I’ve been studying psychological trauma as it manifests in world literature for the past twenty years. I’ve examined how sexual abuse, domestic violence, rape, slavery, combat, and colonialism have affected people’s sense of time and self in history. I’ve used literature – the reading and the writing of it, both in classrooms and communities – to help people understand and heal from individual and collective trauma.
So you might be surprised to know that I believe there is actually some good news in the potentially traumatizing presidential takeover that is currently underway.
Let me wear a professor hat for a bit to explain, and then I’ll put on my pussy hat and give you the good news.
Trauma can be understood best as a record skipping in time. Remember when you put on a record in your bedroom and danced around so hard that the needle skipped and you missed a part of the song?
It’s not so much what happens that defines a traumatic event but how we survive it.
Contrary to what even some psychologists believe, what makes an experience traumatic is not the level of violence or the unexpected nature of it or even how “bad” it is.
Trauma happens when we skip over something because if we were to experience it, we would not survive.
This is why a child of seven molested by a neighbor can be as equally traumatized as a refugee from a war torn country.
This equality is important. It holds the seeds for a potential transformation.
But before we get to that, allow me to explain one more aspect of trauma that will help us understand what is happening politically.
In the same way that the how and not the what define trauma, it is the how and not the what that comprise the healing process.
During the traumatic experience, the survivor “skips” the event, checking out emotionally to the extent that the brain does not even record the time in the same way as normal experiences are recorded.
Usually, our memories are stored as stories.
“How was your day?”
“Let me tell you what happened!”
But during a trauma, this narrative component breaks down and what gets recorded are fragments – colors, images, smells, sounds, flashes of light or shadow.
This is why, for example, it’s pretty much impossible for a war veteran to walk into a VA Center and write down his trauma on a form in 10 minutes in order to qualify for help.
There is no story.
The way to healing, then, lies in the recognition of these 3 points:
- 1. Trauma is defined by how one survives it: by skipping.
- 2. Trauma is recorded differently in the brain.
- 3. Trauma is not a story.
In a culture that doesn’t understand these three points, healing can be nearly impossible.
But once we free survivors (or ourselves) from the question, “What happened?” and learn to tend to the body’s feelings and the spirit’s emotions, using the sounds and images of our nightmares to make meaning out of the emotions and feelings, healing can begin.
We can do this through poetry. Writing. Art. Music. Dance.
So here is the good news in this presidential and global takeover of power from the people into the hands of global corporations masquerading as governments: we, the people, can respond to it in exactly the ways that will prevent this from being a traumatic event that will take our grandchildren generations to recover from.
This consists of flipping the 3 aspects of trauma described above:
- 1. We will not skip it. We are woke.
- 2. We use tools to calm the brain.
- 3. We know there is no story.
I’ll break it down for you now by suggesting some concrete ways you can apply these principles in your own life and community to stop trauma in his tracks.
1. Stay woke.
Waking up in the night with nightmares? Good. Get up. Write. Paint. Make music. Use the time to record and transform your fears into something creative and positive that will help others transform. (I wrote this essay at 3 am, for example. And not to be a nag, but it’s worth noting that I wouldn’t have “had the time” to do so if I’d gotten on social media.)
And stay woke when you approach the news. Let the news come to you when you’re ready. Think carefully about when to turn on the radio, television, internet and social media. Disable notifications because these will keep you on a state of high alert so you won’t be able to focus and get into the flow of creative production that these times are calling you to do.
2. Calm down.
In an awakened state of witnessing, it’s essential to have tools for calm. You want to avoid freaking out at work and school and with your spouse and kids. So call in your support team – yoga, massage, aromatherapy, mindfulness, walking in the woods, dog cuddles, candles, incense, meditation, music, exercise, naps, bubble baths, kickboxing, crying, therapy, lovemaking, and cooking.
Make these a daily practice. It’s not indulgent. It’s part of the survival skills we need to be there, steady and patient, when others need us to witness to their waking.
3. Go beyond the story.
I remember when my daughter was little and she didn’t like to finger paint on paper. She would dip her finger in, look up at me disgusted, and want to wash her hands. This is a little like how many people are feeling about the political narrative being presented to us.
But then I decided to explode the paper. We woke early one morning, went to the kitchen, and I poured paint on the kitchen floor.
“Paint like you dance,” I said to her.
And she did. Swirls and taps and lines and thumbprints and gorgeous patterns made with her whole body.
You can do this, too.
You can stop trauma in his tracks. And paint completely new tracks in the process.
You can explode the paper and the story. You can use your whole body. You can bring in all the colors. You can create something that transforms the room you are in. And the world we share.
Join me the weekend of February 24-26 at the Deckle Edge Literary Festival in Columbia, SC, where I’ll be participating in a panel on Poetry and Healing and leading a workshop called “How to Make Beauty out of Anything: A Workshop on Transforming Hard Times, Loss, Death, and Even an Election through Writing.”