• StevenF

Navigating Trauma and Seeing Each Other

Updated: Jan 11

I was reading this article in The Washington Post about a journalist's experience with the trauma associated with the January 6 insurrection last year, and it made me think about how trauma affects us in general. I don't mean for this post to be political, although it may happen.

My husband perhaps will not want me to share this story, but I think it's important to illustrate a point. He recently called a candidate for a job at his company to possibly interview with him. One of the first things she asked is what the company's mask policy was. Isaias indicated that everyone is required to wear a mask backstage. The potential candidate said something along the lines of, "Okay, well we can stop the conversation right here" because she did not wish to abide by that policy.

And here's why I want to share this story and also why I think my husband is such an example to me. He could have easily just said, "Okay, thank you. Goodbye." Or he could have argued with her. Or he could have said, "Well, it doesn't sound like you'd be a good fit, but thank you for your interest."

Instead, he just talked with her a bit and said he understood we all come from different experiences and different beliefs and that he respected her right to feel the way she did but that he was coming from a different place. He proceeded to tell her about his mom's death from COVID, about his brother needing a possible lung transplant, about the family members who had been hospitalized due to the disease, and about five other members of his extended family who had also passed from COVID. He did not present this information in a judgmental or accusatory way; he simply shared his own experience.

The candidate got quiet and expressed her condolences but also explained that her experience had been different. She talked about how no one in her circle had ever contracted COVID and they had been going without masks for some time.

Isaias was kind and said that perhaps in the future when the pandemic is over, they might be able to talk again and if a position were available that she was right for, she could still be considered but that based on the current mask policy and her feelings about it, this particular opportunity was a no-go at this time. They left the conversation having seen each other in a way that I feel we so often fail to do these days.

Isaias could so easily have said, "My mom died from this! My brother's lungs are irreparably damaged! Why can't you just wear a mask?" But that's not who he is. He simply wanted her to see his experience and valued her enough to allow her to share her point of view even if he disagreed with it. And furthermore, he left the door open for them to continue to have communication or a relationship.

It's so easy to shut people down or shut them out because of disagreements or because we think they are "wrong" or "stupid" or "selfish" or what-have-you. It sounds so cliché, but when we continually put up walls, it becomes so much harder to build bridges of understanding.

We all want to be seen. We all want to be valued and understood. I just finished listening to one of the best audio books I have ever heard, I Take My Coffee Black by Tyler Merritt, which I hope to post more about later. But one of the things he talked about was proximity. When you really get to know on a core level the people in a group you don't understand or fear or maybe even hate, your perception of that group can change for the better. A homophobe who really gets to know a gay person, a racist who really gets to know a person of color, a conservative who really gets to know a liberal or vice versa, a native who really gets to know an immigrant, a big-city elitist who really gets to know someone from the heartland—all of these interactions can really alter our perceptions. It's often because we lack proximity that we develop prejudices and feelings of fear, hate, and misunderstanding.

Just like the journalist talks about in the Post article, trauma can hang on long after the event or events that initially caused it. In the case of masks and vaccinations, for example, Isaias and I still carry a lot of trauma associated with our personal experiences with COVID:

We still remember that last Skype call with Nena before they put her on a ventilator.

Or praying every night in a hospital parking lot for 25 days that she would survive.

Standing outside in the hot sun looking through a window at Isaias' brother like at a zoo animal and talking to him on the phone because that was the only way we could visit him.

Dropping off and picking up supplies at the home where Isaias' infected brother and sister-in-law were, scared we would become infected ourselves.

Picking up Nena's belongings after she passed and handling them with gloves and sanitizer and leaving them to bake in the hot sun for a week before we would even handle them because we were afraid of catching the same disease that killed her.

Sanitizing all our delivered groceries in the early days of the pandemic because we didn't know how one might catch the virus.

Being afraid to go anywhere for quite some time.

Our first days of work and feeling uncomfortable around so many people, regardless of whether they were wearing masks.

Every time we heard another piece of unhopeful news.

Hearing about other infected family members, wondering if they would die.

Every time a friend or family member wrote or told us about an infected or dead loved one.

It's all still there, and it is easy to get triggered:

When I'm in a place with a lot of people, especially if people aren't wearing masks.

When someone pulls down their mask to talk to me.

When people refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated.

Going to a restaurant or store.

Hearing about a new variant.

Reading or seeing stories about people suffering from or dying from the virus.

Hearing about an outbreak.

I mean, we're both fully vaccinated and boosted. We venture out a lot more than we used to. We both have jobs that require us to be around a lot of people. We're trying to get back to a relative normal.

But we still have trauma. I wear a mask everywhere I go. Sometimes even outside, where I know I don't usually need one. I sanitize constantly, like a crazy person. If somebody has a mask off or gets too close to me, it makes me extremely uncomfortable. When people refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated, I get upset more times than not. In my mind, I get accusatory and judgmental.

But that's also because I'm coming at it from my experiences and my knowledge. And while I believe strongly in the science behind mask wearing and vaccines, I also try to recognize that I do not understand other people's experiences, education, news sources, and motivations as intimately as they do. I always hope I can talk to people rather than at or past them. Maybe that can better help me see where they are coming from and why they do what they do or behave how they behave.

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