April Theme: Becoming
Ah, spring! We usually think of it as a time of renewal, of birth and rebirth, of second chances and fresh starts. But how does it feel this year, when we are coming into spring after a yearlong “winter” of pandemic and other collective traumas?
Wait. Let’s slow down for a minute. Because when I say “we” here, beloveds, I’m hoping you will all feel included. Yet I know that we each bring to this moment a wide range of histories around trauma, both personal and collective. Those histories may include systemic oppressions that radically impact our experience of this pandemic and of the other collective traumas I mention here.
We each bring unique personal circumstances to this moment, too. Our own health and that of our loved ones, our work situations, and a thousand other details fracture our common experiences into as many different prisms, some more painful than others.
So let me rephrase my question: How does it feel for you to come into this new season after a yearlong “winter” of pandemic and other collective traumas?
For me, I miss the feeling of bursting forth from my cocoon into glorious color and starting to gather nectar en masse. As a community, we still face months or more of uncertainty, of caution, of unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines, and of unequal recovery and struggles from all the impacts of the pandemic.
This spring, then, surely calls for its own fresh approach. It surely calls for us all to become something new—which we launch into exploring this April.
From what I’ve been reading (see the resources at the end), and from what I’m experiencing in my own mind, heart, body, and spirit, I’m discovering hints about how to become this “something new,” even if it can’t yet be clearly defined. Here are a few of these gentle nudges:
- We need to move more slowly and mindfully this year.
- We need to name what has happened and is still happening.
- We need to create spaces where we can share honestly how we feel. And we need to create the rituals that will honor what we’ve lost and celebrate what we’ve learned.
- Our shared future depends on us humans refusing to forget or minimize this time. So we need to learn patience for the recovery process.
- Here at First Unitarian, we need to spend time imagining what it means to live our faith now, deeply aware of how interconnected we all are.
- Heck, we even need to reimagine how to “do church” in this changed world!
Beloveds, if we’ll be true to these nudges—these commitments—we will be able to make communal meaning of this time. And that—scientists and ministers alike tell us—is how we’ll heal and become something new. Let’s look at a few of these commitments more closely.
Naming: In “Healing from Collective Trauma,” a Kaiser Permanente article posted in February this year, the authors define collective trauma as a “shared emotional reaction to a terrible event that makes people feel powerless.”
I breathe a sigh of relief whenever I hear someone name what we’re going through as “collective trauma.” I need the size of that phrase to capture how big the experience really is—so much bigger than our individual coping strategies, numbness, or depression, as big as those have been.
I also need to ask: What is this collective trauma like for those of us who, because of identities and life circumstances, have lived with collective trauma for years?
Painfully, in the past year we have all experienced not one but several collective traumas knotted up together: the losses due to COVID-19, for sure; but also the on-camera murder of George Floyd; the deaths of Tony McDade and other trans people of color; the hate crimes against Asian American/Pacific Islanders; the insurrection at the national Capitol; the tension of the presidential election. I’m sure you can name a few more.
Only the trauma of COVID is new—although those who lived through the height of the AIDS/HIV pandemic have known something like this trauma. All the other traumatic events grow from roots planted decades, even centuries ago.
Naming these experiences gives us a little bit of power over them, as long as we remember to include the shades and tones of different groups’ experiences. Naming, with nuance, helps us to see our traumas more clearly. It helps us to make better decisions about what we do next.
Sharing the Feelings: In my research, I come across the November 2020 episode of a podcast called Undark. This episode, titled “Studying and Surviving the Pandemic’s Collective Trauma,” features reports from South Africa where a history of collective trauma makes this latest one all the more acute.
So it’s particularly moving to me when I hear Amina Mwaikambo describe the unfamiliarity of this pandemic. Amina has worked with traumatized migrants for years; she knows collective trauma at close range and in depth. Yet she, like so many of us in helping professions, has been frustrated as she tries to help her clients while suffering herself. “I mean, I’ve never been a therapist in a pandemic,” she exclaims.
Yes, I breathe: I’ve never been a minister in a pandemic before! No wonder this is so hard! I bet most of you have never been a student, a teacher, an engineer, a retiree, a parent, a child, a congregational leader or staff member in a pandemic before either. No wonder we’re exhausted!
Gillian Eagle, a South African psychology professor, says that one of the most common responses to this collective trauma is something that looks and feels a lot like burnout. Dear ones, raise your hand or nod your head if you have snapped at someone when you didn’t mean to, just because you’re so tired that your temper’s fuse has run a little short. Or raise a hand or nod your head if simple instructions suddenly seem like Ph.D.-level paragraphs to parse. Darlings, I’ve got both hands in the air and my head is nodding vigorously! None of us is alone. These are natural responses to collective trauma.
Finding Patience: Where, then, can we find new stores of patience for ourselves and each other, especially as we, individually and collectively, heal in different ways and at different rates?
I find inspiration from Richard Mollica, director of Harvard University’s Program for Refugee Trauma, who is quoted in another article about collective trauma. He wants us to break our hearts open for all our health care workers; I’ve heard so many of you say the same thing. Some of you have gone out on your porches every evening for months to bang on pots and pans as a communal demonstration of gratitude. “The collective trauma of this virus and its impact on health care workers has to be told,” Mollica says, “told at every hospital, every nursing home, every veterans’ center, every homeless shelter” throughout the years to come.
I’d also add here, though, that despite heroic efforts from most health care workers, not every patient has received the same treatment. There are whole groups of people—some trans folx, some Black, Indigenous, and people of color, some who name themselves as fat—who feel they can’t go to the hospital when they’re sick because they won’t be adequately cared for. Some of the statistics coming out of this pandemic reinforce that fear.
Naming what each group has experienced, remembering, honoring the losses, and embodying the learnings—these practices are central to our becoming and creating something new. “Listening, understanding, and deep appreciation on [all] sides is key to creating healing relationships,” Mollica concludes.
So, restoring ourselves with rest and human contact as best we can; listening deeply to others; increasing our understanding of systemic barriers to equitable treatment whether it’s during a pandemic or not; and expressing our gratitude (the activity that raises our psychic energy more than any other)—these are the sources for building our patience.
Post-traumatic Growth. How will we, beloveds, as individuals and as a community, embody these practices: moving slowly and mindfully, naming what’s happening with all its nuances, sharing our feelings, learning patience, reimagining our ways of being, and making meaning of what we have experienced? To embody all of these may seem like a tall order, especially if you too are feeling burned out.
But that’s where the slowing down and the patience come in, not to mention our new understandings and our renewed empathy and gratitude. Trust me, beloveds, together we will find our way to “post-traumatic growth.” I can’t wait to see what we will become.
With you on this journey, with all my heart,
- Kaiser Permanente, “Healing from Collective Trauma,” 5 Feb. 2021, https://about.kaiserpermanente.org/total-health/health-tips/healing-from-collective-trauma#:~:text=Collective%20trauma%20is%20a%20shared,that%20in%20the%20past%20year
- Lori Shridhare, “Collective Trauma: Harvard Longwood Campus workshops explore trauma, resilience,” Harvard Medical School News and Research, 17 June 2020, https://hms.harvard.edu/news/collective-trauma
- Undark podcast, Episode 50: “Studying and Surviving the Pandemic’s Collective Trauma,” 30 Nov. 2020, https://undark.org/2020/11/30/podcast-50-pandemic-collective-trauma/