Issue #48: Belonging and Trauma

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” – C.G. Jung

Never have I been so happy to see the arrival of a new month. I've been thinking a lot about trauma lately. As I said maybe an issue or two ago, I injured my shoulder in a traumatic way which has made many physical things like typing difficult. I've also been thinking about vicarious trauma. My parents live in Texas and a pipe burst in their house during the Texas winter storms. They are still without water. It’s bizarre to realize that in the richest country in the world, there are still thousands of people without water because the state failed to plan and still apparently fails to care about the physical, emotional, and social well-being of its residents. Texas state officials also fail to care about the impact of the still ongoing COVID19 pandemic. The governor recently decided to open up all businesses to 100% capacity and remove the mask mandate, even as the pandemic still rages on.

A complete dereliction of their duty to care.

And worse, like so many other American crises before this one, Texas state officials are not alone in failing to care. Tiffani Ashley Bell launched The Human Utility in response to Michigan’s failure to care about residents having water. The tech nonprofit pays water bills when residents can no longer afford them to prevent water utilities from cutting off their households’ water.

So much of the retrenchment in belonging we are experiencing is this abdication of a duty to care. I've been thinking a lot about the direct and vicarious trauma experienced from living within and navigating this abdication. Two weeks ago, I shared a definition of trauma I found that has really stuck with me.

Trauma can be understood as a rupture in "meaning-making", says David Trickey, a psychologist and representative of the UK Trauma Council. When "the way you see yourself, the way you see the world, and the way you see other people" are shocked and overturned by an event – and a gap arises between your "orienting systems" and that event – simple stress cascades into trauma, often-mediated through sustained and severe feelings of helplessness.

If you’re familiar with the stages of grief model developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, you may have heard the five stages: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance. A few years after Kubler-Ross passed away, Kessler introduced a sixth stage: meaning. It is meaning making that moves us from the trauma of grief back to a healthy state. I've really been thinking about post-traumatic growth as the path to meaning-making in the wake of trauma. It’s our way reframing our thinking and our viewing of the world. Even as we are still processing the trauma that’s still here, whether the mass collective trauma of this still ongoing pandemic and economic recession, or even traumas in our personal lives occurring simultaneously, how might this rupture create space to reframe, flip, or invert the way that we think about things?

This week’s issue explores questions of belonging that might arise with a trauma-informed lens examining signals of trauma today. What emerges from a wholehearted embrace of care rather than merely the absence of trauma?

The Economist reported about a recent academic paper that demonstrated that low income workers would need to be compensated an additional 10-15% of their current salaries to cover the increased housing costs required in a world of remote work. Perhaps workers should receive stipends or salary increases for remote work rather than the reductions that many companies have opted to normalize? But more than the financial costs, perhaps employers should also compensate for the social costs of the fuzzy barrier between work and domestic life.

The Atlantic recently shared preliminary results from Stockton’s guaranteed-income experiment. If you're not familiar with Stockton, California, it’s one of the most economically disadvantaged cities in the country. With the support of now-former Mayor Michael Tubbs launched an universal basic income experiment where a randomized group of people received $500 a month. The experiment was supposed to end roughly around the time that the pandemic started but was extended for an additional six months. Preliminary results demonstrate findings similar to those found in many other universal basic income projects: by extending money, and therefore peace of mind, recipients feel less stress and anxiety. It also doesn't impact people's desire to participate in the labor market. Perhaps rather than focusing on the labor and economic impacts of cash transfers and universal basic income, what would happen if we monitored and tracked human wellbeing and happiness in the same way that we look at stock market ticker results and employment statistics? How would we change how we act on the value of human lives?

A recent Fast Company article asks, What if we replace politicians with randomly selected citizens? It's not a secret that most people are very upset with politicians right now. Nonprofit Of By For ran a trial to randomly generate a citizens’ panel of 30 Michigan residents who convened to make recommendations for COVID19 policy.

The trial was a success. Their chosen panelists were demographically representative, gender-balanced, aged 20 to 87, and had wide variations in race, education, and political views. The panel emerged with 12 policy recommendations on handling COVID-19 and the economy, including on mask mandates, unemployment benefits, and home relief grants.

For instance, they decided, with 89% in favor and 11% against, to provide quitable access to healthcare related to COVID-19, including the state subsidizing insurance costs that aren’t covered. The same number supported an increase in mental health resources, adding a clause that social workers should accompany police who respond to mental health calls. Other recommendations were to raise the income threshold to allow more people to qualify for housing aid (93% in favor), offer clear and consistent mask education (74% in favor), and increase funding to childcare centers and provide childcare workers with a living wage (89% in favor).

While things could get politically heated at times, Cronkright says the participants stayed respectful and listened to each other. “This was in Michigan, on COVID, so, this is the most charged issue in the most divided state,” he says, referring to the conflicts over COVID-19 restrictions that led to armed protests at the statehouse and a foiled plot to kidnap the governor. He believes it’s a recipe for quashing divisiveness and even keep extremist views from stirring up.

While only an initial trial, the Of By For pilot presents an interesting thought experiment. What if ordinary people served in Congress in a brief, time-bound term? What would they do? What would the decisions differ? Whose interests would be represented? What scope or scale of thinking would randomly selected citizens provide? How might we rediscover our love of care for each other?

We tell ourselves stories about the history of politics as representative of noble public service? I question the veracity of that history knowing how much that nobility relied on and reinforced the ongoing trauma of people like me and my family. So with a background of broken democracy and foreground of popular fascism and widespread corruption, how might we look toward the future of designing governance for care rather than power? These are questions that we've never answered, at least in an American context. Perhaps this country’s post-traumatic growth begin with acknowledging the trauma and challenging the authority exercised by those who ruptured our sense of meaning making. We have the opportunity to test the boundaries of what a democratic republic could look like and the more optimal life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that it could support free of the weight of trauma.