I keep thinking about the attack on the Capital from January 6th. I keep thinking about the fact that people – Congresspeople, their family members, members of the Press, building staff – were afraid for their lives, and have had to immediately go back to work at the place where it happened. What additional echoes do they hear as their feet walk across the tiled floors on their way to work now? Whose faces do they expect to bump into while rounding a corner?
How do we expect these people to continue governing our Nation as if nothing happened?
The current top-level movers and shapers of our government suffered through a terrifying, traumatic event. They may have watched as police officers were beaten with flag poles and clubs. They may have seen the noose on the lawn and known that it was intended to be used. They saw the bloodstains from the five people who were killed that day, and heard about the two more police officers who later died by suicide, traumatized by the day’s events.
We are not a society that is good at handling trauma. Collective mourning and grief are not part of our vocabulary. If we mourn – and feel our hard feelings – we do so in private, maybe with a therapist, maybe with our closest loved ones. Like any collection of humans, America is not faultless. We’ve done harm in the world, both on our own soil – enslaving and horrifically abusing West African people, attempted genocide and enslavement of Native peoples, the Trail of Tears, the Trail of Death, Native boarding schools, Jim Crow segregation, and Japanese internment camps to name a few – and overseas. And we seem to think that pushing things under the rug, pretending they’re only in the past (as if the past doesn’t affect the present), and never confronting, apologizing, owning and making amends is an acceptable or healthy way to live.
This cultural attitude bleeds into our personal lives. Awareness of mental health among veterans has improved, but they are still 1.5 times as likely to die by suicide vs the general population. I know my own grandpa, who fought in the Korean war, never ever talked about that experience. I’ve treated elderly patients who had fought in the Vietnam war, and they would admit to me in hushed tones that they saw and did things that they’ve never told another person. We seem to believe that burying emotions and trauma actually gets rid of them, when in reality they seep into every cell of our being and leak out in unhealthy ways that inflict harm on ourselves and our relationships.
My grandma was a difficult woman. Easily offended, she would punish the offender with the silent treatment or passive aggressive nastiness and hold a grudge. She was very present in my childhood, and loved my brother and I, but we always had the feeling of walking on thin ice with her. Visits to her home were always filled with a mild sense of dread. I learned, as I entered adulthood myself, that she had a traumatic childhood. Her mother died young, and her father did not feel capable of raising my grandma and her sister himself as a single father. He sent them to live with a loving aunt & uncle, whom my mother adored as her own grandparents. My grandma’s father later went on to remarry and became a stepfather. And as I learned this, I could see them – the ripples. The life-altering effect of being given up by her father, who later chose to be a father again to new children, different children. My grandma seemed to be always on the lookout for the next betrayal, always doubting the love of those who loved her, always trying to head hurt off at the pass.
If only she had gotten therapy! That wasn’t yet common in her era, so she continued living with unhealthy emotions and relationship patterns throughout her long life. I can only imagine her personality if she had been able to work through her pain, work through the hurt and abandonment issues, and come to find her inherent sense of worth and belonging. What a different life that could have been.
If only America would get therapy! If only we would turn our full gaze on the past as it truly was, shortcomings and all. If only we would acknowledge the pain and suffering done in the name of Manifest Destiny, in the thirst for power and greed. An entire economy built on the backs of unwilling humans. An entire continent stolen from those already here. Did you know that the Native tribes had roadways that crisscrossed the entire continent? Many of our major highways today follow those old footpaths. They had established, thriving communities. Did you know that the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Confederacy is the oldest living participatory democracy on earth, founded in 1142? These weren’t simple “savages” that we nearly eradicated from the land (over 560 recognized tribes are still alive and present). They had governments, societies, trading partnerships, and a beautiful religious tradition. Imagine if Western Europeans had arrived with curiosity, with an ounce of humility, and had learned from these people. What a different history that could have been.
So I hope our leaders in government are getting therapy and taking care of their mental health. Trauma effects our brain, our higher levels of thinking, our physical health. I know people joke about governmental red tape and the mess it can make of things, but they are trying to keep a culturally, geographically diverse country of 331 million people running smoothly. I can barely keep my homogenous household of 4 running smoothly half the time, so I don’t envy their job. I hope, having lived through that terror, they might be more motivated to do real work to stop the terror of school shootings. That they might be more motivated to stop talking about bipartisanship and to start living that out, to stop the growing, hate-filled divide between Americans.
I hope they, and we, take the chance to ask how we could have gotten to this point. To look at the past, at the roots of this great society, our “great, unfinished symphony,” and to examine them closely. To hold up what needs to be brought to the light, to acknowledge what needs to be said out loud. To process the trauma done by us and to us so we can all heal and move forward together, healthy and strong. If only.