As I write this article in the heat of the resurgent summer, my gaze falls upon the great redwood tree that is framed by my office’s picture window. Her arms are beginning to droop with the heaviness of parched thirst, pines tinged with the brown, coarse dryness of a drought that has persisted for far too long in California. A heavy dust settles against my windows in a way it didn’t this time last year or the year before, belying the extended effects of the lack of moisture. Where just one year ago life seemed to thrive amongst her branches, I have noticed far fewer blue jays, sparrows, squirrels, and the other sorts of life that generally accompany her. This fecund habitat — a beautiful microcosmic metonym for the macrocosmic system of life — is being seriously threatened.
As I regard with my great companion with some hopeful anxiety, I am struck by the implications of drought as a form of ecological collective trauma. Its effects are insidiously eroding — intrusive, disruptive — not just to the one, but to the whole. Where safety and sustenance were inherent functions of the redwood, each passing year of drought renders the tree as less dependable, less able to provide. So trauma extends beyond herself to the collective ecosystem around her.
As is the case with human victims of a traumatic event, the redwood is vulnerable to other forms of threatening disaster common to this area of upper Rockridge, Calif., and the hills of North Oakland. Yet with necessary aid from human attendance and care, she persists; it is evident, given the breadth of her trunk, that she imbues a great resiliency. She, like our house, was one of only a few in our neighborhood that survived the devastating Oakland Firestorm of 1991.
Perhaps that is why I can’t help but include her story today. Her very survival, along with the wisdom she continually offers me as I take witness, speaks to the process of trauma — the struggle and fight, as well as the perseverant hope towards life and restoration.
I can still remember with great acuity that Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. My phone awoke me — my mom’s voice demanding I immediately turn on the T.V. Her words were garbed as she yelled and sobbed in hysteria. As my roommates and I quickly gathered around our small 13-inch screen, the image of the burning towers of the World Trade Center loomed larger than life. I remember literally pinching myself, thinking I was in some surreal waking. With cameras fixed on the World Trade Center, the three of us watched in horror as the South Tower crumbled to the ground. I remember the flood of tears that first hit — part of it was utter disbelief, part of it was hearing the traumatized responses of the newscasters that externalized what I couldn’t seem to communicate in the wake of my shock. And then my alarm went off. I remember all of us reacting to it physically — it was too common a sound, an intrusion of normalcy in the wake of tragedy and trauma. Oddly, it scared us even more than the mayhem we had been watching for the last 20 minutes.
As I made my way into work that morning to the 110S freeway towards Hollywood, I remember the stillness of the drive. To this day, it remains one of the only times I’ve listened intently to news radio in the car. I don’t know how, but it was apparent that everyone on the road was hyperaware of one another. Traffic was moving even slower than usual — none of us really wanting to be on our way to work when devastation and tragedy was happening all around us. I can recall shaking in the car out of shock, but also out of fear. Was it safe to be driving?
Trapped in gridlock, staring at the skyline of downtown L.A., I was watching several planes stuck in flight patterns above head when the news broadcasters reported that the North Tower, too, was falling. It felt like time actually stopped. I remember bursting into uncontrollable sobs while stopping my car on the highway. I remember seeing in real time the reactions of other drivers on the road who were responding in the same way. I was the most alone I’d ever felt. And yet I was also incredibly aware of every driver around me. In this weird paradox, I could see cars rocking as people reacted physically, and could see people crying or in hysterics through the windows. This momentary experience of deep isolation in the midst of collective suffering is to this day something I will never forget, and still struggle to describe.
As the days and months and years passed beyond the events of 9/11, we as a country slowly began to work through the remnants of our personal and social experiences and stories of pain, grief, and tragedy. And as is generally the case, out of our grief and devastation — and our survival, which can be its own form of trauma — the need for meaning become paramount. Here is where the threads of collective post-trauma begin their hemming. A meta-narrative of communal response and identity reformation began to formulate amidst the confusion of individual survival.
Social and trauma theorists distinguish that, it is this communal acknowledgement, this emergent struggle towards rebuilding and the social evidence of that strained effort — not merely the stand alone event or origin of trauma itself — that makes healing from trauma a collective experience.
So what within the fabric of our national identity has forever been changed? Have we responded in a way that moves us towards recovery and healing or further disrepair?
Perhaps what is important here is not to attempt to answer these questions, but to consider them at all.
As a spiritual director, a person of faith, and a storyteller, what continues to challenge and humble my theological framework is the power of witness. I define “witness” as “a compassionate willingness to stand alongside and to enter into shared experience with another.” It is grace embodied without expectation. In our consumerist meritocratic society, that is radical. In the midst of trauma, to be witness is to be willing to stand between life and death — holding the hope of a resilient future as well as the agony of loss and grief.
The symptoms of trauma generally center on extreme feelings of helplessness, unsafety, and fear. For the impenetrable, dominant United States to be rendered powerless is a compromise of moral and identity integrity. But for a time immediately following the events of 9/11 — for that next year of repair, especially — there was an incredible singularity that emerged from the agonizing work of recovery at Ground Zero. It was the ethos of that communal narrative that inspired a nation to rally.
A first responder to the scene, one of the main U.S. Army Chaplains on site, Reverend Joanne Martindale, recalls witnessing this sense of resilient community.
“No one cared about an ‘us and them’ or a ‘mine and yours’ mentality. (We) didn’t have the usual divisions that separate us. We were one country united … open to giving,” she told me.
“It made us more loving. People were giving their showers, their houses, and homes. They were providing water, food, and power when someone had a generator.”
The act of witness in trauma is often a process in itself. It is dynamic. This is evident in Rev. Martindale’s work today, as she remains in contact with several families to whom she had to deliver death notices.
But within the last 14 years there is alarming evidence, too, of a regression of healthy resiliency. An extended war on terror; an economic recession; a resurgence of racial discrimination and hate crimes; an overall increase in violence and domestic terrorism — could these and other ongoing social issues be a byproduct of collective post-traumatic disordering?
Some social and trauma theorists believe these issues are directly symptomatic of an undiffused, collective trauma around the event of 9/11 — exacerbated by our post-modern, technocratic society, in which our witness of one another is often relegated by social media personas and devices. The environment is controlled, protected, guarded — a false sense of security that instead perpetuates isolation and disconnection. This raises a question as to where, and whether, we are experiencing integrated and authentic community as we heal.
It is widely acknowledged that supportive and caring community is an absolutely necessity in trauma repair. To be sure, the answer is complex and dynamic. But perhaps on this day of remembrance, rather than re-enacting our dissociative narratives, we can attempt to reimagine and embrace courageously an authentic witness — to continue the work towards a restorative, integrative, and peaceful future.