Two years ago this month, I wrote an article about the current occupant of the White House and the future world of post-traumatic stress that he was wilfully and deliberately creating for migrant families through a policy of enforced familial separation.
I didn’t name him in that article and I have no intention of dignifying him by doing so now.
Recently, that individual has threatened to do what no American leader has done in nearly 30 years and deploy troops to tackle the violent protests that have erupted in the wake George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis last week.
It hardly seems coincidental that when George Bush Senior sent the army into Los Angeles in 1992, it was also to quell rioting that followed the death of another black man – Rodney King – in police custody.
For those who have missed the context of George Floyd’s killing, he died when a police officer – who has since been charged with murder and manslaughter – knelt on his head for more than eight minutes, even though Floyd persistently said he couldn’t breathe.
Law and democracy demand that the officer, Dennis Chauvin, be presumed innocent unless proven otherwise by a jury of his peers. But the video evidence that traversed the globe even more quickly than the pandemic that currently grips us is compelling.
Right-minded people have little tolerance for brutality among those whose job it is to protect us, and none at all where that brutality is inflicted on the disadvantaged and oppressed; so there is a sense of inevitability about the insurrection that has bloomed in cities around the US on each of the last seven nights.
But it seems to me that what we are witnessing across the Atlantic is also, in small part, a reflection of the extraordinary pressure under which people all over the world are currently living.
As a global society we have been living through a period of growing and unprecedented trauma for years, one that has now triggered an explosive emotional response that was as inevitable as it has been unavoidable.
Now we are tasked with healing it; but in order to heal, trauma must first be acknowledged and addressed.
I say this constantly, and I repeat it here: there is no hiding place from trauma.
To ignore it only allows it to grow and fester like a cancer until it creates an inner wrecking ball that then manifests itself in negative behaviours in your own life that can range from an horrifically persecutory superego, to car-crash relationships with yourself or others, drug addiction or rapacious mental health issues.
No amount of positive thinking, self-affirmation or good intentions will override unhealed trauma – it must come to the surface in order to be healed.
What we are witnessing now across the world is the same volcanic effect of society’s pent-up trauma – and specifically that caused by centuries of unaddressed racism, prejudice and injustice – erupting.
The demonstrations we have seen over the past few weeks are specifically rooted in the shameful abomination of historic entitlement of white privilege at the expense of people of colour; but every person who has taken the knee or marched in protest is also making a wider statement about equality.
Trauma on an international scale, such as the current pandemic and the emotional responses it has provoked, is not uncommon. The financial crash of 2008 and 9/11 are two examples within just the last two decades.
Many people have drawn a comparison between the current lockdown and what life must have been like during the Second World War, but the truth is that the effect of lockdown on the human race globally goes far beyond the that experienced by most ordinary (by which I mean non-military) folk between 1939 and 1945.
Rationing was tough. Living under the constant fear of bombing runs by the Luftwaffe over strategic UK locations was fearsome. Not knowing if your spouse, sibling, parent or child would return from action was impossibly hard. Learning they wouldn’t was harder still. We know this from the stories passed down by the silent generation and their parents.
But this is the first time in history that the world has stopped as one. It may turn, but it barely functions. Businesses have collapsed. Thousands have died on contact with an unseen enemy. Homes have been lost. People who had teetered on the edge of poverty have been cast into its abyss. We queue for food and we are forcibly distanced from people we love.
And it has all happened in the space of just a few short weeks.
On May 8th 1945, people emerged from six years of hardship knowing the enemy they feared had been beaten and had surrendered.
Over the last ten days we have begun to realise that unlike our forefathers, we are now expected to return by degrees to a world we last saw on March 23rd and a world in which our unseen enemy has not been bested – and is unlikely to be for months or maybe years.
We’re being asked to create a new normal in a world where death potentially lies in wait in everything we touch, breathe and taste.
And for many people, that’s absolutely terrifying.
What that terror translates into is a state of emotional paralysis, decision-making inertia and a process of denial in which fear and anxiety thrive. Both characteristics are master storytellers and as a species we are hardwired towards confirmation bias, where we seek to confirm what we already believe or have been told.
That all adds up to a toxic thought chain fear, anxiety or total shutdown – traits that characterise our typical inbuilt defence mechanisims – trigger one or more of the four human trauma response modes: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
I explain those response modes in my last article which sought to help people define their apocalypse style, but it’s a unique characteristic of the current global lockdown that it should trigger those responses in us both at its start and the point at which we begin the journey to its end.
When the lockdown was announced on March 22nd, many of us experienced one or more of those four responses.
Whether it was the indecision and inertia of freeze as we tried to make decisions in our dressing gowns at three in the afternoon, or the panic of flight as we cancelled non-essential direct debits and applied for mortgage payment holidays, each day was defined by the way in which we individually coped with an unfamiliar world.
Now we’re going through exactly the same thing as we are coaxed into ‘normality’ (note: there is absolutely nothing normal – yet – about what we’re heading into).
Some of us may be richer for our time of self-reflection; we may even have found a resilience we didn’t know we had; we may have discovered, as I did, that we owned a pair of Fuck-It pants (you’ll have to read the apocalypse blog to understand that).
But that was learning and evolution designed for a different purpose – to cope with lockdown.
And whilst it may have been appropriate then, what do we do now when we are faced with the heartbreak of many people of colour and may feel compelled to fight not just for ourselves but also others without wrecking the world and our own lives at the same time?
The cognitive dissonance we are experiencing right now couldn’t be more polarised: we feel an urge to protest, but we are being urged to stay at home.
Brene Brown was quoted this week as saying that in a crisis such as this we can either pretend we have nothing to learn, or we can take the opportunity to own the truth and make a better future for ourselves and others.
Times are changing, as they must. Normal no longer exists. Perhaps what we are now seeing is the necessary effect of dismantling what is familiar but flawed in order to rebuild a new normal that serves us all better. Because now we know that the normal we were living before wasn’t working.
But a new normality brings its own worries and forces us to deal with all the ugly truth it may bring.
We’re in that twilit land where we’ve realised we may get to discover the reality of the reassurances we told ourselves. And part of us really, really doesn’t want to do that. Part of us recognises that we’d really rather stay within the confines of comfortable prisons we’ve built for ourselves over the last eight weeks.
The protests we are seeing today are a response to an injustice that is a symbol of a much darker social cancer within society.
The fear and anxiety we have all experienced over the last two months and now face anew in a shifted form as we prepare for life post-lockdown is gasoline on that already burning fire.
It’s important that we look after ourselves in this very traumatising time, not because we are selfish, but because we are no use to anyone if we are not able to stay relatively sane in the eye of a growing storm.
But it’s equally vital that we don’t minimise or ignore the pain of others; by acknowledging it, offering support and being prepared to listen and understand we can all work to heal each other.
If you haven’t experienced racism personally, it’s impossible to understand what it is like to be a victim of racism. And no one should expect you to. But what you can share is empathy, because that is a gift within all of us.
Accessing the inner strength and stability that allows us to live through this and work out the right way to contribute has never been more vital. It’s found in the window of tolerance.
The window of tolerance is not about tolerating the intolerable, either in your own life or in the world at large; it is simply about being able to access a pocket of stability and rationality that safeguards your own mental health.
It’s about creating time and space breathe and to feel, to rationalise and to simply be.
Staying in your window of tolerance gives you the strength to ride out this crisis whilst also doing the right thing by you and by others. It’s a potential gateway to positive action. And in the end, isn’t positive action where healing lies?
Photo of my incredible friend Sara M Noel and her beautiful little boy Luca – photo credit Craig Mccann Mcmillan