A broken clock is correct twice a day. Donald Trump uttered something quite profound and revealing at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, when he was still trying to play it down:
“This is just a moment in time…”
This is actually a pretty good layperson’s definition of trauma. When we experience an unnatural event that overwhelms us, threatening our very sense of self (up to and including death), our brain’s ability to integrate the experience breaks down, and we tend to “dissociate” from that experience. Since it cannot be processed consciously, we store the experience somatically – in our complex network of nerves, muscles, and sinew.
Psychologically, we are so unnerved by the experience that we internalize it, mirroring our somatic response, and it becomes that wounded sense of self we contract around any time we are threatened by anything that echoes that experience in our lives. Psychologists sometimes refer to this as a “frozen moment in time.” Each time we experience trauma, we add another frozen moment in time to our soma, not all that unlike “muscle memory” (which requires no thought). And every time we are re-traumatized, all our past traumas, these frozen moments in time, become present in our physical and emotional reactivity. Absent the healing space of resolution, we freeze, fight, or take flight (literally or figuratively).
To resolve and recover from trauma, we must learn to see each of these unnatural events as “just a moment in time” – as opposed to our reflexive habit of seeing them as self-defining personal shortcomings. When provided with a safe spiritual container, our trauma can surface in a way our brain can view in proper relation, not unhealthy drama, and then is able to integrate the experience in a non-threatening, even empowering light. This releases the trauma from our somatic memory. Millions of people have experienced this propensity of trauma to resolve itself when given the healing space to do so.
So applying these lessons to the present pandemic, what can we learn by stepping outside of all the overwhelm we are feeling right now, outside of the story we are collectively telling ourselves, and observing the phenomenon in a relational context?
Even though scientists have been sounding the alarms since at least 2008, it wasn’t until 2019 that we collectively awoke to the existential scale of the climate crisis. The catalyst here in the U.S. was David Wallace-Wells’ brilliant article in NY Mag: The Uninhabitable Earth. The banner of Extinction Rebellion was then taken up by Joan of Arc’s modern incarnation, Greta Thunberg, and suddenly we all had a shared awareness of the gravity and moral dimension of our shared predicament.
And as Greta continues to remind us, nothing else changed.
Today, the entire world is changing dramatically before our astonished and disbelieving eyes. Planes are absent from the skies again. The overheating engine of climate catastrophe has suddenly dropped its transmission. Mortality stares us in the face. We stand on the brink of some still-uncertain brave new world.
What has changed?
2020 will be remembered as the year we finally felt our biological and psychological connection to the existential threat of the climate crisis. Now it is no longer just a matter of knowing it. As Bob Marley said, “Who feels it knows it.”
And a new story is trying to surface…
ALL OUR RELATIONS
The Earth is a living organism. We are all cells in that super-organism, a part of her biosphere in the same way our biome is a part of us. How can we ever expect to maintain good health and well-being on a planet that is sick and whose organs are failing?
Indigenous Americans greet one another thusly: “How are all your relations?” They recognize that there is no such thing as an individual self. Our bodies come from our parents, and depend on constant intake from the land, the air, and the water. Our language is taught to us by others, and our ideas are largely transmitted from others as well. Even our bodies, apart from their elemental nature, are 90% bacteria, viruses, organelles, and other organisms that have their own DNA and agendas.
What we label “self” is, upon closer examination, comprised of almost nothing but others. We are mere referent points for a larger, multivalent story – the story of our family, our friends, our community, our culture, our society, and yes, our life source: Mother Earth, the miraculously interconnected, interdependent, and interpenetrating natural world.
As we all are retreating into self-isolation, it would be wise for us to remember this illusion of separate self. Now is time for each of us to reconsider ‘all our relations.’ When someone in Wuhan China or Western Africa illegally harvests a wild animal and sells it in a market, that is a profoundly unnatural occurrence which threatens our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Swine flu originated from the unnatural and inhumane practice of factory farming – treating feeling animals as widgets in an industrial killing machine that slaughters 70 Billion terrified animals every year.
By not appreciating and respecting this kind of radical interdependent connectivity in the world today, we end up with an ocean full of plastic, melting ice caps, firenadoes and floods, mass extinction events – like a billion dead animals in Australia – and a growing toll of Indigenous people hunted down for the crime of defending our own life source, our Mother, Earth. We must learn collectively to grieve all these mounting losses, and through our grief unleash the energy of our fierce love to reverse these disturbing trends, these threats to ours and our loved ones’ well-being.
I am not climate trauma, nor do I deserve to be traumatized in these ways. I am, instead, an activated cell in my mother’s auto-immune system. I am not the coronavirus, nor do I deserve to die from such an unnatural act as harvesting wildlife for profit. I’m vegetarian, after all.
I am, however, Gaia. And she is me. We are one flesh, in proper relationship. I feel her trauma, as she responds to my grief. I feel my complicity in her trauma as well. And so I live in a tiny house and don’t own a car. I feel her loss. I prefer trains to planes. I sense her awareness in the trees and her energy rising up from the soil. I support regenerative agriculture with my consumer choices, and tread lightly on her skin.
And I rise up to defend Mother Earth again and again as part of Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement. I love my mother, and she loves me – unconditionally. I am an Earth Protector.
In your isolation, at this unique moment in time, won’t you join with me? You will not be alone. Gaia will support us.