In the past four years, my job as a psychiatrist has given me a front row seat to the alarming gaps in our American society--our lack of justice, our extreme income inequality, our levels of violence, our poverty, the disconnect of the elite class. It has also put me in touch with the darkness within us all of us. Many of my patients, who had already experienced childhood trauma, are finding themselves right back where they started in their families of origin, feeling powerless to change the circumstances around them.
On January 6th, watching the unfolding coup, I had an epiphany. I realized what I have been doing these past four years--I have been studying. My mind has been restless and voracious--trying to figure out what is going on, why we couldn’t bring ourselves collectively to see how our society was changing for the worse.
I have been studying because I am lonely. I have been studying because I have been confused about my own childhood traumas, about my Dutch immigrant mother’s Nazi stories from occupied Holland. All that time growing up, I knew deep in my bones something was wrong with her story, that Nazism was essentially pure evil, though she herself did not know.
In psychoanalytic training, they taught us the painstaking technique of making the unconscious conscious--to see what is not supposed to be seen--our own denial. This defense mechanism, while it allows us to feel more comfortable, also prevents us from seeing reality such as it is. In its most extreme form, it is dangerous, both to the individual and to the collective whole. This is where we found ourselves as a country on the morning of January 6th. Of course, now it is obvious to us all that the words used matter, that violence would follow.
Many of us are still too scared or in shock to take action. We do not want to recognize the vulnerability that humans have to misinformation and how social media is driving this. We do not want to see the capability of artificial intelligence to be used against us. We do not want to admit that we have a serious problem with racism and classism in our country.
We also do not want to believe that we can be part of a solution. In being the victimized, we are spared from having to take action against ourselves.
In my democracy activism training, I prepared for this moment by making a plan. I executed my plan and called my friend Sil D, a self-described “recovering human” and truth teller who spares me no pain. A black man raised in Kentucky who has spent much of his life in Portland--the whitest city in America--he knows the pain of white supremacy. He told me, “It’s a participation through omission.” And I agree. We all did this by not acting sooner.
But here’s the real dilemma for us now--blaming the 50 percent for the other 50 percent is not going to work as a strategy for making societal change. We must choose our words carefully. We must be clear in our vision. We must seek out others different from us and hear uncomfortable truths about ourselves. America through the eyes of James Baldwin circa his 1962 essay, “Letter From A Region in My Mind” could not be more relevant today. He writes:
I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is a reality and arrive where reality is.
One death is too many and our challenge is to stop the spreading violence.
Here is what we need to do. Self-reflect. Choose love, protect our institutions, insist on kindness, safeguard democracy. Get ready to mobilize if more lines are crossed. We need each other--there is too much at stake.
And please let’s hold our democracy accountable when the time comes, but with nonviolent discipline. Violence only begets more violence. We are all responsible to change the violence within all of us first.