“If we take full responsibility for everything that happens to us, does that mean nobody is to be held responsible? I’m thinking of children who have been abused or neglected by their parents, victims of rape and assault, those persecuted on account of their race, gender or sexuality, people who have been exploited by oppressive government and psychopathic corporations – is the burden only on the those who have suffered to have to deal with their suffering?”
Thank you for asking this question. It’s an important matter to clarify.
Before I answer your question, here is something I want to share with you:
Dasha is a seven year old girl who came to Sweden with her parents. They are refugees from a former Soviet republic who had to flee because their lives were in serious danger. Both parents had been beaten and tortured, the mother had been raped and their lives were being perpetually threatened by authorities. Coming to Sweden, had allowed the family some breathing room. Dasha and her older sister were attending school. Yet, the family was under a lot of stress and uncertainty because their application for asylum was pending. After a year of living in Sweden their application was rejected.
They appealed the rejection and were waiting for the appeal to go through. This is when Dasha’s behavior suddenly began to change. She appeared tired and lethargic at school and at home. She began eating less and less. Eventually, she stopped eating altogether and slipped into a coma. The family, terrified she was dying, contacted a psychiatrist working with asylum seekers. The psychiatrist told them that this was something that she and her peers had been seeing at an alarming rate only in the last few years.
They called it Resignation Syndrome. And there had already been 200 documented cases of children from refugee families in Sweden who entered into this catatonic state. Almost invariably, this resulted when children, who had been exposed to trauma, were then placed in a situation of extreme uncertainty. She said that these children eventually came out of the coma when the families’ situations became more stabilized and optimistic.
Dasha remained in a coma for over a year. During this time she had a feeding tube inserted in her, her eyes remained closed and she was unresponsive. Her family massaged her limbs and stretched them to prevent atrophy, bathed her, spoke and sang to her, took her out for walks in a wheelchair. She remained unconscious through all of it.
Eventually, the family’s appeal was upheld and asylum was approved. The mood in the household changed and became optimistic. A few months later, Dasha showed signs of movement. She gradually regained consciousness a bit at a time. A few months on from there, she was back at school as the happy, bubbly child she had always been. She had absolutely no recollection of anything that had transpired during the past year.
The reason I shared this story is to highlight the innate intelligence of the body in response to trauma. For a child, healing from trauma can only result when there is a sense of security and stability in the environment. But when there is uncertainty and the possibility of being exposed again to the same traumatic circumstances, then the brain may decide (as in the case of Resignation Syndrome) to quarantine the child’s consciousness until the circumstance has stabilized.
In other words, the brain is biologically designed to respond in a manner that will preserve the child’s sanity. It “takes responsibility” for the child.
EVENT AND AFTERMATH
There are two aspects to any trauma one experiences. One is the EVENT and the other is the AFTERMATH. And this is where the division of responsibility lies.
As a victim of a traumatic event, the responsibility for the action that caused the trauma lies with the person who caused it. (To keep things simple, I am just going to assume a very clear cut case where an innocent is traumatized by someone without any form of provocation.)
If I’m walking on the street and a drunk driver swerves off the road and hits me and I end up in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I do not take responsibility for the action of the driver. That responsibility lies squarely on the driver. And so, justice dictates that the driver be penalized or punished for their actions.
However, what I do need to take responsibility for is HOW the incident affects me: in other words, the aftermath. Now, to be clear I am not saying I am to blame for feeling traumatized. None of this has to do with blame. I am saying I need to take responsibility for how I feel and how I evolve as a result of it. THAT part is no one else’s responsibility but mine.
Unfortunately, if I misunderstand this I may make one of two errors:
One: I may hold MYSELF responsible for both the event AND the aftermath. In this case, I will blame myself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I will feel deep shame about what a loser I am and how my life has been destroyed by my bad choices. This internalizing of the oppressive actions of others is something a lot of children who come from broken families tend to do. In order to maintain their image of their parents they take on the blame of being the root cause of what caused their family to fall apart. It’s also what some women (and men) who suffer abuse from their spouses do in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance they feel.
Or, two: I may hold OTHERS responsible for both the event AND the aftermath. In this case, not only do I blame the drunk driver for hitting me with the car, I also blame them for everything I feel, and that unfolds in my life, as a result. I see myself as the victim of not only the circumstance but also the aftermath. Thus, the trauma is kept alive by me and I constantly re-traumatize myself by keeping that inner rhetoric of blame alive.
“Blame” is simply the “shifting of responsibility”.
In the first case, by shifting the responsibility of the event onto myself, I blame myself for what has happened. Thus, there can be no resolution because since I am the cause, I have to face the punishment.
In the second case, by shifting the responsibility of the aftermath onto others, I blame them for everything that continues to happen in my life. Thus, there can be no resolution because since they are already being punished for the event, they cannot be punished any further.
In both cases, the trauma is kept alive and has no opportunity to heal because responsibility is not being taken for the healing process.
THE ILLUSION OF “EMPOWERMENT”
Now, here is something else to consider. Let’s say I had been walking on the sidewalk and instead of a drunk driver hitting me, it was a tree that was randomly struck by lightning and fell on top of me. And let’s say I ended up in the exact same position as in the first example. Who can I assign responsibility to?
Clearly, it’s not my fault it happened. I was just walking along minding my own business. I can blame “god” and call him unfair. I can try and blame the city and try to hold them responsible for their own trees. But I am unlikely to find any real object on which to cast responsibility. Furthermore, the responsibility of the aftermath is STILL mine to take.
It may be easier for me to recover from such a trauma if there is no “one” to blame. After all the tree fell. It’s just incredibly unfortunate. But if it was a drunk driver that caused my situation. Then, I may struggle to face the aftermath in the same manner. Because, I harbor the belief that while the tree had no choice but to fall, the driver “could have” chosen not to drink.
While, that assigning of volition to the driver is important in order to hold them responsible for the event, it also has the unintended effect of preventing us from accepting the new reality we find ourselves in. That “could have” prevents us from facing up to our own trauma and taking responsibility for the aftermath in a way the falling tree may not.
“Bad things happen” is a statement that is far easier to accept in the case of a natural disaster than it is in the case of a human caused event. Yet, the fact remains that a large portion of what drives human behavior is mostly unconscious.
It comes as no surprise that most trauma is caused by humans who themselves have been traumatized. This is not an excuse or a justification. It is simply a telltale sign that we respond to trauma in an unconscious manner, either oppressing ourselves or others as a result of it since the trauma itself is so unbearable.
Part of how a person evolves in their own understanding of trauma is by shifting from a stance of self-blame to a stance of blaming others. A case in point is the contemporary culture of political correctness, trigger warnings, microaggressions and offensive speech.
There are minorities of various ethnicity, race, gender and sexual orientation who have been traumatized by discrimination and social oppression for years as a result of the systemic prejudices in society. In the past, many suffered great shame by taking on the blame of their own circumstances onto themselves. Rather than assigning responsibility to those who were prejudiced against them, many instead dealt with the trauma by loathing themselves.
However, as the times have changed and society progresses, these systemic prejudices have become exposed and highlighted in society. This is an ongoing process as discrimination still happens.
Yet, in addition to bringing attention to the events that cause trauma, what there also seems prevalent now, is an attitude of holding others responsible for the aftermath. In other words, the event aside, anything that you say or do that could even remind me of my trauma is unacceptable and on par with causing the trauma. This could involve the choice of words you use, the subject matters you bring up in discussion or any viewpoint that remains ambiguous on matters that are sensitive to me.
In other words, the responsibility of not only the event, but also the aftermath, is now the domain of “other people”.
There is an unconscious rationale behind this. Just like the children in Sweden with Resignation Syndrome whose brains are quarantining their consciousness away from any harmful or potentially threatening input for fear that it may break their psyches, so also is this attitude, of “sanitizing society” of all kinds of negative inputs, a kind of quarantining of the collective psyche of the historically persecuted against.
The only problem is that this kind of “enforcement” has the unintended backlash effect of breeding resentment and defensive attitudes that creates a further sense of alienation.
Assigning responsibility to another for causing trauma is one thing. Assigning ONGOING responsibility to another for how you continue to feel as a result of that trauma is something else entirely. It means that the onus of dealing with the aftermath has been shifted away from oneself. Thus one has no choice but to keep that trauma alive.
The reason this behavior is unconscious is that the person who is dealing with the trauma actually believes that this will help them heal. Having shifted away from blaming themselves to blaming others makes them feel relatively “empowered”. But this is not real EMPOWERMENT.
Most of the social trends and movements that promote themselves as “empowering” today are in fact only promoting the ideal of empowerment while continuing to disempower its propagators by shifting responsibility away.
When we take a look at society, we find that the vast majority deal with trauma in one of these TWO WAYS. Blaming themselves or blaming others: i.e. blaming god, blaming other groups, blaming the government, blaming corporations for their lot in life.
For example, when people blame corporations for being exploitative and causing a massive wealth divide, it is a certain action that one is holding the corporation responsible for. Yet, when one continues to buy that corporation’s products and support that corporation as a consumer while simultaneously berating it, that is a demonstration of failure to take responsibility.
I have said this before: that monumental change can happen overnight when people take full accountability. This has already been demonstrated in India in the first half of the 20th century when the entire British Empire was forced to leave India when the majority of Indians simply decided enough was enough and stopped cooperating.
What the average consumer, what the average citizen doesn’t realize is that the locus of power and control actually resides within them.
If every consumer boycotted corporations, the corporations would go bankrupt overnight. If every driver stopped paying for gas, the auto industry would be forced to go electric in the span of just a few years. If every woman refused to work for any company without a transparent and equal pay structure, corporations would scramble to rectify. Even more extreme, if women decided to form female-only corporations and cooperatives that provided competitive pay and supportive environments, the entire system would have no choice but to recalibrate – and fast.
But that sort of path isn’t without challenges. It requires one to make significant changes of one’s own. It took the Indians a willingness to learn how to weave their own clothes from hemp, risk imprisonment by making their own salt from the sea and boycott all English products (which formed over 90% of the consumer market at the time) In order to make the Empire capitulate.
And the form of empowerment that resulted was freedom. Independence for the nation after more than 300 years of subjugation. It wasn’t war or violence that did it. The people simply stopped doing what their masters expected of them and took control of their own lives.
One may argue, “well that sort of thing is nearly impossible to organize. It doesn’t only depend on me, it depends on everyone doing it.” Yet, this is how social change has always occurred. It begins with a few outliers kicking things off until it snowballs into a wider trend. At a point a tipping point is reached when the entire collective becomes galvanized in that direction.
This can happen both in positive and negative ways. And it has already been happening in the various movements that have occurred since the turn of the century through Occupy, Black Lives Matter, MeToo and so on. Yet, the division of responsibility that I mentioned in the beginning, between the event and aftermath, has not happened so cleanly. These movements have been extremely successful at bringing systemic issues to light and holding people accountable for their actions. Yet, there has also been a general trend of shifting responsibility of both the event AND the aftermath onto the guilty parties.
Thus, the trauma is kept alive rather than healed. The individual’s disempowerment is actively maintained in order to justify the need for assigning responsibility on to others.
LOVE NOT FEAR
The following was a letter written by Gandhi in response to a letter he received from a Kansas City resident:
148, Russa Road,
26th July 1925.
My dear young Friend,
I like your frank and sincere letter for which I thank you.
You seem to have taken it for granted that I hate the British. What makes you think so? I have hundreds of friends among the British people. I cannot love the Mussalmans and for that matter the Hindus if I hate the British. My love is not an exclusive affair. If I hate the British today, I would have to hate the Mohammedans tomorrow and the Hindus the day after. But what I do detest is the system of government that the British have set up in my country. It has almost brought the economic and moral ruin of the people of India. But just as I love my wife and children, in spite of their faults which are many, I love also the British in spite of the bad system for which they have unfortunately made themselves responsible. That love which is blind is no love, that love which shuts its eyes to the faults of loved ones is partial and even dangerous. You must write again if this letter does not satisfy you.
(Signed, ‘MKGandhi’) “
This letter exemplifies the attitude of taking responsibility that I have been alluding to. Separating out the action from the person is essential. It is not the British he hates, it is the system of government they have instituted.
Fear seeks to segregate, to alienate and to divide. It seeks to focus on the differences rather than what is common. And a fear-based attitude towards trauma can never heal it. It can only exacerbate it. Love alone has that power. And that love must be directed not only at oneself but also towards the other if one is to bring the unconsciousness, prevalent in both, to light.
In the end, it is not people but ideologies that are at the root of the overwhelming majority of trauma that exists in human society. As long as we remain opposed to people instead of ideology, alienation is the only possible outcome.
And one cannot fight ideology with ideology. It is only by laying down one’s own ideological arms and facing the opponent in the battlefield can one hope to inspire them to do the same. Brandishing a more powerful ideological weapon may scare them into putting theirs aside, but it will not build trust or friendship. It will only fan the flame of resentment in their heart.
Isms are the schisms that keep us imprisoned. The mind creates the abyss, but it’s the heart that must cross it.