As I’ve scanned the headlines over the last few weeks, it’s felt like many of us have been holding a canopy just above our heads for a while now. A steady rain of trauma drips and trickles off the edge of the canopy. And there’s a wind blowing just enough rain under the edge to make us damp no matter where we’re standing.
I’ve shared the idea that people express denial when they recognize the stakes and grasp what they have to lose. It’s not a way of dismissing something’s importance, even though it might seem like dismissal. It’s a way of freezing the feelings and staying functional despite absurdity, horror, or anticipated trauma.
It’s completely reasonable. But it stops nothing about life.
This weekend, psychotherapist Martha Crawford shared an article that she wrote last summer and which has special resonance for me now.
Some of Crawford’s clients, she writes, tunnel into the minutiae of their personal relationships, and others burrow into the fine details of public news. In its own way, each group is dodging perceptions and emotions that they’d experience if they ever turned to the other parts of their lives. Through hyper-focus on one life sphere, they try to keep the rain of trauma at bay.
Crawford also shares a harrowing story about an older European in-law who, during the lead-up to World War II, foresaw Jewish persecution and thought seriously about how she might die before it came to her household.
It’s an anxiety I’ve heard from people in the United States ever since November 8. I know some people think it a disproportionate response to the incoming administration, but I’ve heard it from so many people in so many different circumstances that I can’t simply ignore it anymore.
I’m uncertain about what it means that so many people who had the luxury of buying into the US’ exceptionalism myths before last year now feel frightened and vulnerable. I don’t want to be yet another shrill voice adding to communal fear. I also don’t want to underestimate how the next administration’s open plans to decimate the social net, access to healthcare, and civil rights advances will affect people, especially poor people, around the country.
At work just before the holiday weekend, I called the incoming president authoritarian. It’s the most direct I’ve been in my public writing so far; I swore a few weeks ago not to respond to, mention, or retweet his social media posts and I’ve been talking around him ever since.
But it’s hard to know how much of that is a form of denial.
What Martin Luther King called an “inescapable network of mutuality” means that we can’t escape one another. As social creatures, we’re tied together, and so are our respective fates.
There’s no individual thriving while the societies we’re part of corrode, and the toxicity in the social world inevitably becomes part of our personal worlds as well. That’s why we can work on social patterns in interpersonal relationships. It’s also why working on interpersonal relationships isn’t the entire story.
Tonight, I’m sitting with this thought:
We can suppose we are insulated. But we aren’t really. It’s an illusion. We live in community. Our communities affect us like the water we drink, the air we breathe…
This tension of this particular place in time and history is a real psychological force that needs to be tended to and observed. We don’t know whether the tension will dissipate or constellate, and we don’t know how our choices will affect the outcome or how the outcomes will affect us.” —Martha Crawford
What we can know is that we will be mutually affected. I also believe that we’re all mutually responsible for taking action that shapes those effects and not simply waiting to see how things will turn out.
Aaron, brother of Moses, offers up the most ridiculous story when Moses catches him facilitating idolatry while Moses has been on Sinai downloading the Ten Commandments.
“The people gave me the gold,” he says, “and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32)
Expecting the social realm to re-assemble itself by itself this year would be just as foolish. None of us gets to opt out, and there’s so much work to do.