The term “collective trauma” has been used a lot lately (including here). Together, we are living through history. All of us are on this plagued globe (except for a few astronauts), and in that, we share some aspect of experience. As the world transits this pandemic, we are in the same boat: the human boat. There is no other!
At the same time, we are in completely different boats. Each of us comes into this moment loaded with the infinite unique moments we alone have lived before. There are vast inequities between us, on every dimension. We are distinct beings with separate lots in life, separate experiences, separate fates. This time will go differently for each of us.
So, are we together, or are you alone?
Both. And neither.
Life is a paradox of interconnection and isolation. There is safety, and threat, inherent to both. Thanks to our nervous system, we are constantly weighing the upsides and downsides. Based on what we’ve experienced and how we are predisposed to cope, we might lean one direction or another. But fluidity between togetherness and aloneness, closeness and distance, is at the core of human experience.
So, then, why does this moment feel different for so many?
Our illusions of hyper-individuality are being directly confronted. These illusions, for those with the privilege to hold them, come from Western colonialism and the power afforded to some to opt out of certain collective realities. We are taught that we are all separate and distinct, and therefore our fate is exclusively in our own hands. If you can’t, through your own efforts, make yourself invulnerable to the choices of others, then clearly you just aren’t trying hard enough. This myth upholds the idea that those living more insulated lives deserve to be, more than the vulnerable masses.
But despite profound differences in safety and security, there is no wholesale opt-out of this one. If you’re a human on the earth, you’re in this with the rest of us. Some can retreat further, but there is no complete retreat from the vulnerability of this moment. That we, together, comprise a species now afflicted that none of us in our individuality can excuse ourselves from is the truth our myths have obscured.
At the exact same time, many of us are experiencing unparalleled aloneness. Alone in our homes, alone in our unique experience that no one but us can feel, and reminded of all the aloneness that’s come before. And, we are made to feel more alone still by the implication that we shouldn’t feel alone at all: we’re all in this together, right?
Aloneness is a feature of many traumatic experiences. Sometimes, suffering is endured alone. At other times, the suffering is collective, but nevertheless makes one feel isolated inside. It is remarkable how alone one can feel, even going through something with others, even seemingly connected by all outside measures. There is an interior place that becomes known to people who suffer in this way.
We don’t tell enough collective stories about this place, from this place. We tell stories of individualism, achievement, success. We tell the stories our status-quo enables and sanctions. Stories told by marginalized collectives, people, parts of people holding stories we have disallowed, are silenced to protect our myths. And so, more or less, our most isolated places become islands of exile.
And yet, that place is shared. That place beneath it all. A room of our own we can describe, but not invite into. A place from which, ironically enough, we can feel the innermost humanity of all of us. We each have it, and therefore, have it together. This moment calls on us to be in community about our aloneness, in ways that say to these isolated places, “this, too, is human.” That even in our undeniable aloneness, we are together.
We are all so alone. We have that in common.