I was engaged in a Facebook “dialogue” yesterday around the young women in Nigeria who were stolen from their families. The actual topic was a #BringBackOurGirls rally planned for Mother’s Day, but I want to try to keep the girls themselves as the focus of the discussion.
Not the rally. Not the rally organizer. Not the very American tendency to reframe everything as an individual act of charity/kindness/aggression rather than open ourselves to a painful dialogue about the interconnected nature of our lives that feeds directly into the systemic oppression of those who are “other” than us. But to keep our eyes and minds and energy on the girls who most assuredly will not get a Hollywood ending when the American troops swoop in to save them. It is not going to happen.
If I were going to change one thing about the “natural order of things” it would be this propensity – desire even – to deny or disavow ourselves of a connection and responsibility to the bigger picture. In practical terms? I’d like people to stop saying things like “I don’t watch the news because it is all grim” and in the next breath express astonishment at some sort of crisis or incident. Or frustration with systems that are constraining their family.
Freud used the term “disavowal” – the individual seeks to avoid acknowledging absences or shortcomings. Moreover, whatever suffering disavowal and splitting may spare the subject’s consciousness is generally proportionately visited upon those around him.
I’m not a psychologist or a student of psychology, but this seems to get at my point; turning a blind eye is both a seemingly natural if immature response to the world and has implications for our neighbors.
In a talk about denial and climate change, there’s an empathetic grasp of why people choose to live in denial – fear, helplessness, guilt and a threat to our collective identity as “good” people. And it goes on to I think a very perceptive conclusion:
“Since the constructive idea of saving the world can be achieved only by one’s working as but one largely anonymous individual among uncounted millions, in adult concert with other citizens, it is more alluring to give oneself over to secret fantasies of omnipotent destructiveness, in identification with the forces that threaten to destroy the world.”
Do we lose ourselves if we join a worldwide effort to challenge injustice of any stripe? We may lose our sense of security, but our actual security is strengthened by stepping out into the world to do something. I know multiple people who didn’t enroll for the Affordable Care Act because they simply didn’t know. They didn’t know it was available, that there was a process, that it involved a deadline – in spite of the incredible amount of negative energy invested to defeat Obamacare with headline after headline, they didn’t know. That’s mindblowing to me, but important information to process.
We can’t escape the reality that our actions as Americans have consequences for other people, that our privileges as white folks have consequences for people of color and that our lack of awareness or ignorance of either does not protect anyone. Choosing not to watch the news makes it worse.
Now I use the term “watch the news” in a very broad sense to convey raising our individual awareness of world and local events as well as processing how we are connected to those events. That can start by simply reading the newspaper or watching 30 minutes of local news. It isn’t perfect and still very narrow, but you aren’t protecting your kids if you turn a blind eye to the realities they experience when they leave your home.
I truly understand the desire to bury our heads because it can be really hard to face reality and cope with all of those intense psychological impacts. But awareness and acceptance is the first step to reconciling ourselves to the fact that we are not helpless nor are we paralyzed by guilt. We can participate in building a better world. We benefit from building a better world even if it feels like we give up something precious – peace of mind? innocence? security?
Choosing to ignore reality robs us of something far more precious.
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