Issue #54: Belonging and Healing
"As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else." — Maya Angelou
Over the last few months, I’ve got on midafternoon walks to see and feel the sun listening to the On Being podcast and Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast. I’ve heard a couple of interviews with Glennon Doyle on both podcasts where she shares stories about her journey to addressing her sobriety and eating disorder recovery. During the interview, Doyle discusses her experience at her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, wowed by the courage and vulnerabilities of those who spoke and the support and validation from those who listened. The part that stuck out most for me from her story was the question she asked herself as it was time to leave: Why can’t everything be like AA?
I’ve been thinking a lot about trauma and healing from trauma as individuals and as a society as I see our supposedly post-pandemic, post-racial society reveals itself as tattered social fabric. The collective trauma is palpable and inescapable. There is so much pain and felt by so many people met with callous indifference and emotional overwhelm. The great majority of the world could best be described as trauma-enabling with widespread systemic oppression and violence, apathy, and gaslighting. Social norms and institutions compel individuals to ignore and repress their emotions and reduce and eliminate any control or agency individuals might have. One of the most common effects of trauma is separation, as people living with trauma seek to protect themselves through isolation, numbing and pushing away people before others can hurt them. Trauma en masse creates relationships and environments of mistrust and alienation.
I was talking with a colleague about Hannah Arendt. Over 60 years ago, her book The Origins of Totalitarianism delineated a path to embrace of totalitarian rule that she called organized loneliness. Totalitarian leaders used ideology to isolate individuals from the relationships around them, disrupt their perceptions of safety, and sever any independent thought and agency, compelling ideological followers to be be controlled by the ideology. This separation often caused trauma or reinforced existing trauma to heighten terror and force compliance. Left alone, afraid and disempowered, organized loneliness destroys belonging, collective agency and the emotional vulnerability required to question and exercise independent judgment. Samantha Rose Hill takes this one step further saying that loneliness is a hunger for meaning. That without the collective sense making and shared meaning that comes from belonging, we will divorced from humanity, leaving ourselves to manipulation and deprivation.
In other words, a world of traumatized individuals separated from each other is a world without belonging and also a recipe for disaster.
Even before the pandemic, several fields and industries like health, design, and education sought new practices and models that offered trauma-informed ways of being and doing. Adverse Childhood Experiences, are a framework for assessing exposure to childhood trauma and the correlated health risks from these exposures. Pediatricians now screen for ACEs in an effort to better provide care for children.
The shift to trauma-informed care and trauma-informed services primarily focuses on two objectives: building awareness of the high prevalence of trauma across most populations, and practicing a “do not harm” principle that avoids retraumatizing people.
But Doyle’s question of “Why can’t everything be like AA?” moves beyond this set of expectations knowing about and avoiding MORE trauma to more in the realm of ameliorating trauma, from mass separation to collective connection. This seemingly simple question points to a new vision of belonging: What would it mean to live in a trauma-disabling society where everything is like AA? Where shame and judgment had no place and everyone carried the responsibility of presence, lending support, and witnessing the lived experiences of others for the purpose of affirming them. A world where the purpose and practice of relationships is building and sustaining healthy emotional connection sees interconnectedness as a strength and an opportunity to exercise agency in service of self and others. A world where uncertainty acted as a catalyst for coming together to make sense of the world and reduce suffering because cultivating belonging was the most important social norm to uphold.
If organized loneliness is at one end of the spectrum, and a world where everything is like AA is at the other end, the the question that remains is how to we embed healing and trauma-disabling care in not just our institutions but throughout culture and society? This recent podcast interview with Panthea Lee and Cassie Robinson explored the notion of an imagination infrastructure which suggests a possible bridge to the future Doyle’s question suggests.
Here’s how Robinson defines an imagination infrastructure:
…I think, really infrastructure for me, it conjures up different words around care and resource and scaffolding. But it's also it suggests long term investment. So when I talk about imagination, infrastructure, I am trying to work out, what is it that we need to grow and resource around communities being able to collectively imagine together in an ongoing way over time, like this isn't about just doing one workshop, doing some sort of imagination exercise? This for me is the soil from which so much more can grow, even before we get to the kind of deliberative democracy staff or the citizen juries are there many other ways that we might want to design participatory processes, we do need to take some quite big leaps in our imagination, and I think that it is a practice. And I think an infrastructure can rarely help figure out like, what are the spaces, whether that's literal physical spaces, in the same way, town halls might be used for democratic processes or other physical spaces that can really be used as an infrastructure for our collective imagining? What are the practices? How is it resourced? And how does it feel like something that is growing and strengthened over time and drawn on to really influence and shape different features for people?
When responding to the question, “What it would be like to live in a world with an imagination infrastructure?” here’s how Lee responded:
I see in this future, I guess coming from where we are right now. The current conversations about racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice have really pushed us to fundamentally consider how we relate to one another and are with one another in society and in community in small ways and in big ways. And I see that children are taught about the histories of exploitation that have served very few and learned that the divisions between us have been manufactured to serve as the power and the greed of a narrow view. And so by learning about these histories, and having mass consciousness, that doesn't imprison us, but it actually liberates us, because I think we can then see how our heartbreaking histories of haves and have nots, you know, have have come to be and so we're freed from these toxic narratives of a neoliberal world that tell us that our problems are our faults alone, that, you know, our exhaustion and our pain and our grief is a result of our own personal failures. But we can see the institutional structures and in justices that have yielded these traumas, and as a result of that we are propelled to change it in a fundamentally different way, you know, we can see that this level of mass trauma and of dissociation is not the future that we want. And instead of trying to find salvation, through capitalism, into buying more into wanting more, we're investing into ways of being that honors all of our humanity. We recognize that these narratives have kept us imprisoned. And so we're moving towards, we're moving into a way of being that recognizes that each of our dignity and our joy and our liberation is connected. So what does that look like? You know, I think 10 years from now, we have canceled exploitative national debt. So we're not paying, you know, countries not paying sort of debt into Wall Street firms. And we've canceled sort of exploitative personal debt. Everyone is paid not just a living wage, but a thriving wage that enables them to really live their full potential, we're measuring progress in terms of wellbeing and equitable wellbeing, so the happiness and the dignity of all of us, rather than just how much we produce and convince other people to buy. And when each child is brought into this world, they are seen as magical and lovable, and a real miracle not just by their parents and their families, but by everyone that encounters this child. And we can help sort of nurture all of the children. Our public spaces are full of places to gather and play with art that sparks our imagination, rather than just ads that make us feel crappy about ourselves and more things for us to buy. And there's the sound of genuine unabashedly boisterous laughter everywhere, because we're free to dress as we want, love whom we want, speak whatever we want, without fear of retribution and attack. And we're all just standing tall and whole in our humanity.