Healing Our Collective Traumas, Healing Our World
by Zhiwa Woodbury, M.A., J.D.
“It is only through the reclamation of our cultural shadow and the integration of collective trauma, that we become a sentient whole, able to make the world anew, together.”
Scientists now agree that “ the Earth is just as alive as you are,” as the science writer for the NY Times phrased it this past Earth Day. Our planet is a living meta-organism, capable of self-regulation, respiration, and propagation in ways that meet the definition of life. To put it quite simply, she is our life source — not some inert ‘resource.’ In fairly recent times Gaia — as the noted scientist James Lovelock christened our home planet after we all first glimpsed her beautiful swirling blue-white body rising over the Moon’s barren landscape during the summer of love (1968) — has come under a sustained, progressively wounding, and now potentially fatal attack, due to the disruption of her terrestrial, atmospheric, and marine regulatory systems.
Because all flora and fauna are umbilically connected to her breath (air), body (flora) and blood (water), Gaia’s trauma is our trauma. The climate movement is her #MeToo Moment, and we are all becoming “Gaiaware.” We’re beginning to feel her pain most poignantly in our daily experience of the world. Some may try to deny these feelings, others may try to mask the symptoms, and many more are actively grieving what is being irretrievably lost, but there is no longer any question that we are all psychologically affected by this mayhem.
The relentless, pervasive nature of this lethal assault on our life support system, along with the growing psychological distress it is engendering, is an unprecedented phenomenon that defies existing categories of trauma — a term that encompasses both physical and related psychological wounding. This collective trauma affects the entire biosphere, of which we humans are an integral part, and thus we must now add “biospheric trauma” to our existing categories of individual, generational (epigenetic), and cultural traumas.
Because it represents an ever-present lethal threat, biospheric trauma is constantly triggering all of our unresolved traumas — colonialism, racism, resource wars, patriarchy, sexism, pedophilia, mass shootings — leaving us no alternative to reconsidering what Native Americans sagely refer to as ‘ all our relations.’
For far too long, we have collectively been the oblivious perpetrators of this large-scale trauma, and now our distressed mother is holding a mirror up to our disbelieving eyes, reflecting all of our past traumas back to us, symbiotically perpetrating the kind of chaotic profusion that demands our prompt attention. As Pope Francis so eloquently stated in the opening paragraphs of his luminous encyclical, Laudato Si’:
[O]ur Common Home is like a sister with whom we share our life… This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her… she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22).
This is a growing, existential threat. We are risking nothing less than mass extinction. The oceans themselves, the source of all life and half the world’s oxygen, are dying. Hundreds of species disappear every day we fail to act. And there is a decades-long lag time between our actions and their impact. As the children keep telling us, we are in a climate emergency.
While all of this may sound terrifying to those who are used to ignoring trauma — in much the same way we tend to ignore our own mortality — this traumatized noosphere is actually quite generative by its very nature, presenting a chaotic-but-necessary cauldron for the kind of social and spiritual alchemy required of us collectively at this pivotal time in order to transform human culture in ways that are responsive to the existential dimension of the climate crisis.
That may sound surprising at first blush, but by acknowledging the pernicious, paralyzing effects our unresolved traumas are having on our abilities to adapt, and to change our relationships commensurate to the scale and urgency of the crisis at every level of society — political, cultural, professional, and personal — we are then free to tap into vast potential for social transformation.
As we have learned from traumatology, the cure is found close to the wound.
The situation we now find ourselves feels overwhelming at times — never more so than when we first begin to wrap our mind around the developing science of climate change. But it is this very chaos that presents us with the very real possibility of making a quantum leap from collective inaction to transformative responsiveness. It is a truism in the modern, connected world that this kind of large scale change, like the exponential progression of climate change itself, does not proceed incrementally. Rather, it happens in fits and starts, slowly, slowly — and then all at once.
This clearly is the challenge of our times, because it demands the personal involvement of all who are genuinely concerned about the future of life on planet Earth.
And we are legion… The Path of Climate Recovery
To say that this crisis “changes everything” is a way of acknowledging that everything must change in response to the existential nature of this crisis.
We are already at the “truth” stage of this painful, but necessary, “ Truth & Reconciliation “ process. We know this, because the empathetic challenge of hearing the truths of patriarchy, slavery, genocide, and subjugation of nature has elicited a dysfunctional, reflexive political response that questions truth itself. The climate crisis is deemed “fake news” by demagogues, irrefutable science is dismissed by those too willfully ignorant to appreciate the laws of physics, and peaceful Earth Protectors are being assassinated in lawless countries — on behalf of our transnational corporations — or set upon by private security forces using tear gas and vicious dogs here in the so-called ‘land of the free.’
As always, the struggle for justice depends for its success on the acknowledgment of truth.
And here is a key point that has yet to be fully appreciated, even by the leaders of the climate movement. The systemic failure to collectively respond to the climate crisis by reducing CO2 emissions is reflected, if not actually rooted, in our present inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the truth of our collective trauma.
We are psychologically blocked.
When we fail to face up to our traumas, whether at the personal, generational, or cultural level, we find ourselves caught up in the classic “fight, fright and flight” syndrome. In relation to climate trauma, what this looks like is intractable political polarization (fight), the doom-and-gloom of despair (fright), and addiction behaviors, including both distraction and self-medication (flight). Collectively, this looks like inaction in the face of a clear mandate to act, or ‘dissociation’ of the political will from the political body. Unacknowledged trauma invariably leads to dissociation. This dissociative “acting out” is even reflected in the Paris Accords, with their clear disconnect between the sensible statement of goals and the insufficient voluntary commitments that, collectively, add up to ecocide. That is how trauma works at a collective level.
The good news in all this is that trauma depends for its power on a lack of recognition and awareness.
When we bring our collective awareness to a kind of collective trauma, as we have seen for example with the #MeToo Movement, attitudes and dynamics can shift overnight, setting us on a new, more constructive trajectory. So simply by taking the first step of acknowledging and bringing awareness to the collective trauma that is fueling climate dissociation and inaction, we will find ourselves rather quickly on the path of recovery.
The other good news, ironically, is that generational trauma is cumulative. What we are now seeing from the youth movement is that the amount of trauma we have attempted to pass down to them is no longer tolerable. It has reached a critical mass, and they are demanding action. As children, they have the moral authority to demand a livable future from us. And so they are trying their best to lead us all onto a new trajectory.
The path of recovery from our collective climate trauma will look a lot like reconciliation fueled by natural resilience — humans working with nature instead of against her. Fortunately, that is precisely the approach that will be presented next year in the International Biodiversity Convention, which combined with a renewed commitment to the Paris Accords and a mandate for the Green New Deal here in the U.S. will make 2020 a true turning point in this crisis.
Taking that first step
The biggest threat to these promising developments is a political body that continues to be in the dysfunctional thrall of unresolved trauma. To help catalyze the social alchemy that would flow from simple recognition of the role collective trauma is playing in our failure to take effective collective action, some of the world’s leading social thinkers on trauma and recovery are freely offering a 9-day online symposium designed to explore and shed light on every aspect of this global problem.
It is time to bring a new awareness to all our relations. Acknowledging collective trauma is the first step on the path of climate recovery. Please help us to unleash the enormous potential of healing our collective psyche.
Originally published at https://medium.com on October 5, 2019.