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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, na