Trump and Trauma

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I had breakfast with a new friend last week. As we were getting to know each other better and share a bit about the work that we both have in front of us, we continually joked about the fact that we were tying not to be hyperbolic about what was happening in the world. We were being ever so cautious to not co-opt the language of freedom fighters from ages past. We were tip-toeing around using apocalyptic words… like “apocalypse”. We were mindful of the new reality in which we found ourselves and didn’t want to project any historical or even fictional allusions that might seem relevant to the new status quo (“are we in the middle of an intergalactic war?”) Despite our best efforts, it became increasingly difficult to avoid slipping into alarmist rhetoric.

And this was before the immigration ban…

In just over a week, the new administration has compromised the integrity of our democracy in ways that once seemed unfathomable to me. What’s worse is that none of this should come at a surprise. He is fulfilling his campaign pledges, and through the use of executive orders, doing so at what feels like lightening speed. Events are happening at such a pace that it almost feels impossible to catch your breath at times. I believe this is all very intentional. What we’re seeing is a mastery of information manipulation.

And you know what… I’m scared.

I’m genuinely frightened of the world in which my kids will grow up. I am frightened for my Muslim friends. I am frightened for my Hispanic friends. I am frightened for my LGBTQ friends. I’ve woken up each morning since the inauguration with a sense of dread, wondering what I will read that the administration has done today. I wonder “who has lost their rights today?”. I wonder what it will take for those who voted for this mess to confess their mistake and then I remember that there are many for whom this white nationalist revitalization project is a dream come true. That frightens me even more.

I don’t write often about the abuse that I experienced in my home. I spent much of my childhood being deathly afraid. I stayed in my room as much as possible. I tried to keep a low profile. Whenever possible, I wanted to be out of my house. I felt even more vulnerable once my older siblings went off to college. I lost my buffer. I lived in a house with one unquestioned and unquestionable leader. The fear was cultivated. It was practically demanded. I know what it’s like to live in a house with a man who needs others to feel small in order that he can feel big.

Now our nation feels like the house in which I grew up and it is absolutely triggering. During the election, I heard female friends say that Trump reminded them of someone who sexually assaulted or abused them. Many said that he reminded them of an abusive spouse or parent. We now have an abuser-in-chief and for those of us who have experienced massive ongoing trauma, some very familiar feelings are coming back into play; feelings of powerlessness, despair, and depression.

I offer here what I hope might be a few simple tips in fighting these familiar feelings. Even if you aren’t a person who has experience abuse in the past, you may be feeling aspects of these emotions as you comb through the world’s events. I believe that some of what I have experienced as beneficial in the process of healing from my personal past may be helpful in our collective present.

First and foremost, we have to own what has happened to us. For years, I refused to use the word “abuse” in relation to my own situation. It may be hard for many to own the word “trauma” in regards to what is happening now, but I think it is important that we name it as such. What is happening in our nation right now is traumatic! It is a psychological injury, and for many of us, a moral affront. This is not normal. It is abuse of power, misuse of authority, accompanied with threats to punish those who act out. That is what abusers do and we need to capture that language for this time.

Second, reclaim your voice and your own power. I remember clearly the first time that I verbally stood up to my stepfather. It felt like slaying a dragon. We have to fight the feeling that we are powerless. I think that this is what the marches did for many. I think this is what many of us feel when we call our elected officials. It is empowering, even in a small way, to speak to someone in power and say “this is not right!”. We surrender power when we surrender our voices.

Next, be aware of your triggers. The other night I had an out of body experience where I completely overreacted to a playful tap. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so bothered. I couldn’t understand why I was so upset, but I was transported back to being a scared eight year old boy. I wanted to run away and hide. We need to have the intimate self knowledge to know what things we read and watch are pushing our buttons. And we need to know when to excuse ourselves from situations that trigger feelings of being threatened. Many have said in recent weeks that they are unable to watch Trump on television. His voice is literally a trigger for many right now. Know when you need to turn off the TV, close the laptop, or swipe away from the Twitter app.

Prioritize your self care. Therapy is hard. I say it all the time. But therapy is hard in the way that exercise is hard, or playing an instrument is hard, or learning to dance is hard. It’s the kind of difficulty that is totally worth it. I’ll be honest, I have a mild distrust for people who aren’t in therapeutic relationships. That’s a personal bias of mine. That said, many things can be therapy: music, exercise, art, reading, meditation, prayer, sex, cooking… find the thing that helps you to take care of yourself and re-energizes you. I have been missing my garden something awful in recent weeks. Last week I sorted through seed catalogs and began planning what I will grow next year. It was the most calm I had been in a week. Take care of yourself!

Share stories with fellow survivors. Ultimately, we’re built for community. What benefits survivors most is knowing that they aren’t alone. There is something comforting in knowing that your experience is part of the human experience. Find safe spaces to process what you’re experiencing these days. That might be with friends. That might be at your Mosque, synagogue, or church. It might be online. Wherever it is, find folks that you can huddle up with, commiserate with, and conspire with. If nothing else, find some shoulders you can cry on. Even digital shoulders are nice once in awhile. I only survive if we survive. Let’s survive together.

Maybe this seems overblown or reactionary. Maybe. I am given to hyperbole. But I would rather put this out there now, knowing that things are likely to get worse before they get much better. It’s taken me a long time to heal from own abuse and there is still work left for me to do. It will take us a long time as a nation to overcome arriving at this point. We need to come out on the other side of this a stronger, more compassionate people. To do that, we have to do the work of healing from this trauma.

 

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What’s Your Gameplan?


My beloved Steelers were beaten by the loathsome New England Patriots on Sunday for the AFC Championship. It was not a fun game to watch. It was lopsided pretty much from the first snap. Not to go too far into football minutiae, but for as long as I can remember, the Steelers have played a zone blitz defense. Instead of the secondary players and linebackers covering particular players in the passing game, they cover parts of the field (zones). They do this while relying on the defenders up front to pressure the quarterback. Against most teams, this is pretty effective. You give up some passing yards, but rarely big plays. Or you get to the quarterback for a sack or force them into a mistake. It’s a good scheme, and by and large, it has been successful for the Steelers in recent decades.

…except against the Patriots. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (whose stupid face I hate) have been picking apart this scheme for a decade and a half. Brady releases the ball too quickly to get pressured and his receivers are fast enough to get big chunks of yards after the catch. Just the week before, the Houston Texans had some success against the Patriots by playing man to man instead of zone. It forced Brady to hold the ball longer and he made some mistakes. Not enough mistakes to lose, but some mistakes. What ultimately lost the game for Steelers was not that we have inferior players, but that we were outcoached. We had the wrong gameplan.

Now I happen to believe that it cheapens both sports and politics to make comparisons between the two, but I’m going to break my own rule for the sake of an analogy. I’m worried that those of us who are opposed to the new president don’t have a gameplan and I’m deeply worried that the score is going to get run up against us before we have one.

My worry with Mr. Trump isn’t that he won’t keep his campaign promises but that he will, in fact, keep them. In his first week in office, Trump has issued executive orders that weaken the affordable care act, reopen both the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline, halt immigration from specific majority-Muslim countries, authorize construction of a wall on the Mexican border, ban international groups from performing abortions, and freeze hiring for federal employees with the exception of the military. He’s done this while imposing gag orders on federal agencies, removing climate change information from federal websites, and not replacing ambassadors in most of the US embassies. He’s threatening to create a police state in Chicago by sending the national guard to calm the city’s “carnage” (apparently his favorite word to describe large swaths of the nation). All of this is happening while one by one his cabinet appointees are being confirmed by a congress that seems to be picking its battles instead of being in full stop opposition.

I haven’t even mentioned “alternative facts”, lying about the inauguration size, selling off public land,  or going on a rampage against illegal immigrants to justify losing the popular vote.

This is not normal. This is not business as usual. These are the machinations of a man with an out of control ego and few checks and balances. Executive orders are coming out at a speed that is almost impossible to keep up with. Throughout the election many of us, myself included, made the mistake of underestimating Mr. Trump. I don’t want to repeat that mistake. I don’t want to assume that he’s not perfectly capable of enacting any policy move he wants to make. His vision of the world, one in which everything is privately owned by the powerful including people, terrifies me and I already feel like I’m playing from behind. Trump’s moves are having the ripple effect of emboldening Republican lawmakers who share his view of the world. There are battles to be fought on many fronts.

It was truly inspirational to watch the thousands of people around the country and millions of people across the globe march in opposition to what is happening in D.C. There was an energy to it that had a sense of urgency and an understanding of the critical moment. I was proud to see so many friends and family out on the front lines. I think such marches will have to continue. And they will have to be more disruptive. While I am overjoyed that there was no violence, some of these protests, like those that happened at the pipelines last year, will need to actually agitate the powers that be in more intentional ways. Arrests will be made. People will be in harm’s way. Without such actions, the new administration will simply dismiss protests with a tweet.

We need to continue to put pressure on our elected officials. Phone calls, tweets, emails, postcards, letters. Those things do have an impact. Frankly, though, I am worried about whether or not our officials have the courage and fortitude to stand up to the new administration in ways that go beyond mere grandstanding. I think what is ultimately going to impact our elected officials is our example, not our words.

It is time for many of us to start to think about what our “sanctuaries” are for. There will be people in the coming weeks, months, and years who need to be sheltered from the administration. Do we have the courage to protect them? Do we have the wherewithal to find them? Do we have the resources to help them? If government protections for the environment begin to disappear, do we have the will in our congregations, denominations, and businesses to lower our own carbon footprints and to divest from those places that will profit from less regulation? Do we have the courage to take our money out of institutions that will finance pipelines and put it into places that will benefit vulnerable communities? Do we have the audacity to speak in unambiguous terms about what we see going on in the world? Can we call a lie a lie? Can we call racism racism? Will we continue to use euphemisms in order to protect people’s feelings or will we speak truths that allow us to face our problems?

What we do with our time, energy, and money has always been a show of our values and faith. Now it is also an act of political resistance. Yes, we need to protest against the systems that exist, but we also need to get to work building the replacements for the safety nets that are soon to be dismantled. We need new health care systems, food systems, financial systems, and educational systems. We’ll need new alliances and solidarity movements. We’ll need warriors who are willing to protect public land saboteurs willing to disrupt the machine. It’s going to take all of us working with a vigilance we may not have imagined before to keep our democracy from eroding. There are things we can all do in the short term, but the new structures we need will require thoughtful consideration. We need a game plan…

 

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From Monday to Friday: Moving from King and Obama to Trump

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(painting by  Watson Mere at http://www.artofmere.com)

Yesterday was a day that just felt a little… off for me. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has long been one of the central celebrations of the year for me. It is the celebration of the life and work of a man whose courage, leadership, and theology I greatly admire. I have historically spent this day either in service or in reflection, sometimes both. It has been a holy day for me. Not so this year.

The cognitive dissonance of what will happen this week is just a bit too jarring. On Monday, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and then on Friday, the first black president of the United States will step down and hand over leadership of the nation to a man who has proven himself to be unfit to lead on so many levels. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I put as my Facebook status yesterday as my feelings began to crystalize:

I don’t know how else to say this: I’ve never been as disaffected by MLK day as I have been this one. Usually this is a day of great inspiration. I love to see all the quotes from a man I greatly admire. I love to see the services and the acts of service. I love to be inspired and re-energized.

But this year, nothing has gotten through. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a lovely day. I’ve spent good time with my family and friends. But the holiday itself feels hollow. I can’t trust a nation that on one day will celebrate the anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-militarist King and four days later inaugurate racist, homophobic, hyper-capitalist Donald Trump. King’s legacy is in shambles and it has been decimated by those who would neuter him and reduce him to a few feel good lines about peace and dreams.

I don’t mean to be negative or overly cynical. But this country’s lip service must end. Either we are going to be a country about justice, the justice of Amos, Micah, and Jesus, or this might as well be “Great Americans Day” or even “Robert E. Lee Day”.

These thoughts seem to resonate with many. And while I was inspired to see the many ways that my friends celebrated and honored Dr. King’s legacy, even the most hopeful of them acknowledged that they did so from a place of deep concern and a nagging feeling of urgency. This was no ordinary King Holiday. This was a rally for those of us preparing for a battle with the incoming administration.

The dissonance I felt yesterday was similar to what I felt last week. On one hand, you had President Obama’s farewell address. While he certainly touted some of his accomplishments over his eight years in office, he did so in a way that invoked the common will and energy of the American people. We gave health care to millions. We created marriage equality. We strengthened the economy. He then shifted from the work that we had done collectively, to the work that we will need to do together to keep our democracy from falling apart. He encouraged us to stay engaged, to get out of our silos, and to participate in every aspect of our democracy, even running for public office. It was a warning against cynicism and hopelessness, the feelings that he knows many are feeling. He topped it off by looking lovingly at his wife and daughter and gave heartfelt thanks to those who have been with him on the journey. His love for his wife, his daughters, and of course, Joe Biden were on full display. Every part of his speech was about connection. He spoke of the ways that we are connected as a nation across race, economics, gender, and, orientation. He spoke of the need to strengthen our connections if we are to truly have a more perfect union. And he spoke of the bonds of family and friendship that keep us going when it feels like work is too overwhelming. Even I couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as it began to register that this good, decent, flawed but very capable man still believed in the collective good of this nation and had faith that we could be our best selves.

That was set in contrast by the spectacle that was the Trump press conference. It may be helpful for someone to inform the Trump camp that a press conference is not a rally. The money spent for cheers and applause should have been reallocated for whatever cover bands they find to play the inauguration. Trump’s style could not be more different than Obama’s. Trump frequently referred to “I” instead of “we”. Trump is brash and confrontational where Obama is unifying and cerebral. Obama oozes a quiet confidence while Trump seems to think that saying things louder or more than once makes them true. I found it particularly distasteful that Trump continues to boast about his November victory when he should be shifting to the work of governance. In the boast is a deep lack of recognition that his electoral college win was coupled with a trouncing in the popular vote and that he is coming into office with the lowest popularity of any president-elect in history. One would think that this would lead to some humility. One would think. Trump’s press conference awkwardly shifted from his remarks to those of his lawyer who droned on with jargon explaining why Trump’s business interests do not create a conflict of interest with his presidency. It was much ado about something that remains in question with his unwillingness to release his tax returns to show where he is deriving income. It was smoke and mirrors. In an hour and a half (!!!) full of lows, the worst part was the confrontation between Trump and the media, specifically the dismissal of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta.  Trump yelled at Acosta to put his hands down because he wouldn’t be taking questions from his “fake news” network that is a “terrible organization”. My jaw literally dropped. CNN, like all 24 hour news stations has its issues. But for the president-elect to so crassly dismiss one of the more trusted news outlets of the past few decades as “fake” is incredibly harmful at a time when figuring out who to trust is becoming more complicated. That the next question was taken from Breitbart, the right-leaning website that has several ties to the incoming administration, added insult to injury.

I know the context was very different, but I have to make a final note of contrast between the way that Obama spoke of his family and the way that Trump spoke of and used his. Obama teared up looking at Michelle, Sasha teared up hearing her father praise her mother. It was genuine or the Obama’s are the greatest acting family alive. It was moving, it was warm. It was loving. Trump speaks of his sons as a CEO would speak of any employee. He ended the press conference with the parting shot that if his “empire” which is being entrusted to the two sons wasn’t in the shape he wanted it to be at the end of his presidency, he would say to them “you’re fired”. It was tongue-in-cheek way of working in his catchphrase, you know… like presidents do, but it was also cold and decidedly unfunny. Trump speaks of his sons as you imagine the kings of old spoke of their male heirs. Not with love, but as an extension of his legacy and ego. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of molehill on this one. I don’t think I am though. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he interacts with his family.

The thing about King and Obama is that as flawed as they were, and both were hugely flawed in their way, they inspired people to be their best selves. They cast a vision for a world community that looks out for its neighbors and cares for its marginalized. I don’t feel that with Trump. Even his supporters don’t point to a feeling of being elevated personally. They like his personal style. They look at his success. They like that he speaks his mind. It’s not the same kind of inspirational or aspirational leadership. King and Obama both had charisma to spare and they used it to organize movements. Trump’s charisma, such as it is, seems only to serve his own interests and the interests of those like him (look at his cabinet choices). I think the burden falls on those of us who have been inspired by King and/or Obama to live into our highest ideals in new and radical ways. And maybe that’s what I was feeling yesterday, the heaviness that comes from feeling the baton pass into your hands. We have to be that collective strength in which Obama still has hope. We have to be that beloved community of which Dr. King often spoke. We have to be the best of us, now that it feels like the worst of us has power.

 

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New Year, Same Me

So often we get into this time of year and the sweeping pronouncements begin:

“New Year, New Me!”

“This is going to be a fresh start!”

“It’s time for a complete makeover!”

And on and on it goes until around mid-month when it hits us that all of the baggage we lugged with us from the last year followed us into the new year. Also, it’s cold and dark. Who’s in the mood to start new stuff? Certainly not I. No, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I come into the new year as the same person I was last year, only with a few more miles on the tread.

That said, it’s not a joyless resignation. In fact, I’m starting this year by celebrating me. Not the superficial me. Not the external me. The “me” I am at my core. I am reminding myself of the values to which I try to live up. I am trying to find my center. To do this, I have to remind myself of some central things, things that I believe and things that I feel I have strayed from at times in the past. I suppose in a way these are resolutions, but only to the extent that I resolve to aspire to be the self that lives into his highest calling.

So, here are some core values that I hold to:

*Love is the highest ethic. Not love as in “eros” that is based on romance and passion, nor the love  as in”philia” that is based on mutual regard. The love I speak of is the love that Dr. King often wrote and spoke of, other-centered, disinterested love that loves a person simply for their own sake. There is no higher calling than to love someone, to care about their well being, simply for their benefit. This is not an easy love. It oftentimes means love of an enemy. It at times will mean loving someone who will not reciprocate the love. It may mean loving someone in a way where the love is not understood. But it always means seeking their good.

* Service is the best way to show love. At the end of the day, I know who I have loved by who I have served and I know who has loved me by who has served me. We serve people by attending to their needs. We serve people by anticipating their needs, possibly before they are even felt. We serve people by listening for what they say they need. We serve people by giving up our comfort for theirs.

The ability to serve rises from compassion, literally suffering with or alongside another. When your pain become my pain, then I will do what needs to be done to alleviate your pain. Compassion fuels service and we must constantly be refueled or we will become embittered in our serving.

* Justice is an outgrowth of service. There are times when what people need is larger than what an act of compassionate service can provide. I may feed a hungry person once as an act of service, but ultimately I have to ask why she is hungry in the first place. When I come to that question, I am left with the choice of either cynically blaming the victim for their circumstance or addressing the larger issues that have created the problem. Justice is service on the community level. It is love enacted on behalf of the many.

The work for justice infers that there is injustice. Injustice is not passive. There are forces at work in the world that seek to keep people dominated and oppressed. Given that reality, the work for justice cannot be passive either. Justice doesn’t just happen. It is an act of will.

*Change is incremental. One of my core beliefs of which I must constantly be reminded is that change happens most often in increments. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed”. It is the small action with continuous, multiplying effect.

I hold this as a value for two reasons: 1) to keep from getting discouraged when it feels like things are moving slowly and 2) to resist the temptation that comes from promises of sweeping change.

*Community is our purpose.  We are made for community. I don’t know if I can say it any plainer. We need each other. You have strengths that overcome my weaknesses. I have strengths that balance your strengths. We, in dialogue, form relationship. The network of our relationships create community. Love is for the maintenance of community. Justice is for the balancing of community. I know myself best by who I am in relation to my community. To the extent that I know my community, I know myself. To the extent that I invest in my community, I am investing in myself.

*The Divine Lives within us all. We start out, before anything else, created in the Divine image. The breath of God fills our lungs. We are made as a reflection of the Divine and declared to be “very good”. This is our original state. “Sin” is anything that distorts that image either in ourselves or in others. To the extent that I cannot see God in you, I am sinning. To the extent that you cannot see God in me, you are sinning. To the extent that I cannot see God in myself, I am sinning. The challenge of community is to remove the barriers to seeing the Divine in each other. Poverty is a barrier. -isms are barriers. Pride and ego are barriers. If i recognize God in you and God in me then I won’t hurt you because I know that I am hurting myself.

*As sharers in the Divine Nature, we all are driven to create. I think that creation is the essence of the Divine nature. “In the beginning, God created…”. As creatures who also have that Divine nature within us, we too are driven to create. We tell stories, make music, draw pictures, tell jokes, plant gardens, raise children, write sonnets, design structures, program software, create algorithms, and mix chemicals. Our desire to create is holy and can be used to create community, work for justice, and spread love.

 

At my core, these are the things that I believe. This is what keeps me going and gives me purpose. This is who I am. I am not interested this year in being a “new me”. I am interested in living more fully into the me that I know myself to be. But I need you for that. Because I am created for community…

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