In light of today being the 4th of July – for non-American readers, this is the day the 13 colonies (which eventually became the United States of America) declared their independence from Great Britain – here are my thoughts on fireworks and the questions they raise about trauma and community.
Last week I sat across my craigslist kitchen table from one of my nearest and dearests eating a late dinner – side note: there is something about summer’s glorious sunlight extending late into the evening that messes with my internal clock and I rarely get hungry until it is dark, so dinner tends to hit the table closer to nine more often than I care to admit. July 4th came up in conversation and I “casually” mentioned how I did not think I would be watching any fireworks this year because fireworks are still a bit too much for me.
And then came the unexpected response, “You know they’re just fireworks.”
“Um, yeah. But that’s not the point”
“Think about it for a moment.”
He pauses for a few seconds, and then speaks, “They sound like gunshots.”
“But you know they’re not. You know they’re fireworks. So what’s the issue?”
This was the moment I realized the width of the gulf separating me from him, and, if I’m honest, from everyone at home.
The person with whom I was speaking, grew up with guns in an area of the U.S. where guns are a normal part of life, and has been shot at (oh, the perils of hiking in places with fervent, gun toting and touting landowners). But, more importantly, a few months after my return stateside, he declared his desire to process my time in South Sudan with me. He is the ONLY person from home who expressed any willingness to walk into the beauty and shadows two years in South Sudan cast on my life. And yet, in that moment, in that statement, “You know they’re fireworks,” he declared his limit: he would go no further with me.
Just like that I found myself without an ally. Once again, I was am alone. Ah, welcome back aloneness, my old “friend.”
Whether it is time, distance, lack of imagination, or inability to envision something beyond one’s reality, the returning expat who has experienced insecurity inevitably finds herself alone whilst surrounded by her home-based friends/family who communicate a need for her to get over it, no matter what it is.
I do not why fireworks are so prevalent in Oakland, CA, but they are, occurring multiple times a week. A few nights ago a neighbor set off a large firework and the offending “BANG!” was loud and close. My body tensed up immediately. And so began the internal standoff of mind v. body. I knew it was only a firework but my body would not relax.
Experience shapes us. And my time in South Sudan did just that. A year and a half surrounded by guns, violence, war and the resulting human tragedy and trauma, is not something a person forgets just because she leaves a specific geographic region. I am still on guard, ever aware, connecting certain sounds to certain actions and results even when those sounds are imposters wrapped up in gunpowder to delight and dazzle.
How do you explain to the person from home who knows you best what a sound does and means to you? Even if the person understands, is he able to understand there is not a time limit on the effects of some experiences?
In the U.S. we like progress, moving forward, ever morphing into a new and, arguably, better self. In light of notions of American exceptionalism and hyper-individualism, we self-help. We self-medicate. We set five years plans and create 30 before 30 lists. We are constantly in flux, rarely stopping or reflecting. And in this, and, likely, in part due to it, we lack a structure, a culturally acceptable means of dealing with traumatic experiences. Time passes and people are expected to “move along”/“come to terms with” with whatever happened and return to normal, or, at the very least (and for the sake of everyone else), “fake it ‘til you make it.” This expectation is for the good of others, not for the person processing or suffering. Other people do not want to be reminded of life’s complications, difficulties and incongruences. People do not want to think about how injustice for one is injustice for all. Mourning, sadness, uncertainty, it and anything that happened in past should be dealt with quickly, quietly, neatly, and left in the past. However, this is at odds with how we process, heal and grow. We do not simply forget and move forward. Healing may come but the process of healing involves dealing with the messiness of life, and sometimes scars do not fade.
In light of this, what are you to do when people who were once (and may still be) your people (unintentionally?) communicate that you should know better, that you should be better?
Right now, I seek out my people. The people who have experienced something similar and are able relate to the experience, or the tiny fraction of the population who are honest, humble and healthy enough to be truly compassionate and empathetic without pushing one towards a solution/resolution. The people who will not rush processing or set an arbitrary deadline after which their interest and willingness to be present expires.
But my people are not here. My people are far from here. Some are in Southern California, some on the East Coast, others in London, the field, pretty much anywhere but here.
Last month I met with my spiritual director. While discussing my transition back to living in the Bay Area, I mentioned I have met a lot of people but have not found “my people.” And without missing a beat, she responded, “You won’t. There are too few of you.”
And there you have it. Aloneness.
For past me being alone and loneliness were interchangeable. I embraced loneliness, stewed in it, hated it. However, I have learned we are not designed to be isolated from one another; we are designed for community. And community is messy, restorative, costly, and sustaining.
What are we to do when community escapes us in our current location? What do you do when your community is not tied to place?
This is my reality. Yet I am hopeful a community will find me and I will find it, even here, even among the fireworks. And as I seek it out, I will remain open, rebuff loneliness and not cut myself off. I not allow the gulf or the people on the other side to dictate the when and how and why of my experience (and processing). I will continue to speak of what was and what is. I will keep speaking until my words reach someone who understands. And then, we will stand together in community.
Even now, in broad daylight, fireworks are going off. Tonight I either force myself to watch the fireworks and with each boom tell myself to relax, or I will put on headphones, crawl into bed and watch something on Netflix that will make be laugh, a lot. Either way, I will focus on the beauty in hopes it and I are strong enough to hold the shadows at bay.
Happy 4th, y’all.