Will We Survive or Perish?

Part 1: We have a traumatic global system that threatens our existence.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

How do people who wish to dismantle systemic oppression and people who are afraid of systemic changes exist in the context of a whole? The easy answer might be to say that oppressed people are demanding basic human rights and equity, while some segments of society are reacting with fear and a desire to hold on to power. But I believe that answer doesn’t get to the actual root of the problem and doesn’t address the deeper psychology involved in our divided society. And it doesn’t give us a way forward.

The truth is, we are all living in a global toxic system. It is a system designed to exploit people and the Earth in order to benefit the few.

The people who the system was designed to benefit—young, white, Christian, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, thin, conventionally attractive, wealthy, standard-English speaking, cis-males who are citizens of “developed countries”—benefit from it in ways that people who are not some combo of all that don't. Those who don’t have those identities are, historically and currently, denied resources, education, access, jobs, health and health care, opportunity, dignity, and even life. The more marginalized identities you have, the more you are deprived of these basic human rights.

A great many of us, like myself, have mixed identities and life experiences and are both oppressed/marginalized and derive benefit from it. So some are benefiting, to a greater or lesser degree, and some are oppressed, to a greater or lesser degree. People who are marginalized experience overt, violent, and subtle trauma by our system. But ultimately, all of us are impacted by it. Even those who derive some (or great) benefit. 

What is this trauma? For those who are oppressed, the trauma is more obvious. But what about those who are granted more privilege (to a greater or lesser degree)? Dr. Martin Luther King spoke eloquently about the deep harm that violence causes the actor committing the violence. In order to participate in the global, toxic system that causes terrible suffering, we have to shut down empathy and our natural, spiritual connection to other people, animals, and the Earth.

When we are unable to—or refuse to participate fully in—the system, we are bullied, excluded, or killed. We also suffer from vicarious trauma. “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet,” says Dr. Rachel Remen.

We all instinctively respond to this trauma in the way that we respond to all trauma: by flight, flight, or freeze. Eventually, because the trauma of living in this toxic system is chronic, our psychology is forced to adapt and distort. We become self-protective, angry, fearful, and emotionally frozen.

In other words, we shut down our emotions, and/or we explode. We become belligerent and controlling and/or codependent. We take out our fear and rage on others—we attempt to feel more powerful by having power over them.

This trauma puts us all in a constant state of survival mode—chronically using behaviors or substances to avoid and control our emotions and rendering us deeply out of touch with and struggling to be compassionate about our own experience. This, in turn, keeps us unaware of our dissociated/frozen state and renders us unable to have an empathic and compassionate response towards others. It creates a reality where acts of violence—by individuals, groups, countries, and corporations—are commonplace. We become desensitized to them, giving us a false experience of acceptance of these acts.

Those who are also oppressed by the system are doubly, immeasurably, and generationally traumatized. Some of those who are systematically oppressed and traumatized react with rage and grief, and some, almost incomprehensibly, with love and compassion.

So why should we care about those who derive benefit from the system? Why shouldn’t all of our attention be on those who are the most oppressed by it?

Because when demands are made to correct the system and create equity so that all people have equal rights and access, many with more privilege react with deep fear and mistrust—their trauma-informed experience tells them that they are offended, unable to empathize, and must defend themselves and what little they have—even if it’s empty. They fear losing what they have, even if they have already experienced a loss of privileges. Their trauma-informed experience, coupled with education without imagination, makes it almost impossible to imagine a world where we all benefit. 

Others with privilege who do have empathy for others react to the experience of trauma by attempting to control the situation. They demand, via weaponized shame, that others respond in exactly the way they themselves respond. Or they become paralyzed (or defensive) by the shame of belongings to these groups.

But we know that shame is the opposite of constructive and creative. As Brene Brown so beautifully says, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” In fact, shame is yet another way that the trauma is perpetuated.

None of this is fertile ground for true change. In a world where no one is untouched by trauma, we cannot expect true change unless all are included in the healing conversations. In other words, in a global system that requires oppression and exploitation in order to succeed, is based on one-up-one-down power dynamics, and uses shame and humiliation to perpetuate itself, we are all—each and every one of us—spiritually harmed. No one is left untouched. Trauma simply begets more trauma.

In this system, other people, animals, and the Earth all become objects that are either threats or objects that can be used to get us what we want. Curiosity and gentle, intimate connection with the world are replaced with pain, shouts, and demands, or with a shutdown lack of empathy. Animals and the Earth have no way to react to the trauma and abuse except by suffering, adaptation (if possible), or extinction. And sometimes, like rising sea levels, fires, hurricanes, and pandemics, we suffer the consequences of the Earth’s response.

All of this leaves us in a state of hypervigilance, fear, distrust, defensiveness, and anger. We grasp at addictive substances or processes to try to escape our pain and/or mimic the actual experience we are longing for. We shout at each other and become unable to listen, grasping at single issues rather than having the ability to see and dismantle the system as a whole from a place of love, compassion, and a deeper connection to ourselves, others, and the Earth. 

The upshot is that conversation, growth, increased intimacy, loving care, and equality never happen. In other words, the things we all need in order to foster a change that will benefit us all become unavailable to us. The conversations and coming together—no matter how painful or scary—that are necessary for true, systemic change to take place become unattainable. 
We all need healing. Individually and collectively.

Unless we can find the true place of deep feelings within ourselves and compassion for ourselves, we cannot possibly engage in conversation with others. And unless we can speak to each other and listen, we cannot possibly create a future where all are heard.

Part 2 can be read here.