Too Scared to Feel Afraid: Touching the Fears and Pain Inside Us

Unless we get to the depth of the fears and pain and hatreds inside us, it will be hard to do justice to this moment in time. To this moment in time when we have a powerful opportunity to reckon with racial injustice in our midst as well as in our history. We will have trouble processing the legacy we have been given, as white people of the genocides of Native Americans, as well as the horrors of slavery and its aftermath which continues till today. We will have trouble seeing the “us” in the “them”, the us in the people in our jails, in all the immigrants, in all the people haunting themselves and us potentially, with their glaring and their rage and their own fears that persist and persist some more.

At a time in which we are dealing with acute polarization in our country amidst the increase of broad and intense awareness and passion related to racial injustice being a forever American reality, I have wanted to focus on some of the nuances.

As I am moved by the recent protests after the death of George Floyd, at the same time I worry about many people (white people for the most part) rushing into political correctness on the subject of racism, while possibly skipping over what it takes for real empathy to appear. Empathy includes compassion, feeling with another person. And to feel with someone, we have to touch the raw aspects of our own vulnerability.

And although we may not be able to compare, nor should we, to the assaults and brutality and dread and terror that black people have had to endure in our nation, we all, as Bryan Stevenson has written and said out loud, are in some ways broken. On page 70 of his riveting book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, he writes:

“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent…Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our broken ness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.” (Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel and Grau, 2014, p. 289)

Stevenson goes on to say he tells clients that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them if someone tells a lie, that person isn’t just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer…In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy…You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us”. (p.290) Some of the beauty of what Stevenson writes here comes through in the humanizing of all of us.

I am not sure we can feel for another person or other people unless we go to the bottom of what is inside us. This is not about refusing to learn about what other people are going through but rather about not skipping over what is inside us. I suppose one fear I have is that people will jump on the anti-racist bandwagon without penetrating their own profound emotions enough to really empathize. And that it might be a quickness to political correctness rather than really connecting with our racism. The danger is that we might agree to being transporting by a movement, leaving us with the same feelings as before. Unless we have the humility, the guts and the motivation to consider how we have been prone to racist behavior and attitudes in subtle ways and thinking, we might well be only superficially satisfying our needs for justice.

Coming to terms with white privilege cannot be all that easy, when we have to come to see our own — consciously and not — refusal to notice when some of our neighborhoods were so far from diverse it’s completely not funny. We will have to own up to our egotism, our wanting to secure our own kids’ success at any cost, inducing us to blind ourselves to the inequalities of the schools that were sad spectacles to anyone looking.

It can be like the people who say the economy is good as in good for them, so they aren’t going to look at the lack of effort on cultural and economic justice, or at the quality of education for all people, and at the poverty of people that basically for those same people, do not wind up counting.

As it turns out, many of us have been traumatized. There are 400 years of history, of slavery and of racial violence. At the same time, many of us not traumatized by particular events have been traumatized by lack of safety and lack of coherence in our backgrounds. In addition, trauma is not confined to particular events or even chronic abuse and brutality; it can come in the form of lack of enough safety and enough company with which to deal with particular emotions and experience. If we haven’t had enough safety and enough practice and enough help so we might face and integrate our feelings, odds are we will eject potential information that might confront us with the very emotions we cannot stand.

In order to face up to racism in ways large and small, we will have to confront our own culpability, in being complicit in one way or another, in the injustices in our society. In order to feel safe enough to face this, we have to avoid drowning in shame and self-hate because these stand as obstacles to the compassion and activism that are needed.

It’s all harder than it seems, that is if we don’t stay carried away in the moment of the fray. In addition, it can become very hard to prepare to cope with the resistance to change, not only in ourselves, but in those in enough power to not want to let it go at just about any cost. The people who want no change to the American narrative, will want only to provoke us to stay or to become, consumed by hate or fear, or to become exhausted. Exhausted and defeated so that we give up on change that is vital but also rooted in reality and not in something too quick to evaporate.

Hopefully we will feel safe enough to be afraid when it’s warranted, so we can protect ourselves and each other, from those people and institutions still addicted to hate and to judgment. That we can remain true, first and foremost to the whole of our insides and to our right to compassion for us, and for each other.

#Racism; Trauma; Just Mercy; Bryan Stevenson; Compassion

A psychotherapist, a New Yorker living between Colorado and Italy (in good times) I am passionate about the role of emotions and awareness for evolving,sanity