WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? The experience of political trauma
Nov. 11, 2018, Rev. Kit Ketcham PUUF
Now that the recent election is mostly behind us and we are experiencing the backwash of controversies and accusations about the election process, let’s take a look at the effects of the past two years and ask this question:
What has been happening to us as individuals and as a nation these past two years? And the reason I ask this question is this:
We have endured and continue to endure physical, moral, and psychological trauma, daily, from the ongoing assault on our sense of decency and standards of humane behavior by a ruthless, self-serving, authoritarian man whose power over us and our fellow citizens has reeked of corruption, cruelty, and coarseness of manner.
It may be that PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is too strong a label for our condition, but the spectacle of what has been happening to our country, as this man has sought revenge over his political enemies, has had its effect, whether we personally are affected by his daily behavior or whether we foresee the terrible consequences of his behaviors on all of us.
We are certainly damaged, as a nation, as communities, and as individuals by the actual or projected consequences of those behaviors, whether we are empathetic observers of others’ pain or directly affected by the cruelty of his deliberate decisions to withdraw protections from vulnerable citizens & refugees.
We have experienced terrible violence because of the recklessness of his pronouncements and decisions. It has been like watching a dreadful train wreck with thousands, even millions of casualties.
And there has been no end in sight to the ongoing debacle, our only hopes resting in the votes of our fellow citizens and in the hands of a criminal investigation which we hope will give definition to the exact nature of his wrongs, with consequences coming to bear on him.
What have you and I done to protect ourselves and others from the consequences of his behavior? How have we released our anger, and fear, ---- and our shame? (cong. Resp)
As we think about our lives during these past two years, we know why we have been angry. We know why we have been afraid. We ourselves may have endured abuse during our past life experience; but our national experience of abuse has also left scars. In both situations we have felt anger, we have felt fear. And very likely we also have felt the shame that accompanies traumatic stress experiences.
When a child has grown up in an abusive home, that child is often so angry that they act out their anger in violence against others. When a girl or a woman or boy or man has been sexually assaulted, she is often so fearful that her future relationships are in jeopardy.
Why do many victims feel shame after experiencing a traumatic event? It’s generally the sense that we haven’t done enough to prevent the trauma. We may think that our efforts were too feeble, we didn’t speak up, we didn’t fight back hard enough, we didn’t talk to others about our concerns.
Trauma can invite a sense of shame because we may perceive ourselves as having invited the assault or were too confident in the 2016 election. And so we take it out on ourselves, even though we did the best we knew how under the circumstances.
How have I kept from going crazy? How have I expressed my anger and fear? I often succumbed to the urge to hate him. It scares me a lot to express this feeling of hate. I’ve been schooled to express love and understanding since I was old enough to talk. I remember my mother’s correction, when I came home from a neighbor child’s home one day saying enthusiastically “Goddamn you Goddamn you”.
“Honey,” she said with a sharp tone in her voice, “It’s better to say God Bless you, God bless you. You don’t want your friend to go to hell and that’s what “damn” means.” And even though I don’t believe in hell any more, hateful speech is anathema to me. And yet I’ve succumbed.
I’ve ranted to friends, put up resistance literature and exposes of his behavior on websites and Facebook, I’ve supported progressive candidates, written postcards, gone to rallies and demonstrations, and have donated. It has helped release the anger and combat the fear. But I still feel shame that I haven’t done as much as others have done.
Now imagine the effect of this trauma on the most endangered of our fellow citizens: the disabled, the elderly, the children, our veterans, the entire Q community, persons of color, women, the poor. Nobody is left out, but certain groups are even more threatened than others.
I hope you’re seeing the parallel here, between the survivors of personal domestic cruelty and abuse and the survivors of national, even global, cruelty and abuse. We Americans have experienced, on a national and global scale, trauma from an authority figure who has no conscience, no empathy, no care for the damage he has done to our nation’s citizens, to our nation as an entity, and to democracy as an ideal.
Survivors of abuse are often encouraged to seek therapeutic help to deal with the scars and open wounds of an abusive experience. Because, left unhealed, left open and painful, the wounds of abuse linger unless we take steps to heal them.
This can be a hard process, taking time, painful in its own way, as we consciously work to mend the invisible bruises and learn how to prevent new ones by seeking wisdom, healthy relationships, and understanding of our own needs.
I’ve mentioned that one of the typical responses to abuse is anger, a desire to retaliate, to take out our pain on others; we see this commonly in bullying behavior with children, resulting in a vicious cycle of anger and possible violence.
Another typical response to abuse is fear, the dread of triggering future abuse, a withdrawal from healthy life experiences which add to the joys of partnerships, family life, and community involvement. We see this commonly in victims of sexual assault.
There’s a predictable outcome of the relentless, ongoing abuse which produces anger and fear in human beings. That outcome is Hate, hate for the perceived abuser and anyone who sides with that person. We see it happening in our nation today, as the divide between political alliances widens.
As I’ve revealed about myself, I have struggled with the urge to hate this man and his cronies. That hate is a product of the anger and fear I have felt over the past two years, following my deep disappointment and shame that we were too confident that a better candidate would win the presidency. I have blamed, silently and not so silently, family members who blindly voted for him, for the change he might bring. And I struggle to stay in relationship with them.
Dr. Gabor Mate’ has done important work on the addictive qualities of the hate that follows abusive behavior toward a victim. Here’s what he says:
"The more inequality in a society: the more hate, the more dysfunction, the more mental illness, the more physical illness." It should come as no surprise, then, that we see more addiction and more mass shootings since "the inequality is rising all the time." Violence against racial, ethnic, or religious groups "is a manifestation of a society that foments division amongst people and sets people against each other.”
“Both hate and addiction are a manifestation of a society that is ill, disconnected, and traumatized. It is an indictment of American culture and society that anyone finds relief by picking up a rifle and driving to a synagogue. To fight hate, we need to change our culture and society.”
Now that the election is past and we are dealing with its outcomes, both its positives and its negatives, we have new choices to make. If we have lost significantly, we can lick our wounds and withdraw or we can buckle down to continue the Resistance. If we have won significantly, we can celebrate the wins and continue to hate the losers. I think there is a better path.
I try to go to hear Seth Tichenor and Gad Perez’s Philosofarian presentations every month. October’s gathering was about the pros and cons of Tolerance. I learned a lot that night and I believe that as we examine the precepts of Tolerance, what this philosophy entails, its strengths and its drawbacks, we can learn something useful in the aftermath of a traumatic two years, with an unclear path ahead of us.
Tolerance gets a bad rap at times, with much misunderstanding of the concept as a wishy-washy way of getting along with people we don’t agree with: the old “agree to disagree” tactic. The question “should we tolerate intolerance?” causes us to examine the limits of tolerance and question its effectiveness.
When this administration came into power, after the inauguration in 2017, many of us perhaps thought maybe we could just agree to disagree with those who had voted for him. It turns out that this became impossible as the actions and policy decisions of this administration became more than disagreeable; they were clearly immoral and inhumane, with little regard for consequences to our nation.
We realized that we were unable to tolerate intolerance, that we had to change the direction of our nation using the Rule of Law and figuring out our most effective strategies.
Some observations about Tolerance, from Seth’s presentation:
Tolerance makes democracy possible, but it’s hard.
Tolerance is personally demanding, requiring a person not to reject someone or something objectionable voluntarily.
The expectations of what is “tolerable” are always changing.
It’s easy to make mistakes.
It is a morally ambiguous condition, a paradox with shifting limits.
And what is Tolerance? It is an ability to respond with acceptance to beliefs and ideas that are not our own. But tolerance in practice has levels of intensity.
Its lowest level is the act of granting permission for some behavior, with the grantor of permission having more power than the grantee, such as the Roman Empire allowing other religions to exist as long as they did not disrupt the Empire.
The next level is Co-existence, as where in a family group one person is very conservative and another is very liberal. This level requires a lot of compromise and is difficult to sustain.
The next level up is Respect, which is based on legitimate rules of behavior and an understanding of the common good, as in a family or friendship setting where one person is gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgender or other rainbow designation and other family members are generally accepting, if not completely comfortable.
The highest level of Tolerance is Esteem, in which norms of behavior are appreciated and valued, as in feeling the freedom to express public affection between same sex partners and/or a welcoming approach to members of a different culture.
How do we decide whether Tolerance, in a given situation, is appropriate?
1. We understand situations by degrees; familiarity gives us the benefit of new information as we observe the development of a relationship or unfamiliar culture.
2. When people are generous, helpful to others, and lenient in judgment, a reciprocity of relationship is created.
3. We ask ourselves “what are the moral issues here?” and think about what our own moral standards require of ourselves.
4. We learn to recognize that tolerance is a moving target, that our own standards are often flexible, but that there may be common ground.
5. We do not tolerate intolerance.
So how do we approach this upcoming season of adjustment and further resistance to inhumane treatment by an immoral, perhaps criminal, federal administration?
Short answer for me: I am tired of being angry and fearful and instead of cultivating hate in my heart for anyone, whether it’s a president or congress or a family member, I pledge to conquer any impulse to hate by substituting Love, by giving love everywhere possible and letting the hate float away, as the love abides. That is a gift I have to give to my community and my family, and that love can affect our traumatized nation.
In closing, I offer this reflection from Rebecca Parker:
Choose to Bless the World, by Rebecca Parker
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
A holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love,
Protesting, urging, insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life as a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.
CLOSING HYMN # 349 “Gather the Spirit”
EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace with love in our hearts casting out hate and may we remember that every little kindness changes the world. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.