Have you noticed how our anxiety level seems to be through the roof? It manifests itself in many ways—increasing incidents of violence on airplanes; short-tempered patrons in restaurants who hurl hateful epithets at servers for minor offenses; a general irritability. Just the other day, my wife witnessed customers in our local pharmacy embroiled in a heated exchange over the failure of one to wear a mask. As a people, we are more and more on edge because of the slow-motion trauma brought on by the latest developments in the battle against Covid-19.

In Marisa Iati’s brilliant article in the Washington Post, she writes, “Nearly two yearsinto a pandemic coexistent with several national crises, many Americans are profoundly tense. They’re snapping at each other more frequently, suffering from physical symptoms of stress and seeking methods of self-care. In the most extreme cases, they’re acting out their anger in public—bringing their internal struggles to bear on interactions with strangers…Some of those behaviors appear to be the result of living through a long-lasting public emergency with no clear endpoint.”

Current uncertainties about the Omicron variant exacerbate these feelings. The cumulative effect is apparent. Last April in this space, I wrote about a recognized medical condition prompted by the pandemic called “languishing.” Even those of us who are privileged feel “a certain listlessness, procrastination, even cognitive fogginess that has seeped into our corporate psyche as we continue to experience the pandemic’s impact day after endless day.” And that was eight months ago! Feelings of languishing have, it seems, been replaced by a sense of dread, with thoughts like, “Sure, maybe the Omicron variant will prove to be less severe than Delta, but what about Sigma or Epsilon?”

For many, such uncertainty strains their coping abilities and they explode emotionally—and sometimes physically. In the words of Iati, “researchers also found that anticipating a negative pandemic-related event was even more emotionally painful than experiencing one.”

A few years ago while working on issues of trauma at Intersections, we consulted with Israeli experts who had studied prolonged experience of trauma because of repeated bombings. A consistent finding was that trauma’s effects were mitigated when there was a strong sense of community support. The divisiveness in contemporary American society has so eroded social cohesion and mutual trust that the antidote of community-based healing to pandemic-induced trauma has been rendered moot, leading to prolonged feelings of the trauma itself.

Iati writes, “Layer that onto other recent national crises — including race-driven social unrest, an economic recession, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and myriad extreme-weather disasters — and people can hardly bear the stress.”

To combat this slow-motion trauma, we are all called to be courageous: to continue following the science, to be patient with one another, to be hopeful despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Such attributes are not signs of weakness or surrender, but require courage in the face of ongoing uncertainty, fear and dread.

Back in the 1990’s, I was a great Michael Jordan fan. I watched in awe the fifth game of the 1997 NBA finals when an exhausted Michael Jordan, despite being so ill that he could barely raise his arms, scored 38 points in 44 minutes as the Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz by one point. The game’s announcers (rightly) often used the word “courage” to describe Jordan’s performance.

A few nights later, I was in the second of two consecutive all-night editing sessions, with a deadline looming the following day. I was totally exhausted, but inspired by what I had seen from Jordan, I dragged myself again and again to the editing console and completed my task. I even called my mother (can you imagine? Close to 50 years old and my first instinct was to call Mom—that, in itself, is a multi-layered story worth retelling). I told her that she would never hear TV announcers describing me as filled with courage but by completing that video edit when I was totally spent was a courageous contribution to improving our world.

As this pandemic stretches endlessly out before us, we are all called to be courageous—not in a celebrity star turn under the bright lights of fame like Michael Jordan, but in those dark, private “editing rooms” of our lives, where hope is kindled and transformational change actually happens.

4 thoughts on “Slow-Motion Trauma

  1. Great essay. I very much agree with what you say. Patience and caring are what we need to practice.

  2. For many, myself included, anxiety levels exploded in 2016 with the news that the vainglorious host of an arguably mean-spitted reality show had been elected President of the United States.

    Let’s all reflect on that for a moment:

    President. Of. The United States.

    By comparison the current global Covid pandemic feels insignificant.

    Of course the pandemic is not an insignificant event. Far from it.

    As I write, global Covid-related deaths total 5.5 million and counting. The U.S. may well reach 1 million Covid deaths by late January 2022. Countless jobs have been lost, innumerable businesses have been shuttered, supply chains have broken.

    And yet, safely sheltered as I am, I feel less impacted — shaken — by the pandemic than I am by the daily reminder that a sizable portion of the U.S. population have lost their collective minds. We know who they are because they continually howl at the moon. They number among us as acquaintances, friends, family and, incredibly, duly-elected representatives sworn to uphold the greater good.

    Good: as in good for themselves.

    The pandemic? It is us.

    “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    The decades-long events that culminated in 2016 wrought the beginning of that most-feared pandemic: the Zombie Apocalypse.

    Happy or sad, we begin a New Year. May it not be our last.

  3. -We need to take another look at the British experience in WW2. The war, the blitz, then more war, then the crazy, screaming V1s. Victories and defeats. The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning.
    -Hang in there and stay civil. That Quick Chek clerk who couldn’t make change today could be pulling you out of the rubble tomorrow.

  4. I hope to find a meaningful way to create a strong sense of community thru my online classes. But I’m also pondering outreach to our hero’s working in the hospitals and clinics. They have to be beyond anything I can imagine, but hope to be with them in a tangible way. Thanks Bob for lifting up the obvious so eloquently and with helpful examples of courage.

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