On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered it greatest trauma, 2996 people were killed and another 6000 wounded. As the first act of such magnitude to be committed within the continental U.S., America lost its innocence along with any sense of domestic security. As the deadliest terrorist act in world history, the world, but most especially the United States, has not yet recovered. I’m not sure we ever will. Since the moment the planes flew into the Twin Towers, the U.S. has been at war – first against people of color in countries made of sand and now against each other. For the past 17 years the United States has known nothing but war, and our current cultural climate suggests that as a nation we are collectively suffering the effects of trauma.
The Effects of Trauma
In the simplest of terms, when we have an experience that our mind interprets as traumatic, we are instinctually driven toward one of three survival tactics: fight, flight or freeze. If the trauma is not resolved or if the traumatic response is not released from our emotional/physical bodies, the trauma remains. When this occurs, we might find ourselves in a permanent state of fight, flight or freeze. In this state, we respond to anything that (even subconsciously) reminds us of the initial trauma as if it is happening again. This is known as a triggering episode. Unless the trauma is effectively treated, we will find ourselves in an endless loop of reactionary behaviors. Until someone points out to us that our behaviors might be the after effects of trauma, we think nothing of them, often to the point where they become normalized. I contend that our current cultural climate – defined by fear and division – is in fact, trauma coming out sideways.
United States of Trauma
Whereas September 11th initially had a unifying effect, since the decision to go to war, we, as a nation, have become increasingly polarized. Our increasing access to information (both true and untrue) has hastened this polarization, and it seems there are those who might actually be feeding this division because it benefits them in some way, or perhaps this is their own reaction to unresolved trauma. Unresolved trauma comes out sideway in behaviors that are uncharacteristic, often irrational and fear-driven. We obsess. We worry. We fret. We become angry. We want to fight. We become immobile. We ignore what is right in front of us. Instead of identifying the fear that is unhealed within us, we want to make someone or something outside of us the enemy – the cause of our concern. In the current state of our culture, many “enemies” have been named: Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, Blacks, Whites, The Police, Muslims, Christians, Millennials, Baby Boomers, Screen time, (remember when TV and Rock Music were the “enemies?”) Men, Women, The Media, The NRA, those seeking gun control, Pro-Lifers, those who are Pro-choice, The Rich, The Poor, Corporate Greed, those taking advantage of the system, The Economy, Banks, Illegal Immigrants, those seeking refuge, the mentally ill, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. The bottom line is that the fear and division that currently control our culture have absolutely NOTHING to do with all those things we want to point our fingers toward as being “the enemy.” Instead, it has EVERYTHING to do with unacknowledged and unresolved TRAUMA.
Healing from Trauma
We are a nation in trauma. We have been for a very long time (I’m still not sure we’ve recovered from the Civil War!), but even more so since 9/11. In order to heal from the effects of this trauma (increasing fear and division), we have to name it as such, and then do the difficult work of healing from that trauma. Healing from trauma happens when we are able to:
- Name the trauma. What is actually at the heart of our fearful thoughts, reactions, and behaviors? What is the true cause of the fear? Maybe it is 9/11, or maybe it stems from something even older – an experience of childhood abuse, bullying or rejection, a devastating loss or disappointment, a past failure or betrayal?
- Acknowledge that the fear has NOTHING to do with what you are currently perceiving outside of you (events in the news, the disagreement with your spouse, what you read on social media), but is instead related to something within you asking to be healed. Once you are able to identify the fear comes the hard part.
- Instead of following our instinct which is to “make the fear go away,” (by pointing the finger of blame at someone else, ignoring or denying it, numbing it, etc.) we SIT with the fear. Allow yourself to actually FEEL the fear. Identify where in your body you might be feeling it, breathe into that fear, and then breathe out love. Remain with this practice (which the Buddhists call Tonglen), until you feel the fear change. Maybe it moves. Maybe it is resolved and you find yourself coming to peace. Maybe it changes to anger or sorrow. Whatever you do, don’t respond or react to the fear, instead, allow it to be healed.
- Shampoo, Rinse, Repeat. Each and every one of us is a bundle of unacknowledged and unresolved woundedness and fear. Until we are able to heal the trauma that dwells within us, we will never be able to heal the fears that have placed fear and division as the rulers of our country.
Healing from trauma is difficult and challenging work, but enormously rewarding. Freeing ourselves from the effects of trauma empowers us to see our world through a different lens, allowing us to come to the discussion table where we are able to effectively work together for justice, peace and reconciliation. Until we can heal what is broken within us, we will never be able to heal what is broken in our nation or our world.
NOTE: The practices shared here are for the purpose of addressing normal, everyday fear. If you find your symptoms persisting, please seek additional support through spiritual counseling, traditional counseling, self-development courses, or through any of the methods of intervention which have proven helpful in healing trauma: EMDR and Brainspotting to name a few.
If you are looking for a way to join with others in the efforts of healing our broken world, please check out the Love Warriors project. Learn more HERE.