A Psychiatrist's Thoughts on a Broken Society
By Johanna Wilson, MD
Summer of 2021, everyone feels it. They can’t quite explain it. They know that it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel comfortable. It feels wrong, it feels broken. In many ways as a human race, we are broken. At face value one might read that statement and think that this is a bleak assessment of the state of the world. One might think that for a person who started a practice based on hope that this is a hopeless statement. However, daily I see people who have at one point in their lives been broken. Often, when they walk in my door they feel as a shell of a person they once knew; empty. Individuals, families, citizens, alike are struggling with the idea that something is broken, and more than ever people are feeling the intensity of the need to fix it.
Fixing something that is broken is satisfying. It makes a person feel in control and empowered. I’d like the reader to take a moment and think about a time when something tangible, something that you loved and cherished was broken. Maybe it was a car, a toy, an heirloom, a special piece of jewelry. What were the emotions you felt? Perhaps shock, disappointment, sadness, or grief. Maybe you tried to fix it. You swiftly picked upthe pieces in your hand and urgently tried to fit the pieces back into their original shape; and as you do so, fear and anger begin to swell inside you.
Fear that it won’t return to normal, fear that it is lost forever. The memories associated with that object begin to flood in and now it feels like all the joy that object/thing stood for is lost. Your brain associates the loss of that thing with the loss of your joy. Then immediately anger builds and we think of a place to direct that anger. Maybe it's a person or a situation in the moment that you believe caused this to happen. Maybe the anger is directed inward for not being able to prevent it, for not being good enough to control the situation.
Now imagine that the object we just thought about is something less tangible. Imagine it is your way of life, your society, your daily living. I imagine that this isn’t too hard to do, as I believe many feel exactly this way. Everything we knew seems broken somehow. The thread that I am noticing in our populations is that the brokenness, the trauma, has been subtle, minimized, or maybe it is intellectually unrecognized. Human beings have this amazing thing called consciousness. While we may not intellectually recognize something, our inner self, or consciousness recognizes it. So while our intellectual selves say:
“It’s not like bombs are going off in our neighborhoods, it's not like people are dying on the streets, it's not like my liberties are completely stripped or like I am being held prisoner of war.”
Our inner self says something different.
Our consciousness knows that bombs are going off, people are dying, liberties are being taken, and at times in the last year we have felt like a prisoner. We have been prisoners of a virus, we have been prisoners of duty, prisoners of fear. The way of life we know, the sense of society and security is broken. So what do we do? We fix it, right?
We fix it so that we can feel satisfied, secure, in control. We have to urgently make a black and white decision about what is the right way to fix it. This decision makes us feel safe. We make up our mind that this is the way and it is a straight line back to the joy that was taken. Simple, right? Problem solved.
Except this isn’t just one person’s society, one person’s way of life, one person’s broken object. It is OURS. As a psychiatrist I have daily practice living in the grey zone. I must live in the no judgment zone every day. I have to live with the fact that for many people trauma has occurred and there is nothing I can say, do, prescribe that can take that away. I live in a world where there typically isn’t one answer to solve a problem. When something or someone feels broken, it's my job to help them begin to mend the pieces with the tools I have in my reach. More importantly, when someone feels broken they use the tools that they think will help them put the pieces back together.
Our tools have to get back to the basics. We have complicated the tools to a point of uselessness. We need the tools of kindness, empathy, thoughtfulness.
Daily I practice showing kindness to those who are suffering. It is my job to show kindness and empathy to a person’s condition. It is my job to listen to their trauma; to allow a person to be an individual in their experience. To sit with their distress and to not always have to fix it. It may be my job as a psychiatrist, but I urge you to consider this as not only the job of a psychiatrist, but I implore you to consider these as duties of a human being. It is OUR duty to use these tools to fix what is broken. We must practice kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness with every person, but most especially with the person who you don’t agree with. Remember all those emotions you felt when you thought of the broken object? They feel them too. They are scared, sad, grieving and feeling like they can’t control the situation. Use your basic tools and we can fix our broken world.
Every day I hear the same brokenness in all my patients. The person on the right is experiencing the exact same emotions as the person on the left. They just have different ideas on the ways to fix the problems. Their ideas are often filled with anger, blame, and conviction. These ideas and the emotions that come with them are destroying families, friendships, and relationships all around. Fathers and daughters are no longer speaking. Life long friends have written each other off because of these ideas. Take pause. What is more important? This idea? The anger? The conviction? If we refer back to the object and the black and white fix it mode, we can see how easy it is to choose the idea and allow anger to persist. What we have to fix is our tendency to choose this path instead of kindness, empathy, and thoughtfulness.
It will take practice, and it will be hard work, but every day I see humans choose kindness, and every day they practice letting go of anger and begin to heal.