicks in with the fight or flight response—but they are unable to act on it. Instead, they have to endure an indefinite, suspended state of heightened vigilance, helpless to fix the problem. Eventually the nervous system rewires itself into the shape of this unrelenting distress, and even after the threat has passed, it can’t shut down.
I believe that everyone—every single person—carries some degree of trauma, beginning from childhood, when we are virtually helpless in novel and often frightening circumstances. There are various approaches that a human psyche can take to cope with this, that can depend on the extent and nature of the harm, individual upbringing, social factors, and personal character.
One trauma response to abandonment, neglect or mistreatment says, I have to fend for myself, because nobody else will. The furthest extreme of this response becomes unchecked capitalist greed.
Another response says, I have to divide the world into blanket categories of us/them, good/bad, right/wrong in order to easily decide what is safe. Taken to an extreme, this response becomes prejudice and bigotry.
Another says, I cannot handle this pain, so I am going to numb myself to suffering. If the numbness runs deep enough, it becomes apathy.
And another, especially for those raised in an environment of frightening chaos and inconsistency, says, I need a rigid framework of rules to maintain vigilance, safety and order. At its worst, this becomes fascist authoritarianism.
Empathy can develop from the trauma response that says, I must learn to carefully read the emotions and intentions of other people in order to stay safe.
Mutual support and collective action are born from the trauma response that says, I need to form alliances with other people to expand my safety net.
Idealism is sparked in the trauma response that says, I must plan and envision in order to escape the pain of my current suffering, and avoid danger in the future.
Courage is gained from the trauma response that says, I can learn and grow stronger from the pain that I have already survived.
Several years ago, I learned a very hard lesson about what can happen when one person’s trauma collides with another’s. How the lines can blur between abused and abuser; how fear and hypervigilance can sabotage beneficial connections; how empathy without proper boundaries can be manipulated and exploited, sometimes even by other empathetic people. This lesson has informed not only how I view individual interpersonal relationships, but how I now see these dynamics rippled and magnified into larger segments of society.
I continue to stumble as I try to navigate these interrelations, and I try to gain deeper understanding from my missteps. These are the things that I perceive:
People often cannot see past their own trauma, even if others are in more immediate danger, if they have not found a healthy way to cope with it. Many of the “all lives matter”/”blue lives matter” proponents I have interacted with have deeply-ingrained conditioning around the need for rigid responses to perceived danger, or deeply-held fears for members of their own inner circle (safety net), and I have failed in trying to reach those people when I have neglected to address their own trauma first.
People who are abused and oppressed should never have to manage the trauma of their abusers—and yet, so often, they have no choice. In situations of domestic abuse, victims must be able to read and respond to their abuser’s needs in order to survive. Likewise, in wider society, Black people and other marginalized minorities are often obligated to attend to the needs and feelings of their oppressors—to be restrained, polite, approachable, willing to patiently endure and endlessly educate—before having even a chance to be heard. This is why it is so crucial for allies to take on as much of this exhausting work as possible. Marginalized people have the unquestionable right to their outrage; allies must not co-opt it in their interactions with others who are on a path of learning. We can express our outrage against systems, institutions, and individual bad actors, but we must learn to discern between the latter and those whose hearts and minds we can change.
Most people who have reached a place of relative security and ease will need significant motivation to step outside of it, and will quickly shut down, and double down, when faced with anything that triggers discomfort, shame, or feelings of unworthiness. It has been my experience that the most defensive people usually know on some level that they're in the wrong, but are not able to face themselves because the echoes of past messages that they are bad, broken, undeserving people is too strong. It takes either a highly self-aware and emotionally intelligent person, a great deal of patient leading, or a critical mass of public opinion to overcome this tendency. Real or perceived criticism and pressure, whether justified or not, will be taken as an opportunity to tune out, avoid the pain of self-scrutiny, and return to comfort.
Avoiding conflict is tied to people’s sense of survival within the safety net of their social circle, and as above, it takes an enormous amount of motivation for most people to challenge those bonds for the benefit of someone outside of that circle. This is even more the case if the outsider is an individual or group that they have no personal connection with.
Abusive people will exploit these tendencies of apathy and conflict avoidance by pointing to, or even provoking, responses of rage and animosity in their victims to justify further abuse. Most people are desperate for any excuse to escape the cognitive discomfort of shame, and will grasp at an abuser’s spin on the story to avoid having to shake up their own safety net. This is why so many videos have come forward of police provoking chaos at peaceful protests; the largely white, middle-class general public is watching with unease, and those in power want the protesters to be seen as dangerous to provide the public with an excuse to denounce, dismiss and tune out.
It’s often repeated that we must heal ourselves first in order to move forward. While there is truth to this, there is also an urgency right now for direct action in the face of oppression. If you already recognize that urgency and feel confident in how to take action, carry on. If you recognize it but don’t know what to do, I recommend starting with this resource guide for new allies by Giselle Buchanan, and this workbook on finding your role in a movement by Deepa Iyer, SolidarityIs and Building Movement Project.
If, on the other hand, you feel futile, stuck, overwhelmed, defensive, or indifferent, then it’s possible there are some personal traumas taking up a large amount of your emotional energy, even some that you may not be aware of. I am hoping that if you’ve read this far, you have taken the first step of recognizing the need to show up for yourself—to make it a priority to seek support for healing, reconnecting with yourself, and believing in your own inherent worth—so that you are able to show up for others. I can't tell you what your path will be, because it will be different for each of us. But it starts with the courage to look inside yourself.
This may be the biggest global movement in our history, and it is certainly the most important in our lifetime. But history is littered with the chronicles of revolutions that have never reached their fundamental goals. True and lasting harmony, uncorrupted justice, unassailable equality—these have never been achieved on this Earth. We must learn from the past if we are not to repeat it. And I have hope, because we are also in a time of unprecedented awareness of the widespread role of trauma and mental health in human interaction. In 2020, it is time for us to uncover our eyes and see within. Let’s walk into the future together, with love.