The American psyche has been rattled beyond recognition. I’m scared not only for those affected by recent events in Charlottesville, but for the transgenerational hate and discord that will almost certainly affect the innocent hearts and minds of our children if we don’t quickly adopt a new cultural narrative.
In her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes “While much psychology emphasizes the familial causes of angst in humans, the cultural component carries as much weight, for culture is the family of the family. If the family of the family has various sicknesses, then all families within that culture will have to struggle with the same malaises. In a culture where the predator rules, all new life needing to be born, all old life needing to be gone, is unable to move and the soul-lives of its citizenry are paralyzed with both fear and spiritual famine.”
As a psychotherapist, we are trained to look under the psychological, social, and biological hoods of people’s lives. If we pull back the invisible hoods of the white nationalists who stood in protest against equality in Charlottesville, it might reveal a dynamic of abuse commonly found in domestic violence relationships. The perpetrator, in this instance white supremacy, wields its power over the weak and dispirited victim who is often paralyzed by fear.
To better explain this let’s explore the cycle of abuse as defined by Lenore Walker:
Stage 1: The Tension Building Stage is marked by a growing frustration over both small and big grievances such as money, jealousy, and difference of opinions. The abuser may become verbally explosive using mean and dismissive language or worse; they might use mind games and manipulation to leave the victim feeling confused and powerless. The victim does whatever he or she can to assuage the abuser. This may come in the form of denial or offering favors to win the abuser over.
Stage 2: When the tension peaks, the abuser becomes physically violent. In the Acute Battering Stage, the victim is in serious danger. The abuser’s mood, or the slightest change in the routine incites a violent reaction that often has little to do with the victim.
Stage 3: Finally there is calm after the storm. The Honeymoon Stage is the most deceptive and dangerous of them all. The abuser appears convincingly human, showering the victim with apologies, kindness, and generosity, giving the victim a short-term burst of hope and trust that things will get better.
If we apply the cycle of abuse to society, it explains how the cultural embodiment of either the perpetrator or victim mentality allows for such eruptions of hate.
Not a single soul is without the experience of being a victim. We have all at some point felt mentally weakened by another, we have tolerated mistreatment, and we have repeatedly returned to situations that hurt us. We have watched tension build around us, some of us suffering verbal and physical blows our entire lives, and yet we are lured back into the cycle.
The Honeymoon Stage on a societal level relies on consumerism to distract and fluster our minds, so that we may never stop and ask the deeper questions. Much like Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel “A Brave New World,” we are easily distracted by entertainment and pleasure. We fail to see the power and self-sufficiency we are losing. In this case money and material things become the perpetrator, wooing us back into complacency.
The individual experience of abuse leaves the human mind weak and susceptible to heinous acts. Add to that the cultural battering that has rendered America a scary and unpredictable place for many people, and we have the exact formula that keeps racism and bigotry alive in this country. So how do we heal?
A culture that heals goes within and asks itself some very critical questions:
“Who am I?”
“How can I come from under the rule of manipulation so that I can practice better judgment?”
“Where has my voice and integrity gone?”
“What happened to me that I no longer know and assert my value?”
A culture that heals understands the ways of its perpetrator and begins to feel the imaginal cells of truth and freedom stirring within, until finally it can no longer be ruled by deception. Enlightenment and the release of generational hate are possible only when we unhook ourselves from the weight of society’s past.
How do we prepare for this transformation? Victims of abuse have often been stripped of their support system, resources, and trust in their own judgment, which is why they can’t immediately leap to safety.
As we stand witness to the events in Charlottesville, it is critical that we recall our personal values, set aside self-doubt, and acknowledge the ways abuse has driven all of us to inaction. Too often, we take small nervous steps in our personal lives, making us incapable of joining the front lines of bold revolutions that heal.
As George Orwell once said, “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” We must be willing to engage honest conversations. Conversations where a Caucasian person who can’t help the inheritance of bigotry, can mess up, learn and be forgiven. Conversations where people in power stop invalidating the perspectives of disenfranchised communities and just listen to what they need.
But before we even engage the bigger conversation, let’s get honest with ourselves. A healthy culture inhabits people who practice honesty, self-love, and forgiveness. As much as we want to take big immediate action, it may serve us well to start with healing our own hearts.
Who we are in the quiet of our homes, during the casual banter at work, in the car, in line at the grocery store, whether we are reactive and judgmental or patient and considerate, translates to energy that will either feed a culture of love or perpetuate a culture of hate. Every day, with every small considerate choice we make, we shape the world we wish to inhabit.