I was talking to someone the other day – a friend, maybe, or a colleague – about the whirlwind of headlines these last couple of weeks:
- Executive orders to delegitimize trans, nonbinary and gender-variant identities;
some kind of fiasco with one of the ongoing federal investigations;
- the brutal assassination of a journalist in Saudi Arabia;
- the xenophobic frenzy about a mass migration of Central American refugees a thousand miles from the US border;
- the murder in a grocery store of two African-American shoppers by a white supremacist who was unable to get into a nearby Black church;
- the mass shooting last Saturday of worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, where eleven people died;
…and some other thing I couldn’t remember.
It was wild, I said. If you’d been writing near-future speculative dystopian fantasy in 1998 and you tried to publish this week it would have been sent back as too implausible. You couldn’t have made this sh–tuff up.
The next morning I woke up and said, “The pipe bombs! I forgot about the pipe bombs!”
Because I’d forgotten about pipe bombs, mailed (and intercepted before receipt) to a dozen high-profile Democrats including two former presidents, like they were toilet paper at the grocery.
You really can’t make this stuff up.
By the time I post this, it will be obsolete. Something else will have happened; it seems like every day something else does, a firehose of catastrophe gushing faster than anyone can drink it in. Here in the middle of things, what do we do with it? What do we do with it?
I want to write a little bit about crisis and trauma here; about the human bodymind and how we are wired and plumbed to respond to thread. We are animals after all, made of MEAT! as the story goes, of sinew and bone and biochemical instinct as well as intellect. We are adaptable; this is both a strength and a liability in the long run. When we are too terrified, we freeze. When we are too comfortable, we relax. Somewhere in between, alert to threat but not overwhelmed by it, we are best capable of choosing and taking action.
So I do not want to minimize this week’s cultural trauma. One thing after the next after the next. The threat – to safety and sanity – is real for some of us (and therefore for all of us, if my liberation is bound up in yours.) So we cannot ignore or dismiss the effect of direct attacks on identified populations – by race, religion, gender, profession or political affiliation. To dismiss the individual dots is to obliterate the larger pattern. We cannot afford to be complacent.
In avoiding complacency, also, there is the risk of becoming panicked into inaction, overwhelmed by grief or burned up by fury with no vital outlet. I wonder about this and see it in the urgent messages not to forget about this atrocity, or that one, or the other one or the one from last week or last month or last year. “Never forget!” the signs proclaim – and yet we do; there is only so much anyone can remember at once time.
I am not sure I agree with the premise that we must all be at maximum outrage about everything all the time; in fact, I am very sure I do not agree with that.
The human system does not function very well under chronic stress. Among other things, our capacity to make decisions, especially considered ones, is impaired by high levels of stress hormones. Some times we just can. not. do. the. thing. (I’ve personally experienced this, the inability to make an otherwise decision when overwhelmed. Probably a lot of readers have as well.)
So I am mindful that – by chance or by design – America right now is turned up to 11 on anxiety and outrage, with a side order of helplessness and violence for many of us who are invested in building a kinder, fairer, sustainable way of being with one another. We are being goaded in the run up to an election whose processes we may or may not trust, by a political system in the hands of people who thrive on others’ pain and fear.
I am not going to tell anyone not to be afraid, or hurt, or angry. But strong emotion is strong power, and I am going to ask each of us to consider who is using our power, and to what end.