As I’m trapped in my house because the air quality where I live in the Bay Area is incompatible with life, as I’m sheltered in place for six months and gave up all summer travel because I want to be a responsible community member and don’t want to hurt anyone who might be at risk of COVID, I am wrestling with how we live in a world where our president doesn’t believe in climate disasters and some doctors with public influence are denying the danger of COVID. I can only make sense of all this by viewing disaster denialism as a trauma response that deserves our compassion.
Unrelenting natural disasters like the current West Coast wildfires and smoke outs are terrifying. Those of you who don’t live here might not understand how terrifying it feels to not be able to breathe in your front yard. This morning, I got online to see if there’s some place I can escape to, someplace my family and I can breathe. The closest place I can find with a good AQI is Sedona. That’s terrifying. 10% of the population of Oregon has evacuated according to the New York Times this morning because the AQI is 400-500+ in most of the state. Yet only the privileged can evacuate. What about all the people who can’t afford to leave their jobs or their homes and go stay in a hotel somewhere? What about the people who are high risk for COVID and are scared to leave home, even if home means you can’t breathe? What about the animals?
It’s no wonder people would respond to this very real terror by escaping into a utopian narrative that a great awakening is happening and we’re all waking up. I would prefer to believe that a new age is dawning and things are getting better and better too. But that’s not the reality of what’s happening. What’s really happening is that we may be in the midst of a mass species extinction of our own making, and the West Coast of the US may soon be uninhabitable—because of our own denialism and inability to respond to a series of intersecting disasters, most notably climate crisis.
If we are “woke,” we should be engaging in the very practical action steps put forth in the hopeful book, The Future We Choose, by Paris Climate Agreement negotiator Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. If we are woke, we should be rallying together to make a cooperative effort to get this pandemic under control, even if it means sacrificing in the short term some of the personal freedoms we’ve come to feel entitled to. If we are woke, we need radical policy change in almost all of our systems—health care, education, politics, economics, the justice system—which have spiraled into apocalyptic levels of corruption and are causing moral injury for those who still work within these systems they feel helpless to change.
I get that it’s hard to feel the feels that come with back to back disasters. It’s hard for me too. But we need to increase our resilience and tolerance for feeling fear, bewilderment, shame, guilt, helplessness, powerlessness, worthlessness, disorientation, and other painful emotions so we can be “response-able”—able to respond, as Thomas Hubl defines it—in this apocalyptic time. The only way we can do that is by treating our traumas with therapies that actually work. (I’m a fan of Internal Family Systems-IFS—personally.)
Yesterday, when I was expressing my genuine pain of what’s happening here in the West Coast, someone on my Facebook thread shamed me for being “low vibe” and “creating my reality” with my negative thinking. I was so startled by the stark, even cruel lack of empathy in his response. Is he saying my valid fear in the face of a life-threatening disaster is causing the entire West Coast to be unbreathable and if only I pretend it’s not terrifying and think fake happy thoughts, the air will clear around me? It was such a delusional level of spiritual bypassing that I realized that spiritual bypassing is a very valid and understandable trauma response and that he deserves my compassion, even as I set boundaries that protect me from what I consider abusive behavior. Telling someone in the midst of an acutely traumatic situation that they have created their painful reality with their negative thoughts is abusive and should not be tolerated. But if we come to understand it as a trauma response, maybe we can have more sensitivity to those who are responding to real disasters in this way.
Using IFS language, most of us have parts that felt helpless, powerless, ashamed, terrified, worthless, and not good enough when we were little. Disasters can activate those feelings again, so it makes sense that some people would cope with those hard to feel feelings by covering them up with spiritual bypassing parts. Sure, I’d rather believe that benevolent aliens have penetrated humans on earth as a way to save us from ourselves than believe that humans are actually destroying ourselves and unwilling to do what it takes to save ourselves. But dear ones, if we want to actually wake up, we must stop believing we’re woke and feel the pain that comes with humility, facing our personal and collective shadows, wrestling with painful emotions, and taking firm action to make amends and reverse course. Nobody is coming to save us from the disasters we’ve created with our own greed, denialism, plundering of nature, entitlement, dehumanizing behavior of people of color, land theft of the indigenous people, genocides, and other atrocities us and our ancestors have willingly participated in. I’m sorry if it’s hard to hear that or feel what that evokes. I’m sorry if you misunderstand my willingness to face the stark reality of concurrent disasters as being “unenlightened.” I’m terribly sorry if you’ve been duped into believing it’s more enlightened to deny reality than to feel the pain of it.
This is why I think it’s so crucial we all come together to address collective trauma. I participated in Thomas Hubl’s Collective Trauma Summit and will be listening to all the other speakers when it starts soon. If any of you are interested in joining in as part of collective healing without spiritual bypassing, I would love to have you all among that community with me here.
As for this post, please, let us keep this a non-polarizing space to experience reality—and all its emotions—together, as safely as possible, without insulting each other or shaming anyone, even those who engage in spiritual bypassing because they don’t know how else to handle hard times. What do you need to express today? How are you feeling?
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