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Moving from Trauma to Action

I was talking with someone very close to me recently who said something important I want to share:

Our country has so many things going wrong, so many things really to feel ashamed about in a way, that it seems like on an average day I have two choices: either think about those things and then feel really distressed or try to screen out the news to try to retain a bit of happiness.

This comment crystallized something for me. I realized I have been doing the same thing. The bad news keeps coming in such torrents that it is overwhelming. I used to try to use my platform to comment on the most important issues most days, but there are so many daily or at least weekly disasters that for several years now I have stopped trying to do that. I can’t bear to focus on all the evil.

Digging further, I think I can pin down when my feeling of being overwhelmed began to get the better of me — even though I am a Christian social ethicist trained for this work.

It was about one year into the Trump presidency. I was among those naifs who was staggered that our country would let Donald J. Trump anywhere near the White House. Then I was astonished by the torrent of mendacity, abuse and folly that flowed from his Twitter account and from every other thing associated with him. Then I had to absorb the fact that a very substantial minority of my fellow Americans were eating it all up, simply loving not just what he was doing but precisely the discomfort it was causing “snowflakes” like me. The discomfort was the point! It won votes!

Then came COVID, and all the trauma, change and dislocation associated with that pandemic, and the further exacerbations of national division, and a leader in the White House suggesting a nice injection of disinfectant.

Then came the November 2020 election, the whole thing — the worries over whether Trump would accept defeat, then the campaign to overturn the election, then Jan. 6.I remember my first day of class with my students in Macon was on Jan. 7, and I was again in shock, having to figure out how much to talk about what had just occurred while also going over the syllabus, while also teaching through a mask to a large room of young strangers in masks who had the misfortune of entering adulthood with this as their political context.

“Every time I drive by an elementary school now, I wonder if they have made adequate security preparations and if the little ones in there are safe.”

More recently it has been the constant mass shootings. My daughter is an elementary school teacher. My grandkids are in school. Every time I drive by an elementary school now, I wonder if they have made adequate security preparations and if the little ones in there are safe.

No, they are not safe, because our government leaders (meaning most Republicans) won’t ban military-grade weapons for civilian use and because we appear to have an endless pool of sick young men feeling the need to make a statement by murdering innocents.

The Uvalde killings affected me very deeply. For a week I had nightmares related to those kids stuck in those classrooms with that killer not just murdering them but tormenting them sadistically for over an hour, like Nazi death camp guards I read about in graduate school.

I feel like the ambient national stress and distress level is simply through the roof. I do social ethics and thus deal with public issues for a living, but I, too, find our social problems overwhelming.

“The ambient national stress and distress level is simply through the roof.”

A friend on Facebook suggested that collective trauma is the right category, and that seems right. But it leaves the same issue I started with — if I deal with these traumatic things directly and regularly, I feel (re)traumatized. But if I don’t, I feel more numb, powerless and distracted than anything else. I gather many of us are in the same place right now.

I want to acknowledge something here. There are many people in the world, and in our country, who eat trauma daily for breakfast. They have not recently entered into trauma; it is their daily bread. Some of these folks have found ways to move beyond mere distress, numbness, distraction and powerlessness. From what I can tell as I meet them, the path forward is standing up for what is right, speaking the truth, fighting hard for concrete change — just as practices, all the time, on good days and bad days.

It is not about a sanguine hope that all will be well if we just give, serve and do advocacy days. It’s about fighting for a better future even if that future does not seem foreseeable. It’s about doing the right thing because it is right.

I invite myself, and you, to move through trauma — past numbness — to action.

This article first appeared on Baptist News Global.

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4 thoughts on “Moving from Trauma to Action”

  1. Carole Hartnett

    I find your articles to be life savers. This article appeared in my inbox just as I was feeling overwhelmed by all of it. In the last year one of my adult children came out as lesbian. I am active in an evangelical church in Florida. I have read your book Changing our minds and Following Jesus out of evangelicalism and the follow up- After Evangelicalsm. They all resonated with me. I am now a stranger in a foreign country with my fellow Christians saying very hurtful things and they seem clueless to the impact. They assume that as a fellow Christian daughter or not I would feel the same. Really wishing that whatever postevangelical churches are out there that they could start planting other churches. Thank you so much for your writings and talks. Drops of precious moisture in the desert.

  2. Yes. This. All of it. Some moments I almost choke on the pain I see, feel and hear all around me. From the mental torment my young adult children are experiencing to the excruciating heartbreak of children dying as the people meant to protect them huddle outside a door for over an hour. To the constant battle of wading through the red tape, the pushback, the selfishness… often from other Christians… in order to move into any kind of action.
    Thank you for naming this. If it weren’t for articles like this, the team I work with at the Center for Justice and Reconciliation and my excellent therapist (lol), I would not be able to breathe as the weight of the world can be crushing.

  3. I identify with your reflections. This time feels much like I felt in the 1960’s with all its trauma—school desegregation, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, Civil Rights workers’ murders, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. In that time, I graduated from high school, college, got married, headed to seminary, and sweated out the draft to the Vietnam War. This time feels like that time in many ways. We will all be changed by such times.

  4. I deeply appreciate and embrace your comments. I am a contemplative that teaches social work at a Historically Black university and so I must keep up with the daily social events. It pains me as a contemplative and as a professor to see the ugliness of what is happening in our society. It pains me to know that my niece lives in Uvalde. It pains me to know my small university is now receiving threats (as are many HBCUs). I would love to ignore it all but I cannot, I am called to a different path. I must intervene where I can: at my local church, at my University, and in my community. Margaret Mead was right “never doubt what a small group of dedicated people can do…” I have to take heart that it started so long ago with 13 dedicated people.

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