We are traumatized. Let’s start there.
Trauma can be defined as your body’s reaction to experiencing or witnessing something deeply disturbing. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition caused by exposure to a distressing event “outside the range of usual human experience.”
A global pandemic. The resulting economic crisis. Videos of police killing unarmed Black people. Images of federal troops in military fatigues and assault rifles confronting protesters every night. The global climate crisis. The ever-increasing population of houseless people. Trump.
One could argue that none of these things are within the “range of usual human experience.” Even if you have not been directly impacted by them or do not know anyone who has gotten ill from COVID-19 ― and even if you have a stable income, have never been attacked by police and live in a wealthy community ― witnessing these events in the media over and over can cause what psychologists call indirect, insidious or vicarious trauma. We absorb it simply because there is so much of it in the air.
Perhaps you have noticed signs of trauma playing out in your own life, in your relationships and in your household. Common responses to trauma can include anxiety, short tempers, hyper-vigilance, withdrawal, fatigue, cynicism, lack of empathy and restlessness, among countless others.
And in recent months, I have witnessed all of that come pouring into the streets and manifesting as collective trauma.
When trauma is triggered, we lack the ability to take in new information, to be creative, consider different perspectives or think about long-term consequences.
I don’t know if I am overreacting, but I feel like in my 39 years on this planet, I have never witnessed a time when things felt so fragmented and polarized, where things are so heated that it feels like society is tearing apart at the seams. Whether it’s protesters getting shot and run over, deadly violence over face masks or the general tragedy that passes for our political system these days, I feel like we are experiencing a collective trauma response.
When trauma is triggered, our neocortex ― the part of our brain that gives us the ability to reason, think through consequences, solve problems and take in and process new information ― becomes disengaged. We begin operating from the less evolved part of our brains: the limbic system (responsible for emotions) and the reptilian complex (responsible for survival instincts).
When trauma is triggered, our lives may not be in actual danger, but our brains don’t know that. Our survival instinct kicks in, and we lose the ability to see nuance and see everything in black and white. Something is either threatening or it’s not. Something is either right or it’s wrong.
When trauma is triggered, we lack the ability to take in new pieces of information, to be creative, consider different perspectives or think about long-term consequences. If our lives are being threatened, there is no time to consider any of that. You simply need to react, to fight or run away so that you can stay alive.
When trauma is triggered, everything feels escalated even if it is not. The brain floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol, leading your muscles to tighten. You begin to feel that the next threat is around every corner. And that sort of hyper-vigilance goes against our natural resiliency.
A Black/white worldview. An inability to see nuance. Struggling to think about long-term strategy. Being unable to consider different pieces of information.
And it’s happening on all sides.
I believe that Trump is an incredibly traumatized individual who has not had any opportunity for real healing. And him acting out of a place of trauma is waking up the trauma of a lot of his followers and supporters.
And in movement spaces, activists are constantly facing militarized police violence and having conversations about historical trauma ― oftentimes in unskillful ways that open up trauma but do not help move through them.
And then we hit the streets, and it’s trauma meeting trauma. And that is not an interaction conducive to healing.
Preparing for nonviolent action should include learning emotional regulation tools and committing to learn about our own triggers and heal from our own wounds.
Spaces for nonviolent direct action can be intense, scary and easily trigger a trauma response. And yet, those spaces are critically important right now to push for change. Our responses to violence and injustice have to match the escalation that it is responding to. And we are responding to incredibly escalated forms of harm. Nothing short of a direct confrontation with the systems of power feels appropriate.
So how do we engage in those spaces in a way that is likely to bring about healing? How do we not meet trauma with trauma, panic with panic, fire with fire? How do we build movements that can tactically “shut down” a highway, while leading with a spirit of “opening up” possibilities for healing and transformation?
Racial justice advocate and healer Victor Lee Lewis says that every activist needs to have some understanding of neuroscience and how trauma works in the body. In addition to classic literature on nonviolence strategies such as Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” or Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” we should also be studying books like “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem, “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk and “The Politics of Trauma” by Staci Haines.
Names like Peter Levine and Brené Brown should be as commonly spoken in organizing circles as Grace Lee Boggs or Leonard Peltier.
This nation is undergoing a collective trauma response. Trauma, whether it is manifesting in one individual or in a collective, will exhibit the same characteristics, and will require similar strategies to heal. The more we can understand the dynamics of trauma, the better position we will be in to help us move through it.
Move through trauma
Preparing our communities for nonviolent action should not only consist of the traditional “nonviolence” training methodologies ― blockades, medic training, legal observation, etc. It should also include learning emotional regulation tools in the short term, and a long-term commitment for each of us to learn about our own triggers and heal from our own wounds.
Gandhi spoke of the importance of “self-purification” as part of the spiritual preparation for a satyagrahi ― a nonviolent warrior. The language of “trauma healing” did not exist in his time, but part of our emotional and spiritual preparation as we get ready to face potentially traumatic events (getting tear gassed, pepper sprayed, assaulted and arrested) should be to have some awareness of how much unprocessed pain, grief or resentment we are holding, and releasing enough of it so that we are heading into the streets with spaciousness in our hearts.
Emotions like grief and rage are not only natural, but critical for us to honor and embody. And yet, I can’t help but feel that direct action ― with the yelling, the tear gas, the public and fast-paced nature of these spaces ― is not the most productive or safe space for us to be releasing unprocessed grief and rage.
Instead, we need to be creating more safe containers, held by experienced facilitators, that are explicitly designed for the purpose of tending to our grief and our rage. Once we have processed them and moved through them, the raging inferno of emotions can settle into a piece of charcoal: sustained, concentrated energy that is easier for us to utilize in skillful ways.
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This is in no way to cast judgement on the outpouring of grief and rage in the streets. Particularly for marginalized communities, each instance of injustice can recall generations of violence for which the state that perpetuated them has never been accountable.
This in only an invitation for us to think hard about the right spaces to do the right work. Not every space can be everything for everyone in every moment. Direct action should be a place where we are inviting society to look at its trauma, not a place where we should feel safe processing our own pains.
Of course, moving through and processing our trauma is long-term work. In the meantime, nonviolence trainings should also emphasize short-term emotional regulation tools, like learning to bring awareness to our triggers, breathing or titration exercises or collective activities like singing. These practices can help us reengage our neocortex in a heated moment.
Shutting it down vs. opening it up
Finally, we need to be intentional about the purpose of our actions. Is it to simply overpower the “other side” and force change down their throats, or is our long-term goal to bring about social healing, transformation and liberation for all?
Are we simply trying to “shut shit down,” or are we trying to open up this nation’s wounds and clean out the infections of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and other forms of separation and domination so that we can all heal?
If it is the latter, then let us be mindful of what kinds of actions may lead to healing. How do we balance the power and assertiveness that we so desperately need in these times, and maintain a commitment to the love and relationships that will bring about healing?
While I certainly do not have all of the answers, I oftentimes think about the power of silent marches, meditation blockades, or actions of spiritual atonement like the Reparations Procession that is currently making its daily walks through the East Bay.
When I was at Standing Rock, the elders told us, as we were preparing to go to town to engage in a direct action, “Remember, you are going to a ceremony.” What kind of creative actions could we think up if we viewed direct action as ceremony, or a modality of healing collective trauma? What possibilities could be opened up then?
In order for us to have that level of creativity, we cannot be in our trauma state. Trauma is not conducive to creative thinking. Which brings us to another paradox of these times ― how do we slow down enough so that we can fully utilize our neocortex and listen to our hearts while addressing the real urgency and opportunity of this moment?
I suppose it can start with something as simple as a breath. As the Rev. René August once said, “The struggle for justice is a marathon, not a sprint. The difference between a marathon and a sprint is in how you breathe. Learn to breath.”
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