January 1, 2022
I would like to ask you to imagine with me for a moment – no matter what your political views are. Try imagining each of the following:
- Imagine: that you believe a person you regard as an American hero was denied victory in the last Presidential election because of fraud.
- Imagine: that you believe the so-called COVID-19 vaccine contains microchips that will help the government spy on you, or worse – it’s really reverse mRNA gene therapy that will change your DNA.
- Imagine: that you believe the so-called COVID-19 pandemic is being used as a tool by the government of the USA to take away your rights.
- Imagine: that you believe the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic could be greatly reduced, and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people could have been avoided, if more citizens of the USA had been vaccinated and worn masks.
- Imagine: that you believe that Mitch McConnell’s manipulation of the rules of the US Senate will result in the Supreme court taking away from women their ability to control their own bodies.
The point is not whether any or all of the above statements are correct. Imagine if you believe them. And I assert that taken together the vast majority of citizens of the USA believe at least one of the above statements.
Believing one of these statements doesn’t make a person upset or stressed. People get over being upset or stressed. I get upset when someone cuts me off at a 4-way stop sign. I’m always fine a few minutes after such an event, sometimes with my self-healing sped up by a simple and satisfying hand gesture. I get stressed by deadlines on writing assignments, but once they are finished they are quickly off my mind. Belief in one or more of the statements above, combined with the events of the day, press coverage, and social media are enough to make anyone traumatized.
Trauma is different than stress or anger. Trauma is one or more severe emotional and/or physical injuries that create lingering and lasting damage. The effects of that damage are largely beyond our own rational control. Trauma can be treated. But very often people don’t just get over trauma the way they might get over stress or anger.
My assertion is that we are almost all traumatized as a result of the combination of holding one or more of the beliefs listed above (or similar beliefs) combined with the course of current events. And almost all of us are reacting to what happens to us in our day-to-day life out of our trauma, not out of rational thought.
For example, I am traumatized by people indoors in public places without a mask. When I go shopping and encounter a person without a mask I have a physiological fight-or-flight reaction that I cannot control. My heart rate goes up, my blood pressure goes up, and I sometimes say things that are deeply impolite. “What is your major malfunction” is simply not a pleasant way to greet anyone in the aisles of the Kroger grocery store, even if they are not wearing a mask. Only slightly better is “Don’t you understand that there is a mask mandate in this county and you are endangering the lives of other people by not wearing a mask?” The point isn’t whether I am right or wrong. The point is that these reactions do not come from the rational part of my brain. They come – repeatedly – as a result of trauma, stimulated by a person not wearing a mask indoor in a public place.
Many of the so-called arguments we have today are not actual arguments in which a desired outcome of the process of arguing is the arrival at a resolution of the topic of argument. Arguments that we have in person, over the phone, via email, and on social media are very often simply expressions of trauma and we cannot expect an expression of trauma to result in a rational outcome on anyone’s part.
The great author David Foster Wallace gave an insightful graduation speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon University in Ohio that included many thoughts on consideration for people, including people with trauma. A bit of it is quoted below:
I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas … if I choose to think this way in … on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. …
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Wallace’s entire speech is about compassion and putting ourselves in the place of others. I am going to try to do that in 2022 more often than I managed in 2021.
I am going to proceed into 2022 in the belief that arguing with each other out of our trauma and with our lizard brains isn’t going to help anyone. Not me, and certainly not the person I am arguing with. Instead, I’m going to try to look for common ground.
And as a foundation of common ground for discussion and mutual understanding, I’m going to try to take the following three statements as things that USA citizens might generally agree on:
- Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are indeed inalienable rights (even if this statement is in the Declaration of Independence and not in the Constitution of the United States of America).
- The majority of citizens of the USA do not want to live in a world that is subject to Russian military domination.
- The majority of citizens of the USA do not want to live in a world that is subject to Chinese economic or military domination.
There is by no means agreement on what “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” means. And there is probably little to no agreement on what economic domination by China means in practice and in detail. But maybe these three things can serve as productive starting points in rational discussions.
This year, I’m going to try to not argue facts in detail with anyone. And I am not going to react to people – no matter what they say or do – in a belief that they are acting out of their rational, thoughtful reactions to any situation. I am going to begin the year believing that we are all traumatized, and that we are reacting to the world around us out of our trauma. Maybe this will be a starting point that will help me out of my own trauma. Maybe it will be a starting point that will help me find common ground with others in spite of our collective trauma. We’ll see. If nothing else, this approach should help me end 2022 less traumatized and having induced less trauma in others than I otherwise might. We’ll see.
- Each statement listed at the top of this essay has been told to me by at least one relative save one. The one exception is the statement that the 2020 election results were fraudulent. While no one in my family has asserted this to me, several polls indicate that a majority of people who identify as Republicans believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Depending on the poll, somewhere between a clear majority and 2/3 of republicans (https://news.yahoo.com/poll-two-thirds-of-republicans-still-think-the-2020-election-was-rigged-165934695.html) believe the last election was a fraud.
- Anyone not familiar with David Foster Wallace’s speech “This is water” can hear it and read the text of the speech online at https://fs.blog/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/ It is a fantastic meditation on compassion for others.