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Election Trauma: The Path to Healing and Leadership

My prompt: Sharing the story about historical trauma and its expression in our urban struggle to people who have no relationships with people of color or no exposure to urban life must be like communicating to an auto mechanic how to repair a skyscraper's elevator. It can be done, but first we both have to want to learn, open ourselves to a whole different frame of reference, and listen as if our life depends on it. Which it does.

The wounds from our election have me reflecting deeply and often about the fine art of bridging differences. How did we, as Americans, lose this capacity? Did we ever really have it in the first place? Why have we moved to such extremes that allow us few occasions to cross the river?

No matter where we fall in the political spectrum, the results of this election have us hurting. It’s likely we’ve distanced from people we thought were our friends. The closer we stay to people who think like us, the more likely we are to move to extremes in our thoughts and actions (Kalloch, 2016). This is certainly the story of our 2016 elections. Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion applies too: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The election, which many believed was rigged in Hillary Clinton’s favor, emboldened young activists for social justice, who assailed capitalism while managing their social media identities on smartphones made by corporate giants. Convinced that Clinton was as tied to corporate interests as Trump, they chose not to vote at all, or to vote for the 3rd party candidate Jill Stein. As they spread their message to boycott Clinton, the far right grew in numbers, pressing its own message that political correctness and social justice are tools used by multicultural advocates to undermine and dehumanize white people. The latter message is also one of anti-intellectualism—delegitimizing higher education for its call to interpret and address our country’s growing diversity and ecological challenges. According to this movement, the more people learn, the more they too often imply that the uneducated have no place in the dialogue.

At both extremes, a reliance on anti-establishment practices, group conformity and peer pressure won out over a mature and resilient process of humbling ourselves to take in new perspectives. Extremists tend to isolate themselves and to consume fewer sources of information. As for those who do believe in addressing our country’s growing challenges, it is incumbent upon us to make our case respectfully, in ways that we can be heard. We also need to realize that most people have very good reasons for what they do—and are turning to their lived experiences for guidance.

Our challenge then is to figure out ways to move beyond extremism and peer pressure to a sense of our own integrity and identity, while still finding ways in this treacherous socio-political landscape where we can belong. It’s precisely because we crave communal connection, or Ubuntu, especially in uncertain times, that we flock to people who won’t challenge our thinking. If certain “leaders” or power brokers in our midst aren’t setting a good example, we’re just as vulnerable to absorbing their manipulation and insensitivity as are children living in a home with substance abuse and cruelty. In such homes, the children take that tension out on each other. As co-citizens, so do we.

For those of us interested on the impact of social constructs on trauma—or vice versa—we might say that this election got down to what we do with our pain. Trauma survivors, more than anyone, are prone to indoctrination. They want to put their trust in outside authorities and to look for leaders who are superhuman, rather than co-creators with the rest of us for a better world. There remains in our country a deep, insidious narrative that strength comes from being so exceptional that pain is unnecessary—that it’s something we should shake off and if we are beset by misfortune, it’s our own fault. After all, it’s our heritage to rise above challenges and do better than other countries. Having our children learn how our country is a “shining city on the hill” is more valued than considering that our country was founded by white colonists who funded the war for independence with wealth created by slave labor.

Rare are the leaders in our communities and families who model a healthy trinity of the heart, soul and mind. Too much of one intelligence can lead us astray. If we rely too much on the heart, we can lack the patience to absorb the clarity of wisdom. If we make God in the image of a parent whose favor we’re trying to earn, we risk not taking enough personal responsibility for the impact of our choices. When our approach is excessively cerebral and we police those around us morally and ideologically, we essentially donate our pain to them because we don’t have the heart to understand where they might be hurting.

Regardless of socio-economic or cultural heritage, bullying, prideful calling out, name-calling and denial are sophisticated defense mechanisms to deflect pain; they’re very democratic and they cross ideological boundaries. They’re available to anyone who wants to avoid suffering. They’re predictably effective—in the short term. The problem is that they slowly and methodically sever the threads of humanity over time, leaving us alienated and distrustful of one another. And back we go to a misery-loves-company isolation.

Is there another path to leadership, one that honors everyone’s intelligence while doing right by our pain? I believe there is, if we build the courage to understand the lessons our pain is bringing us, rather than to use it to blame others for their values and perceived roadmap. We must also honor what we’ve learned about trauma—both personal and historical—from partnering across cultural divides for racial equity in the inner city. Just as individuals struggle to own their wrongdoings from the past, so do we collectively as an American people. Our institutions have never held safety for descendants of slaves and indigenous people. Civil rights passed only 52 years ago remain fragile and never went deep enough to forge systemic change and trust between whites and people of color. American cultural practices still romanticize the wealth that white people garner and invest, even as the foundation of our country’s fortune was generated via a massive slave trade that sanctioned the violent seizing of land and people. Psychological blindness to historical trauma means there are also blind spots with our own suffering that impede our capacity to care for one another.

Here’s where the Spirit comes in. We know that we need grace and beauty in our lives, those unexpected forces that bring us meaning and aliveness. None of us can save the world by ourselves. As Audre Lorde taught us, sometimes the most radical thing we can do is save ourselves. That means shedding tears when we need to instead of bottling our pain and inflicting it on others. We’re called to go through it, not around it. To stay immersed in a lifestyle of anger and grievance is to be chronically re-traumatized. “In an uncertain world,” said Harvard psychologist David Rand, “it can be advantageous to be slow to anger and fast to forgive.” To heal, we must take the action our pain asks of us, whether that means to talk with someone, call a legislator or attend a community meeting. We may be the only example of meaning and aliveness for others when we both listen and take effective action.

In our times, whether we live in the city or the country, we navigate the perfect storm of challenges: the festering wounds of broken treaties, colonization and slavery; sharp disagreements of how much taxation is needed to bolster the common good and strengthen our fraying institutions, including health care and education; industrial-era jobs lost to automation and global markets; and growing numbers of immigrants seeking asylum from geo-political conflicts. When you add the increased burdens on our youth, it gets even more complex: increased exposure to violent attacks with 9/11 seared into their childhood psyches; the overuse and misuse of standardized tests; a shrinking safety net; climate uncertainty; and having to manage their social-media identities when they don’t yet know their own social or cultural identity.

All of us feel alarm at the shifting sands, but we aren’t always clear why, nor can we easily agree on a way forward. One thing is for certain: we are being called to examine our shadows and light as a national collective. Only when we revisit our history with more compassion, and less acrimony and arrogance, will we balance how our diverse views are honored and heard. We’re learning more deeply about America’s shadow side. We also know America's legacy for democracy that has fostered freedom and dignity across national boundaries. It’s time to sweep our own front porch.

Kalloch, A. (2016, November). Sunstein: Lack of ideological diversity leads to extremism. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from

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