Healing Our Collective Trauma and Reclaiming Our Power
24 July 2020 – Michal Osterweil
Notes to Pandemic VIII
July 11, 2020
Trauma and what healing it can teach us
We are going through a profoundly difficult and intense time. Many people have been floating the term collective trauma to describe it—and it certainly could be. If we just look especially at the ways in which most people in power are acting, it can be likened to a classic trauma response: they are disassociating, they are unable to be with the complicated pain of this moment, so they are checking out, acting as if everything was fine, or freezing and allowing the response to be dictated by habitual patterns.[i] Many of us feel traumatized and disempowered by the inability to be close to people we love, by the absence of physical touch and closeness, and of course many many people are suffering from the dire economic consequences of this pandemic. These are all real. I also think, however, that the notion of trauma gives us the opportunity to understand the possibility of this moment—and the relevance of trauma—very differently. If we dig deep and meet this moment fully, employing insights and lessons that trauma healing offers us—lessons available to all of us if we can get to know our nervous systems and how they work—not only might we avoid a long term trauma response; we actually have the opportunity to build a better future and a livable world—and even begin some of the process of healing from the traumatic ways we have been living—long before the Covid pandemic.[ii]
As therapist and writer about trauma, Van Der Kolk asserts,
trauma really does confront us with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival. And in some ways, I don’t think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you also know the dark side of life.
In the process of healing trauma, one of the most important things to do is to build on our neuroplasticity. Even though trauma freezes us in a painful past, we have the power to create new neural-pathways —which essentially means we can create new stories, new options, new possibilities. Rather than falling back unconsciously into old habitual reactions: i.e. flight, fight or freeze, in which we literally go off-line and act from unconscious patterning, we learn to slow down, we note our propensities of reaction—do we fight, freeze or flee?—we learn to feel our bodies, to be with the discomfort. Eventually we begin to recognize our habitual patterning, and sometimes we are able to make different choices. So, for example, when we do the slow work of getting to know our nervous system and healing our trauma, even if our impulse is to act as if we are in danger—whether or not we actually are— we introduce the possibility of choice: We learn that we have the power for this time to be different. Even if it is also fair to say we are in danger.
The thing that we have to remember is that trauma is not an event itself. Trauma is the ways in which a traumatic event gets frozen in our bodies and is then relived over and over again, whether or not the same event or real danger is present. In particular, trauma happens when the full process of coping, moving through, reacting to, defending against isn’t allowed to be completed. Peter Levine, brilliant practitioner and scholar of trauma and our nervous systems more generally, broke therapeutic ground when he recognized that one of the big differences between humans and many animals is that animals in the wild allow their body to complete a somatic response to what otherwise would prove to be traumatic. Contrary to much popular opinion, trauma is not in the head, it lives in the body, and as such can’t be reasoned away, at least not without lots of other kinds of work.
When you see an animal in the wild shake wildly after an event, or freeze, this is the animal allowing their bodies to do what is necessary. We humans—often because we can’t (we are too young and powerless) or we follow taboos about allowing “irrational” movement in our bodies, and numerous other reasons—don’t complete our body’s response to a violent or scary event, and so we experience trauma.
I have been very struck by what this means for us as a collective right now. What would it mean to complete our collective body’s natural proclivities? How are these being stunted? What would it look like to gain control over our individual and collective nervous systems in such a way that we are responding rather than reacting—from fear, anger, what have you? How might we use this as a moment of building new neural pathways—collectively. New ways of doing that are slower, more local, more attuned to our interdependence with the natural world, and humanity. New ways of thinking that include long term consequences rather than simply short term and perhaps most importantly, new ways of understanding and engaging with the Economy.[iii]
The Trauma of Powerlessness
In a fairly recent interview, Bessel Van der Kolk, renowned therapist and trauma expert, asserts that powerlessness is itself traumatic.[iv] In fact, in many natural disasters, the reason people experience trauma is because their innate human drive to help their neighbors, to rebuild, to fix, is either not possible—or in cases like Hurricane Katrina, and unfortunately many others, not allowed and even forcibly prevented by authorities. I think this is why so many refer to this Covid-19 experience as traumatic. We feel powerless. And the truth is that in some ways we are, but, I want to suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way. We are also being met with the possibility of rethinking and reclaiming power.
If we really think about it, powerlessness has been a large part of our problem as a society long before Covid. I would guess that if pushed to deep inquiry, many, if not most of us, can acknowledge that we have quite a small level of power and agency: Not only in a political sense, although given the status of politics and the lack of true choice between the two major parties this level is a very real part of the problem. But we also experience powerlessness on some much more quotidian and mundane levels.
For example, we are powerless because we are, for the most part, born into a particular narrative of success and life that is focused on the individual: it includes twelve plus years of schooling, a 9-5 job, marriage, a house with a picket fence, and on and on. None of these are bad in and of themselves. The problem is when they go unexamined—habitual default settings we fall into, rather than actively create and choose. They are also problematic because for people who don’t feel satisfied by these, or who are differently abled or structurally excluded from this narrative, they get labeled as failures, outcasts, losers. Many turn to addiction and other forms of distraction to dull the pain.
Also, this definition of success generally translates into a life in which our wellbeing is defined by how much money we earn, and therefore how many material goods we can purchase and consume. Not only is there no sense of enoughness, looking to what we can possess or purchase as a source of self-worth fails to cultivate our intrinsic capacities for self-love, meaning and discernment.
Another dimension of this mundane, even invisible, powerlessness can be seen in many people’s engagement with the world as (mostly passive) consumers, completely reliant on top down leaders and experts. Rather than producing or making our own food, clothing, music, medicine, etc, many of us simply buy these—usually from big corporations that have nothing to do with our place or culture. With medicine, this top-down culture that relies on experts is a double whammy. Reliance on experts means we don’t learn how to care for ourselves through the foods and other things we consume as well as other basic self-care techniques including massage, meditation, use of herbal remedies. Moreover, we treat our bodies’ illnesses as something to be cured allopathically—by a medicine someone prescribes and we ingest—not by listening to the messages these illnesses carry, nor the communication our bodies are sending. Not only do we not see our health as something we have power over; in the process we don’t learn to listen to and fully inhabit our bodies.
There is so much more to be said here, and I don’t want you to think I am suggesting that buying things or going to the doctor’s is bad or wrong. I think there are very good reasons for both, and one of the joys of being in community is allowing different people to pursue their own gifts and callings, and each of us benefitting by being able to exchange those gifts. But rather, what I want to suggest is that when unexamined, there are detrimental consequences to this over-dependence on experts and consumption, one of which is this stifled experience of what it means to be a fully embodied human.
I am not blaming anyone for any of this. It is a product of our larger culture, and those in power invest a lot of resources to keep us in these stories and practices.
None of this is perhaps new, however the move that I am trying to make is to point out how these things are linked to a collective experience of powerlessness which is traumatizing. As such, the materialist “American dream” robs us not only of our souls, the health of our planet, time with our families and loved ones; it deprives us of the innate need for agency and creativity in how we live our lives, the capacity to make our own choices, to have agency over what we believe is a good life, or a life worth living. And I don’t mean this in a purely individual sense, I mean it when we understand our Selves as radically interconnected with each-other and the earth. The myth both deprives us of, and depends on, a certain level of dissociation and dysregulation—a common response of which is not being fully present in our own bodies. (And I would argue the collective bodies of our earth, our communities, etc.)
So here is another reason why Covid might be considered medicine in disguise: For many it has upended the stories of what a successful/fulfilled life looks like, and it has certainly disturbed our habit of relying so heavily on experts and leaders—largely because of how inept so many leaders have been, but also because in a period and experience so filled with uncertainty, in which even experts are at a loss, we are forced to hone our own skills of discernment and action. I think if we pay attention, the more we can come from a grounded place—in our own bodies, but also spending more time with our families and communities—we gain the capacities to feel more power and agency.
Towards a Collective Neuroplasticity
On a more political level, the fact that as a nation we are addressing the brutal killing of George Floyd in a way never before seen, is itself heartening, and possibly indicative of what I want to call these new collective neural pathways. When the Minneapolis town council recently voted to disband the police and find “another model for dealing with public safety,” they were addressing a deep, historic and common occurrence not from a habitual, reactive or dissociated place, but, I would argue from a more fully engaged place. Rather than operate from the typical and default place of fear of crime and “anarchy” that might emerge from not having police, they were able to assert a more honest and humble response. Instead of defending the police from a place of fear: fear of the political costs; fear of crime and disorder; fear of the unknown, they embraced a more exploratory and humble stance. They acknowledged not-knowing exactly what the answer was but recognized that the old habit and structure—the police—was itself the problem.
This act also represents the power to think about and imagine how to organize our societies differently, not habitually, not reactively. Now, I have no way of proving it, and it doesn’t really matter if this is causal or coincidental, but it seems to me that the willingness to try out another way of doing something that has seemed so natural, so given—i.e. that we need police and prisons to deal with public safety—is partly possible because of the larger moment of pause we are in. I truly believe this is PARTLY why people finally responded to the death of George Floyd in these numbers and are taking seriously the real demands for transformation social movements and black communities have been making for years. We were not being numbed by the fast-paced grind that usually consumes us. And, of course, this is also enabled by the phenomenal activism providing the new story—the new “collective neural pathway,” that might very well break the cycle of trauma response.
The possibility and gift of this moment is that we don’t have to stop with policing—although just that would be so phenomenal. We have so many toxic habitual ways and structures of life, many of which I believe stem from original forms of trauma of separation from nature, from culture and community, from connectedness. (These historical traumas are some of the core sources of the illness of whiteness I recently wrote about).
I can’t stress enough how important it is to do the work of getting to know our individual and collective nervous systems; of getting into our bodies, of not numbing ourselves. We need to do this individually and collectively. We can’t be afraid of the pain, of heartbreak, or of joy. As the wise woman, Buddhist Joanna Macy says, “the heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.”
* These short essays are part of a larger blog/web project I am working on that I hope to launch by the end of the summer. I am very interested and open to feedback! And will keep you posted on when the website itself is up!
Feel free to email me at: mosterweil (a/t) gmail |d.o.t| com with any questions/comments.
[i] For anyone having a hard time thinking of those in power as suffering from trauma, I recommend Resmaa Menakem’s work. A quick introduction can be found in his powerful interview with Krista Tippet, https://onbeing.org/programs/resmaa-menakem-notice-the-rage-notice-the-silence/
[ii] If you feel triggered by my using the term trauma in this way, notice that trigger, it is part of how we heal. Please recognize that I am not at all saying that trauma isn’t real, that people don’t experience horrific things, or that we don’t need to address these terrible things that happen to people. I am not saying that at all, as a woman born in Israel in the 70s, to children born just after the Holocaust, and much more, I am very steeped in the work of healing trauma—as well as the ways in which it challenges many of us afflicted by it, in this lifetime or inter-generationally. Trauma is VERY real, and we need to understand it better, both so we can better address and heal it, and so we can have more compassion for the non-rational and messy ways in which human action and reactions unfold. That being said, I believe given where we are, we have the choice to deal with this moment in a way that will most likely later produce much worse effects—, or we can do the harder work right now that at first is much more uncomfortable, and even feels painfully slow.
[iii] I have started so many posts “on the economy” that I haven’t sent—it might end up being a mini-essay… or something else entirely.
[iv] Great interview with Bessel Van der Kolk On Being. https://onbeing.org/programs/bessel-van-der-kolk-how-trauma-lodges-in-the-body/