January 18, 2021

Caught in the Grip of Two National Traumas

frozen tree

For many Americans, a long-running national trauma will finally come to an end with the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20. To these Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump was a disaster that deserves to be characterized as a "national trauma" for many reasons. And while I suspect that most understand that the time for recovery and rebuilding will extend long past January 20, Biden's inauguration presents at least a symbolic ending of the trauma. They will be celebrating, and they deserve to do so.

We should also note that many other Americans are experience what some of them regard as a national trauma of a much shorter duration, one that began with what they perceive as a stolen election. While this group does not have the facts on their side, some of them likely feel every bit as traumatized as the first group. They are not going to feel like celebrating because their anticipated ordeal is just beginning. As humanists who might still remember 2016, I think it is important to resist the impulse to rub their faces in it.

What both of these groups have been through and will be going through is unfortunate but not unexpected. This is the result of a deeply divided country where the divisions seem to get worse with every presidential election. We have seen this before, and we will continue to see it until we manage to heal. But there is something very different about this particular point in time: we are in the midst of a global pandemic that almost certainly deserves to be characterized as a trauma (i.e., a global trauma) in a way that our partisan political squabbling does not. The new infections, deaths, and botched vaccine distribution signals that there is still no end in sight for this trauma. Moreover, I think have we passed the point of "going back to normal" and will be lucky to arrive at a "new normal" that will probably make us mourn some aspects of our previous normal.

Do these experiences really deserve to be characterized as traumatic in the sense of meeting diagnostic criteria for PTSD? I think one could make a fairly strong case that the COVID-19 pandemic does for many of those directly affected by it. It would be harder to make this case for the Trump presidency unless one focused narrowly on those directly impacted by the worst of it. But in the end, I'm not sure that really matters. The point is that many people experienced some portions of these things as traumatizing. They were psychologically affected by these experiences, and many will continue to be for some time. I think that's enough.

In times of stress and upheaval, some people find comfort in religion. And in times of stress and upheaval, religious believers are quick to sweep in and attempt to manipulate vulnerable people into believing that they need religion to cope. The good news is that I haven't seen nearly as much evidence that these efforts are working lately (aside from some unfortunate examples) as I remember from many previous traumas. The bad news is that these efforts continue and require our vigilance. And I suppose the really bad news, depending on one's perspective, is that the secular community still does not seem terribly well-equipped to step in and provide aid and comfort on the scale that is needed.