OPINION: To Heal Our Collective Trauma, We Must First Face It

by Marcus Harrison Green

(This article is co-published with The Seattle Times.)

Listen to this column: 

Americans are trauma-ridden people. The sooner we admit this, the sooner we can heal. 

Our inherited legacy is threaded together from slaughter, slavery and brutalization, the humanity of millions of Black, brown, Indigenous, poor, trans and other people sacrificed for this country’s prosperity.

Over the span of a month we have seen white supremacists raid our nation’s Capitol trying to rip out the throat of our democracy. 

Right now, our country is inhabited by a majority of people who perceive each other as our greatest threat, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll

We are also neglecting to foster our future generations. Children make up a third of all people living in poverty in this country, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. They also make up a growing number of the food insecure, where in our own state, 1 in 7 children struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America. 

Here we are: fearful, broken, anxious and traumatized. 

Can we be anything else when there are many of us still unmoored from reality — seduced by lies, and a fabled racial and gender superiority?

Yet, there are still too few of us willing to see our ugliness for what it is, not a “bug” of our democracy but a feature. 

As reprehensible as the actions are of those who stormed the Capitol and of our former president’s loyal sycophants who prioritize his approval over truth, it is the thought of inaction that stalks me. 

Sitting on a stone bench in Rainier Beach’s Kubota Garden after the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I began recognizing a familiar American cultural reflex: the urgency to move on. 

It is the answer to most questions demanding social consideration in our country. What about the Red Summer of 1919 when bloodthirsty white mobs massacred Black communities? We move on.

What about the fact that 92% of women murdered by men are killed by a man they know? We move on. 

What about our decades of decreased social mobility in a country promising hard work equaling economic uplift? We move on.

We pretend that our proprietary atrocities are not really us. 

And in moving on we do nothing but travel with our trauma. 

I speak not solely as an observer but as a child produced by this society. 

Our national inability to deal with trauma was transmitted to me, as it is many of us. More than three years ago, I attempted suicide. 

My near self-extermination came after a buildup of pain (some self-inflicted, some given, some received) that I tried to disregard for too long in denial. What about my untreated mental illness? 

Culturally conditioned, I moved on. It was better than scrutinizing my pain. Instead, I vaulted from harm to harm without stopping long enough to address any particular one.

I shared much in common with the majority of my country kin, according to Liz Covey, a South Seattle-based trauma therapist. 

“Our country is different from others. We are a people who have not reconciled our original sins. I think it’s actually really affected our psyches,” Covey told me during a Zoom interview. “Psychologically we develop defenses to cope with trauma. That’s survival mode.”

In the heat of trauma, our coping mechanisms, including denial, often give the false impression of resilience. However, many times we are simply deferring the emotional toll of a situation to a later date, according to Covey, who has studied collective trauma. 

“We’re attempting to cope. But I think we’re in survival mode right now,” said Covey. “Survival mode is activated when you’re enduring trauma. But the trauma needs to be ceased, or at least minimized. You can’t heal while triggered.”

You also can’t heal when you live in a society that doesn’t know how. Covey says that’s one reason our culture turns to brute force as a way of dealing with problems.

“It comes from our history where that’s how we have resolved conflict. It’s how we’ve governed. You can see the brutality in our prison system and in our schools,” she said. 

My question is what happens when suffering doesn’t cease? What happens when an attempted coup follows the latest police killing of Black people, which follows a pandemic, which follows a swell of previous tragedies? 

How do we avoid infecting future generations with 245 years worth of unaddressed trauma? How do we not rupture from the inside? 

Covey says a partial solution is policies that alleviate basic needs, like universal health care.

I believe another part is a cultural and personal reckoning with why we continuously practice punishment over healing, hubris over humility, and self-absorption over collective reflection.

Those proclivities result in a President Trump, in a coup at our doorstep, and in people believing their self-worth is tied to another’s degradation. 

We’re doomed to repeat this cycle, unless we begin prioritizing healing in a culture that never has. A mighty task that begins with acknowledging that our pain is prominent, but not all we are.

That’s why, after the inauguration, I visited Kubota Garden. For me, that’s been a healing space when I’d sunk so low I’d wanted to cease living. 

As Linda Kubota Byrd, granddaughter of garden founder Fujitaro Kubota, told me, “It’s a place you go to reconnect … to experience a loving, sacred feeling.” 

I return to the garden repeatedly to process trauma. There I’m free to be the things our society conditions us not to be — messy, complex, vulnerable, accountable, humbled, contrite — but welcomed anyway.

What if all of us could be this? 

More than the sublime garden, Kubota’s enduring legacy is that, even in this day, our society remains capable of transmitting love, empathy, compassion, and remembrance that you are more than the hurts that drive you. 

It is no small reminder. 

No, it is necessary for our survival. 

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced first-hand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the South Seattle Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

Featured image is an illustration by Vladimir Verano.

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