Access Institute | Election shock, healing & recovery
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15 Nov Election shock, healing & recovery

As I’m sure is the case with all of you, we at Access Institute have been reeling from the recent election –shock, confusion, grief and fear are just a few of the many emotions we’ve been feeling. Since Tuesday, we’ve been taking time with each other to attend to these reactions among our staff, therapists, patients and community partners and these conversations will be ongoing. I’m reaching out to you today to let you know we are also thinking about our larger community, as we process and come to terms with the aftermath of the election. With the long and bitter campaign behind us, and an uncertain future ahead, I’d like to share a few thoughts regarding our need to heal as a nation and to reconcile the painful differences the election rendered visible.

Regardless of how any of us voted, none of us can deny that this election brought forth deep divisions in our country and exposed toxic expressions of bigotry, misogyny and racism. We can also agree that much of the energy that propelled the winning campaign and will set the new agenda for the nation was born of harsh economic realities, social disarray and building resentment, as fundamental needs for recognition and support went unaddressed.

We recognize this as a wake-up call, one that reaffirms our commitment to building an empathic and supportive community. Social ties that offer meaning and opportunities for growth are a fundamental human need and are ever more important during times of upheaval and uncertainty. Now, more than ever, we need to build communities that give their members opportunities for mutual engagement and sharing of meaningful work in the service of positive social change. Community building has been a core value since Access Institute’s inception and will become more critical in the days, months and years ahead.

And what of the task of addressing the wounds and disintegration in our national culture? As mental health professionals we have something to offer in the healing and reconciliation process at the individual, community and the national levels. A young patient of mine spoke to me yesterday about his struggle as he contemplates a visit home to his family in the rural Midwest. After expressing his feelings of anger and grief to me, he began looking ahead. No longer, he said, can he just avoid talking to family and friends about the differences between his experiences and theirs. The perspectives he has gained living in an area of diversity and economic privilege has separated him from their experiences living in a place of social uniformity and economic limitations. He can’t ignore and deny their expressions of anger, hatred and blame. How though, can he foster a conversation that nurtures mutual recognition and diminishes defensive posturing? How indeed?

We know about the power of listening. Real listening means managing one’s personal emotional reactions in order to find a place of empathy for the other’s experience. It means recognizing that negative reactions (hatred, judgement, blame) in others are often born of unbearable feelings like fear, shame and alienation.  When a listener can find ways to recognize those underlying emotions, social connection is built and a space where real conversation can start is opened.  Healing happens in conversation.

We know about the importance of emotional honesty. For my patient, and many of us, this means finding the voice to speak about our values from a genuine place, one that can feel emotionally risky, but allows for recognition. It also means not turning away from the difficulty of directly addressing mean and hurtful behaviors in others and recognizing that we, too, can behave in ways that can cause harm. Denying that we are hurting each other doesn’t make the pain go away. Instead, recognizing that we as humans often cause emotional harm to others despite our best intentions can be the start of healing and reconciliation.

Finally, we know of the importance of leadership. The enormous problems we are witnessing in our culture and in our global community – from economic inequality, to climate change to violent ideologies are all calling for leadership. We need new, creative and passionate leaders to address the challenges of the 21st Century. At times of turmoil and unrest it is understandable to want to turn away and focus solely on our own backyards. While that might provide personal solace and relief, it does nothing to alleviate larger social ills. We all need to challenge ourselves to look and to find the places where we can set examples for others and provide leadership. That can be anywhere – at school, in our neighborhoods or workplaces and in broader civic spaces.

None of this will be easy which is why we will need to lean on each other. I pledge to you today that this message is just the beginning. To whatever extent it can, Access Institute will be a place where our various communities can come together to think about these ideas, share other thoughts and develop new strategies for the work ahead.  

By Bart Magee, PhD

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