“Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” — Carlos Santayana (1863-1952)
Like it or not, we’re living in a historic era with all its suffering and promise. And what an era we’re living in! Most of us have feelings of unreality, worry, sadness and disbelief about what is happening, and uncertainty about the future. We are suffering from collective grief and angst. Many of us are isolated and lonelier than ever due to the quarantine. We didn’t choose to be in this historic time. We can’t believe our eyes and don’t know what to make of it now. It’s not very often that we live through both a pandemic and massive racial justice unrest at the same time. We may ask, “What did we do to deserve all this?”
In the last pandemic of the Spanish Flu in 1918 many people thought they were being punished by God for their wrong doings. Many of us have gone through other periods of racial unrest and violence, say after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Each time we told ourselves, “This will never happen again.” But happen again it did. Healing 400 years of historic trauma related to slavery is quite an undertaking.
Let us not lose hope. Despite the suffering, there are many positive aspects of these times. We would be well- advised to not just survive this period but to reflect on ourselves and our culture to gain wisdom and self-acceptance. Let us not just make the best of it but also grow from the lessons of what this ordeal is teaching us. Then we can take action to lessen the likelihood of pandemics and act on behalf of true racial equality.
Though I am not a believer in the sin and punishment theory I do think that this current challenge is a real opportunity, one we can learn and grow from, lest we repeat our ordeals down the road. Ask yourself, “What will I tell my great grandchildren?” when they, with pleading eyes, ask, “Did you live through the Pandemic and the Racial Justice Protests of 2020?” Let us not disappoint our progeny. How we answer this question will determine the course of history. It is an opportunity of a lifetime.
What is there to learn?
Each of us needs to answer this question for ourselves. There are as many answers as there are people. Allow me to describe what I have discovered in this process:
At the onset of this experience I knew that my anxiety level was rising because I am older and have more vulnerable health issues. So, I needed to find a safe place that restores my faith in beauty and promise of life. I took a long walk with my wife in a woodsy area north of St. Paul. Along the walk we discovered an eagle’s nest way up in the trees. We peered up to the nest and found two young eaglets with their parents watching over them. They were very cute and had dark coloring common in immature birds. The mom and dad birds were completely devoted to their progeny and kept an eagle eye on what was happening. The dad bird swooped down in the lake to catch fish to help feed the birds and the mom bird distributed the fish between her eaglets. Many people gathered around to witness the nesting family. These birds were our birds!
The majesty of the eagles soaring and tending their young was a sight to behold. They were completely oblivious to the tensions of the pandemic and peace marches. Life just went on for them. My wife and I got so much solace from the eagle family that we retreated from our own worries and found great hope.
We partly marveled at the birds since they had no problem providing for their young despite many dead fish lying near the lake due to pollution. We worried if this family would make it. We visited this nest often until the youngsters gradually left the nest. Often, we saw the eaglets getting bolder and bigger in flapping their wings. We marveled how their parents were teaching them to fish and maintain balance despite howling winds. It was a piece of cake for them. The parents were totally devoted to their young birds. Overall, my wife and I drew much hope from the eagle family.
Finally, one day we came back to visit the nest, we saw that it was now an empty nest. How disappointed we were to not see the birds! Yet in our hearts we really knew that all had gone well for the eagle family. That even in the utter uncertainty and challenges of life that love had conquered all. Our hope was restored.
I learned much about epidemiology related to the COVID-19 virus and the science of surviving this lethal and contagious infection. Terms like social distancing, hand washing and staying in quarantine, despite my natural tendencies to do the contrary, became my daily routine. The good news is that science does make a difference and that getting accurate updates is part of the survival process. Gradually, over the following months, my fear of getting infected did lessen to a good extent. I also learned that my strong need to socialize and be in touch with others could partially be satisfied by staying in regular phone contact with a plethora of close friends. The mere chatting with others on a regular basis lessened my feelings of emptiness, gave me joy, enriched the depth of friendships and helped me realize just how important we are to each other. I found purpose and meaning in supporting my friends through their ordeals.
Also, I discovered many new friends I never knew I had! The isolation of my aching heart made me more open to people I never dreamed I could be, as many did the same with me. The daily walks in my neighborhood helped me make many new friends. I often felt surrounded by friends even while not being able to hug and embrace those close to me. Real intimacy was possible even at a distance! Of course, these new experiences will endure beyond this current pandemic and into the future. I became less afraid of those aspects of myself that kept me distant from others. I accepted myself more. Also, I took up daily reading from the Bible with my wife, not because I am a religious fanatic but because I wanted to embrace something bigger than myself and accept my mortality. Finally, I became determined to exercise daily, get adequate sleep and improve my diet, all to bolster my immune system. All of these efforts significantly improved my mood and stamina. There was something I could do to help my situation. I learned to thrive, not just survive.
Although I have always seen myself as anti-racist, I was thrown through a loop when I unexpectedly witnessed the turmoil and anger of African American people who felt degraded and unsafe in this racist culture. Their complaints are utterly valid. I was unaware of my own oblivion. I was very moved by protest messages and keep it close to my heart. It is a gift to us privileged white people to hear this message. My heart goes out to the myriad of black families that have had to suffer from the legacy of racism in its current form of police violence. No one deserves to live in fear, degradation, and needless loss. No one deserves to lose a loved one due to poor police judgment. What hurts one sector of our culture hurts us all. We have so much to gain if we live up to the “liberty and justice for all” part of our Constitution. I look forward to seeing more people of color in positions of power and receive the full gifts of their presence in our beloved Country. I look forward to more disciplined, safer and effective policing. The times are changing in a very positive direction if we learn from this era. My words in no way give complete solace or tribute to the numerous black families whose hearts have been broken by racial violence. Let us hold the wronged in our hearts and listen to them. It is a process we are going through together.
What stops of us from learning?
There are many ways to maintain willful blindness to this era. Some of us have little ability to put ourselves in other’s shoes or fully understand the connections we have to another. We see no need to wear masks in crowded spaces and don’t see how not wearing masks is disrespectful to others, especially vulnerable adults in our own families. Safety for some is an individual matter and if other people get sick due to our insensitivity that is not our problem. We may be reluctant to give up our self-centeredness for other people’s sake. We lack the ability to love in a mature way. Others turn a deaf ear to racial injustice. We are too comfortable with our dominant position in society. We live the good life in our safe neighborhoods and see no connection to other people’s pain. We may occasionally numb ourselves through alcohol, drug abuse and other addictions. We fail to see that “their problem” is “our problem.”
Some people have a different approach to resisting learning. Some of us are saints. Perhaps we have an exaggerated view of our own virtue and cannot even identify our own racist tendencies. This self-righteousness is especially common for progressive-thinking people who see themselves as “beyond all that.” They feel that they have nothing to learn from people of color. They are the sainted helpers. They become fanatical in their concerns for people of color and are willing to commit illegal acts on their behalf. Frequently they are driven by their own need to save and speak for people of color in a veiled version of hidden racism. They have little awareness of how they are trying to save themselves through others, and at their own expense. They cannot learn anything in this era when they are lost in a fog of their own boundary confusion. The thinking parts of their brains are just not on-line, and they become extreme. Any of us can fall into these categories if we are unaware of our own woundedness.
The odd part of all these faulty methods of learning is that if people give up their superiority, even for a brief while, and embrace humility, they will realize that learning is a lot easier than they are making it. People of color are spelling out for us as to what they need. They are not asking us to solve their problems. They simply want us to listen, take seriously what they are saying and legally support their ideas of a more just society, while also respecting ourselves. We need to have more faith in, and gratitude for, people of color because they are inherently very much like ourselves.
Thurgood Marshall, the preeminent Supreme Court Justice, had a vision of what heals racial injustice. He believed in his soul that racial injustice could be healed if black people and white people just hung out with each other and got to know each other in a personal way. He courageously defeated “Separate but equal” legislation and replaced it with integration in the school system by being an integrationist himself. His wisdom applies to today’s times. If we stepped back from being the dominant culture, listened to people of color and connected with them in personal ways we would all have a lot to learn from each other. We are all very much like each other and we are all in the same boat. There is no “them” in “us.”
Very much the same can be said regarding this pandemic. Clearly, we need to weigh the costs and benefits of exposing ourselves to others, often led by our need to support our families. Nevertheless, it’s wisest if we defer to the scientists in guiding us through this process and realize the bigger picture. Science in a pandemic does matter even if we don’t like what we are being told. Not getting our way and deferring to trusted experts will save lives, allow us to practice humility and help us accept our mortality.
Steps for growth
Perhaps the greatest danger in this period is apathy, passivity, and pessimism. We could all easily fall back into defeatism and give up. This is not a time to fall back; it is a time to fight. Clearly, we have much to feel overwhelmed by and are in fact powerless over much of what is occurring in our pandemic. We can’t stop the virus on our own and we can’t provide instant justice even with the best arguments. However, we can choose to be proactive and be growthful. Not doing so will leave us even more disempowered and traumatized by this period. Let me suggest:
- Take a small amount of time each day and reflect on yourself and what you are learning about yourself. Focus on your body’s sensations, dreams, and transitory thoughts. Consider keeping a daily journal and ask yourself, “What is coming up for me today?”, “What am I learning about myself?” and “What are some acts I can do today that honor what I am learning?” Notice when you have threatening thoughts and feelings, take a deep breath and let them just be. You don’t have to do anything that you are not ready to do. Just notice your reactions and let them just be, like singing birds outside your window. Perhaps if you have a trusted friend you can call that person, share your reflections, and listen to his or hers.
- Make a list of people’s phone numbers and call a few of them each day. Check on their health, how they are doing and see what is cooking with them. Most of what’s cooking is going on the inside of people, not the outside, as many of us are quarantined. It’s most important to listen with genuine interest and ask follow-up questions, remembering what they said. Don’t instantly cheer people up, as others may read this as you have discomfort with their feelings. Don’t assume that others have nothing to say when they say nothing. Try at least one probing question. Just the fact that you’re calling an acquaintance is support enough in itself.
- Do something different to get out of yourself, something that’s not part of your usual routine. Do some drawing, play some music, write some poems, take some long walks in nature, learn to quilt, or read the great books you have never had time for. Notice how all this changes you and grows your identity, especially if you don’t do it perfectly. Perhaps you can write to us here at The Phoenix Spirit and let us know what you are discovering. Godspeed!
“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” — Aeschylus (Greek playwright,
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
Last Updated on July 12, 2020