On Saturday I sat in the backseat of a car with a moon roof. I stared up at the sky and noticed a rainbow hidden in the clouds. I lowered my sunglasses because usually, that helps me see colors better but, in this case, I was surprised. Leaving my sunglasses on helped me more clearly see the rainbow. It blew my mind a little, to be honest.
We talk a lot about darkness and associate it with bad or evil things. Darkness is something to be scared of, it’s dangerous. But is that always true? Seeing this rainbow through my sunglasses reminded me sometimes darkness is illuminating. That happened for me this week not only with a rainbow but also with a better understanding of trauma.
When I first heard the news about antisemitic banners hanging over an LA freeway, my response was, “Where will I run?” That’s not rational or reasonable. No one was chasing me! Furthermore, I’ve never directly experienced antisemitism – no one has called me names for wearing a Jewish star or bullied me online. So where did this response come from? It’s a bodily memory from my ancestors.
My maternal ancestors lived in Eastern Europe and even before the Holocaust, it wasn’t free of antisemitism. I don’t know much about them, but I do know about my grandparents – both of whom were Holocaust survivors. They both had horrific experiences, but I think my, “Where will I run?” response comes from my grandmother.
During World War II, she dug her way through the ground floor of a Lithuanian ghetto and escaped via a sewer line into the woods. In other words, she ran. To my surprise, when I encounter antisemitism in places I don’t expect, like an LA freeway, that same response shows up in me. My “lizard brain” gets activated. We all have this brain, it’s our limbic system, and it doesn’t respond to logic or reason. The limbic system scans all sensory inputs and responds in a fraction of a second by letting them into the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, or initiating the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.
As trauma-therapist Resmaa Menakem writes in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, “This mechanism allows our lizard brain to override our thinking brain whenever it senses real or imagined danger. It blocks any information from reaching our thinking brain until after it has sent a message to fight, flee, or freeze.”
In other words, you can’t reason with your lizard brain. It just responds. What I hadn’t realized, and what I think many people also don’t understand, is that when it comes to big issues, the “isms” and “phobias” we’re facing right now, you can’t reason those away. It might work with some people to explain why racism is harmful to everybody, including white people, but if a white-bodied person feels fear or anger in their nervous system when they encounter a melanated body, logic goes out the window and racism continues.
Similarly, emotional appeals will also only take you so far. Just after George Floyd’s murder, there was a surge of interest in antiracism. Emotions ran high and people purchased books and enrolled in classes more than they had before. But now, those classes and courses aren’t garnering as much interest or attention because emotion faded. But the body remembers. Menakem argues, “If we are to survive as a country, it is inside our bodies where this conflict will need to be resolved.”
After this week and experiencing my own version of alienation and othering, I agree. I can’t reason with people why antisemitic tropes are malarkey. I can’t emotionally convey why staying silent in the face of antisemitism is terrifying for me as a Jewish person. If you don’t get it, I can’t make you get it. What I can do though, is heal my own trauma.
When we do so we make room for growth in our nervous systems and that spreads. It’s like emotional contagion, but instead of emotion, something even more powerful. This isn’t a task relegated to oppressed groups, by the way. Every group has its own brand of trauma including white people. Responding with rage and aggression in the presence of an oppressed group is evidence of that.
Darkness revealed a lot to me this week. And not only a rainbow.
I dream of a world where we recognize logic and emotion only takes us so far. A world where we understand the power of trauma and create more space and peace within our nervous systems. A world where we confront our shadow to make the world a better place for ourselves and others. A world where we understand not only is light illuminating, so is the dark.
Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.