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A Collective Response to Collective Trauma

Thursday, July 9th, 2020

by Dr. Doug Anderson, PsyD

How do we deal with the COVID pandemic, the racial tensions, and the economic challenges that face us right now?  The COVID-19 numbers are rising faster than we had expected across the country.    The fear and anxiety many currently wrestle with is impacting the ability of people to cope with what have otherwise been the normal and routine activities of life.  In fact, the prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications are up significantly over the same period last year.

I’ll bet you know what I am talking about.  Just a few months ago you could make up your mind quickly on what to do on a Saturday night.  You could engage in a conversation with family members or friends without losing your concentration.  You were highly productive at your job.  You looked forward to going to a movie on the weekend.  But all of these things are just a bit more difficult right now because so much of your psychological or coping energy or capacity is being used to deal with the pandemic, racial tensions, and economic challenges.  It’s like the difference of going from two-wheel drive on cruise control coasting down I-90, to driving in four-wheel low through six inches of mud.  You’re still driving, but it’s a lot harder to manage. 

That’s what happens to our brains when stressors get to be too many and too much.  We may still get to where we are going, but it is slow going, and it takes a lot more energy.  Sometimes we run out of gas and we need others to help us. 

What we are experiencing is collective trauma.  That is, we are all experiencing the same challenges – the pandemic, the racial tensions, the economic downturn.  And all of that is happening on top of what has already been a difficult few years, especially in our rural communities.

There are no easy answers.  But I do think what we need is a collective response to the collective trauma.  We have seen and heard again and again that “we are in this together.”  But it is not our forte to function as a group.  We live in an individualistic culture, and we are an independent people in so many ways.  Here in South Dakota we tend to take pride in that reality!  Our theme song could be “I Did It My Way.”  But we live in a different time now.  We live in a changed world.  We need each other more now.

I want to tell you a quick story.  Emmanuel Levinas was a Jewish philosopher who was training under Martin Heidegger (a German philosopher) when Heidegger went over to the Third Reich.  As you can imagine, the young Levinas found that to be problematic and he went back to the drawing board to consider a different philosophy of ethics than what he had learned under Heidegger.  He went back to his Jewish roots and churned out a different ethic.  Once we wade through the philosophical jargon that plagues all philosophers we come to this perspective.  When you look at another person you see something of the Creator in that person, and it is this recognition or realization that causes you to see that person as extremely important, and to see yourself as responsible to serve that person.  In other words, it is our relationship with one another that causes us to want to serve each other.

That is a collective response -  a response based on being in relationship with one another.  And that relationship is based on the fact that we are all human beings who are equal in all ways.  

Our sense of service is what motivates us to wear a mask or maintain physical distance during a pandemic.  Our sense of service moves us to treat all people equally at all times in all things.  Our sense of service generates a desire in us to help with someone else’s economic struggle when we are economically stable.  Our sense of service gets us to work together for the good of all.  When one is hurting all are hurting.

We need each other, and anything we can do together in our communities is going to help us cope better with the challenges we currently face as individuals, as families, as communities, as a state, as a nation, and as a world.

When you need some professional assistance – and many of us will need that during this time in our history – know that help is available.  At River Counseling and Sioux Falls Psychological Services, we meet you where you are, offering hope. You may schedule an appointment with the Platte office or meet with one of our Sioux Falls Psychological Services therapists from your own computer or smart phone by calling 605-334-2696.