Injuries to Our Spirits

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The subtitle of my blog is “Psyche, Story, Spirit.” Today I’m thinking about something that binds together “psyche” and “spirit”—the feelings many Americans have after last week’s election. Many are elated. Many are saddened, or afraid. What I’m interested in, though, is that in earlier elections when Democrats won, those who are now elated were saddened, or afraid. I’m not really interested, at the moment, in the reasons or causes for either side’s emotional responses; what interests me is that finally, between left and right, we have common ground.

That common ground is that now we are all familiar with how it feels to receive an injury to our spirits. By those words I mean to convey a kind of woundedness that not only brings pain, but diminishes our sense of meaning and threatens our hope. What most affected me after the election was the bewildering and, yes, even frightening sense that the truths I’ve trusted may not hold. Since the results came plain, I feel what many people say they feel: They’ve taken my country away. I’ve heard that sentence from folks on the right, and wondered what they meant by it. Finally, I have common ground with those on the right who’ve been so angry and afraid all these years. It is not pleasant ground to stand on, but it’s shared, at least.

Common ground? Really?

Psychologists know, as do folks who suffer PTSD, that the aftermath is sometimes worse than the wound itself. It is one thing to be shocked, to go on auto-pilot, to rely on numbness to make it through a traumatizing situation. But as the days, weeks, months, and years after the event pile up, the longer term consequences start coming to light. And alongside them, along with the pain, come questions, doubts, self-blame, a rupture of connection. thinkerDid I do something to cause the tragedy? Am I wrong, bad, or even evil? Or is someone else to blame, someone I may have counted on or even loved? What’s wrong with this damn world? Who am I after all is said and done? What does this all man? What should I do now? Questions that disrupt the settled world I thought I had.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that this injury to our spirits accompanies many of our presidential elections. Certainly, the nation endured it as a sundering catastrophe in 1860, when the visceral reactions of real people tore the country apart—a gulf that has haunted us since. But the elections of 2000, when we elected a war-maker, and of 2008, when we elected a Black man, and of 2016, when we tried to elect a woman, belong to us who are living now, and are the injurers of our times.

I’m thinking of PTSD too, or in psychologists’ language, “acute stress disorder” (since it’s only days since the event, not months). Combat veterans who suffer PTSD, especially those who had to do things they would never have dreamed of doing in civilian life, report these injuries to the spirit I’m thinking about. So do many survivors of sexual or physical abuse, especially those who accepted the abuse by one person in order to protect someone else—the other parent, for instance, or siblings. Traumatic experiences like those alter a person’s sense of her goodness, of his ability to make a difference by his actions, of being who they thought they were.

Wait.

Am I implying that the emotional aftermath of losing an election is equivalent to killing in war or witnessing its horrors? Am I arguing that seeing one’s candidate lose is the same as being raped by a drunken father or by a violent boyfriend on a date?

No.

I am, though, trying to say that our spirits can be injured, and that when they are, the result can be fear, shame, anger, blame, confusion, despair. These emotions are the common ground all of us stand on who share strong passions about American politics, and lose. And what challenges me about this common ground is that it can be, may be, the ground of empathy. We on the left may be feeling—and if so, understanding—what those on the right have felt.

Forgive, forget, move on?

Absolutely not.

Each of us will find some way to heal, or so we all can hope. But I’m not ready to forgive. Psychologists remind us that the first step after an offense is not to forgive when there remain unhealed wounds. The first step is to talk, to name the fear, the rage, the despair, or whatever form the injury takes. To talk not only with loved ones, but with whomever will listen. To speak what is true in each of our hearts. That’s the first step.

Forget? I will never forget the obscenity and cruelty of President-elect Trump’s campaign and of his talk. Until he demonstrates compassion for all the citizens, especially the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, in real and tangible ways, my memory of his insults and assaults will stay fresh. But that does not mean I will resist everything he does. What is truly honorable I will support. What benefits real people in real ways, I will support. But when he proposes actions that will harm those who have already suffered much harm—women held back or assaulted, immigrants terrified, Muslims vilified, Jews slandered, disabled people mocked, the elderly threatened, the rebuilders of the infrastructure obstructed, the polluters of the air and water empowered—I will resist.

Move on? Only in one respect: I will move on in my own work of managing my personal spiritual woundedness, and in comforting those around me when I can. I will move on to organize my thinking and my writing and my contributing and my action so that I don’t add to the injuries to the spirit that already pile too high.

What can I do?

It’s a dark time.

Those of us who won the election last week must wait, anxiously, to see whether the promises they counted on are real or merely “politics,” rhetoric designed to fool them into delivering power to the likes of Bannon and Breitbart.

Those of us who lost must grieve and wait as well, to see what emerges from the shadows of that ugly and debasing campaign. I hope that we all, winners and losers, will seek connectedness, not disunion. Civility, not hate.

Still, there have been other dark, perhaps darker, times. hitler-polandThink back to September 1, 1939, the night Hitler invaded Poland. The world awoke next morning shocked, gaggled, unstrung, despairing. Most of us now are shocked, and half of us are unstrung, seventy-seven years later. To many, the world seems just as dark—while others believe a dawn is breaking (though I fear they will soon find their hopes dashed as well).

W. H. Auden wrote a poem about that night, “1st September 1939.” Here is its final stanza.

Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

 

On both sides of our country’s divide, I hope we will listen, and exchange our messages of justice, and, despite the injuries to our spirits, show an affirming flame.

 

 

Author: Bill Percy

An Idaho and Minnesota writer and psychologist, Bill has been writing fiction and non-fiction for 40 years. His 2014 novel, "Climbing the Coliseum," wass a Finalist for the Foreword Reviews' Book of the Year Award in general fiction. His second novel, "Nobody's Safe Here," was published by Black Rose Writing in December, 2016. Check out Bill's website at www.BillPercyBooks.com.

7 thoughts on “Injuries to Our Spirits”

  1. Thank you, Bill. You have masterfully articulated many of the feelings that I am experiencing, along with those of many friends and family members. Your words captured emotions that I could not put into words.

    One must move forward, taking the high ground, but it is SO hard at times, especially after seeing yesterday’s speech and realizing nothing has changed from what we saw in the campaign—-just emboldened all the more.

    Dealing with the next four years and two months will be daunting, at the very least, especially the rebuilding the spirit aspect. I do believe, however, that mutual support, looking for the points of light and pursuing the daily challenge of clinging to principles we hold most dear will see us through this—as difficult as it is going to be.

    1. Thank you, Marianne. (I’ve been away for a few days, without computer, so this reply is delayed.) I agree with you entirely. We have so much to lose, and so much likelihood of losing all or most of it–it’s hard to find those “points of light.” Communicating with like-minded folks, I think, is going to become increasingly valuable for all of us.

  2. Dear Bill,

    I like what you have written here, however, I have read it several times and I’m not totally sure if you are suggesting there is an equality in the experience of Democrats losing the office to Republicans in term of emotional upset to that of Republican’s losing the office to Democrats?

    I just don’t think it is the same because if Republicans lose they just have to give a little bit more to their fellow citizens, but in fact benefit from Democratic fairness for all. However, if Democrats lose to Republicans they can expect that progressive steps and rights will be reversed and most if not the majority of citizens will carry the payload but get little from the extra burden.

    In this case though we have just witnessed the end of democracy at the hands of ignorant, white, middle class entitlement. So the PTSD is very much the equivalent of other great personal loses, injuries and reality shifts.

    Democrats > Republicans = Civilization and progressive equality for all

    Republicans > Democrats = Entitlement for 1% of the wealthiest and regression of social progress

    Trumpesque Republicans = Pendulum swing so far into the dark ages of social equality and justice that the darn thing has swung right off it’s hook and has flown away deep into the jungle of human greed, graft and darkness. I feel as though there is no middle ground for meeting in and our neighbors, friends and family are responsible. I understanding wanting to wait for a shadowy answer to emerge from behind the curtain and yeah I hope such a thing does occur. But I just can’t go with the seeking of bi partisan contentedness in a middle that really doesn’t exist. As a result, I feel, and of course I do not have a degree in therapy, that it could be quite reasonable for anyone who has a empathy for other people and the planet to be experiencing PTSD, very much like someone who has experienced an ultra traumatic shift in their reality. Their is a tangible grief and anger that is needed to move those of us who care into action.

    I’m writing this too late at night. I really do appreciate the fact that you are thinking and writing about this moment in time and it’s traumatic ramifications and opening it up for discussion. It feels good.

    Warm Regards,
    Alison

    1. Thanks, Alison. Your idea–that when Republicans lose, they don’t lost all the benefits of citizenship that, in the last generation, are due largely to Democrats, while for Dems the losses threaten to be catastrophic–was insightful, very insightful. It’s a follow-on to the frequently noted fact that the Republican working-class base vote against their own interests. Thanks for reminding us of the non-equivalence of the threatened losses. I was focused more on the perceived losses and the pain they bring, perception being reality in so many ways.

      One of my reasons for resisting despair — which I barely can do — is that I have read a lot of pre-civil war political history. I can only imagine how dreadful those who opposed slavery felt when South Carolina seceded after Lincoln was elected. Without arguing that slavery/JimCrow/racism has been eliminated (far from it), there have been in the 150 years since the end of the Civil War real advances toward a just society. Granted, they may be reversed under T. (Like Harry Potter’s Voldemort, I find his name repugnant to write) and his minions, so another comparison, whether it is an equivalence we don’t yet know, would be with the “progressives” of 1860. You are so right to remind us that while many of us won’t be hurt too much by what T. does, millions will, tangibly and in their marrow.

      My aim for myself is, since it might be that we are on the brink of what you called, perhaps presciently, the “end of democracy,” is to be staunch as a democrat (small d), to refuse to go quietly into that night, to fight hard for my fellow citizens who will be harmed by what’s happening, and to refuse to give up hope in the America I care about and have worked hard for since VietNam. I, we, may lose it all, and my grief then is for my children and grandchildren and all our children who will have to bear that after I’m gone. But if we lose, I want to lose as a public democrat, a socialist, a progressive, and somebody who takes Jesus (I am not a practicing Christian, but he sure said it best) seriously when he said “If you did it for the least of my siblings, you did it for me.”

      1. Bill,
        Thank you for your response. I can see now that we are on the same page. I am also resisting despair, especially as you say, for my children and grandchildren and their generations. I also feel that we need to take action and go down, if we must, like Nathan Hale. “I regret that I have only one life to give for the advancement of equality.” Okay he said “my nation”. But it’s the same sentiment. I am also not a practicing Christian but I think I may have weakened the beautiful message of that great historical lover of man, Jesus, by giving his following up to the cone heads that say they are “right” and also “Right” “just because” they are. I’m pretty sure we need to throw ourselves radically behind a revolutionary change in the inequality and apparent dilapidation and immobility of public education; idk, maybe we need to take back the churches too.

        1. Yep, I think we’re very much on the same page, or if not exactly the same page, we’re within a few sentences of one another! I wholeheartedly agree with you. The kind of christianity preached by the “cone-heads” is hateful and the diametric opposite of what Jesus taught and lived. When our Jewish friends used to ask us, “Why are you moving out there to the land of the Aryan Nations and the survivalist neo-Nazis?”, Michele used to reply, “I’m not giving up the most beautiful land in the country to those bozos.” Thats why we are going to resist–to keep this most beautiful country for everybody.

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