“Balanced emotions are crucial to intuitive decision making.”-Michael Eisner
“There’s a saying in Neverland that every time you breathe, a grown-up dies.” –J.M Barrie Peter Pan
If the media told the story of the human experience through a trauma-informed lens could it lead to world peace? Yes.
According to headlines women are either selfish hags, whores, damsels in distress, princesses or infantilized heroines, while men are cast as villainous crooks, kings of industrial empires, lazy giants or admirable shlubs. There are as many characterizations of the human experience in the news as there are archetypes in fairy tales, which serve to keep us very entertained and mostly uninformed. These archetypes and their stories however, remain limited to war and sex scenes, destitution, scandal, despair and convenient sounding happy endings featuring a socially normative hero from dominant culture. The media might be teaching us how to behave, however well intended, they may also be keeping us stuck in a futile paradigm. If Fox is the Beast, UpWorthy is his codependent, naive but pleasantly digestible Belle. Make me feel very good or very bad so I can have someone to align with or blame but please don’t make think. That would require accessing my prefrontal cortex and it’s so boring up there. Plus I work 70 hours a week, have too many kids, debt and a laundry list of unresolved issues. I need a steady stream of caffeine, adrenaline and dopamine to get me through the day. Feed my primal brain cause I’m lovin it! Click, click, click.
When news outlets attempt to share thoughtful coverage, their audience shrinks or they’re labeled as flaky, stiff or subversive. Off with their heads! Yes my dear, bullying is a great way to stay on top but few people in wonderland can hold a job, while the rest of us are eating mushrooms and talking to imaginary cats. The recent public mockery of a 30 something American man whose parents sued him out of the nest failed to offer a why. As a clinician I recognized the family and individual dynamics that can result in someone not feeling prepared to live independently but couldn’t find any coverage acknowledging this root cause. Instead, the stories focused on various tactics the parents had used to make their son leave, how they felt burdened, how the son felt victimized, how he’d received opportunities to be rescued with job offers by pizza places who no doubt enjoyed a spike in sales. Yes, I’ll take one large, humanitarian cheese pie with free advertising, please. And while those parts of the story are all real, I kept asking myself why the media never asks or informs us why? We don’t just wake up one day and decide to steal small fortunes, abandon our children and run our over our partner in the driveway. We might have fleeting thoughts but our protective factors stop most of us; special thanks to best friends, wine and yoga pants.
Curious, I researched the history of news and the function of journalism. Initially news was shared to keep vulnerable, small communities safe and informed about ways to improve living conditions. The ‘bad guy’s’ painting was posted in some central location so everyone knew to club him if he should be spotted. The rest of the info shared was similar to an early version of Web-MD: You guys, we should have been washing our hands this whole time. Since I realize our attention spans are declining daily I’ll sum up the goal of modern journalism to the first principle: Tell the Truth. Which parts, whose version and what’s trauma-informed care?
How Was Your Childhood?
Something terrible probably happened. It’s ok. You’re in good company. We’re called people and we do terrible things to each other because of this theory I have called the Cosmic Punchline. Once upon a time some guy stole another guy’s parking space and they had a big fight and both their families have been fighting about whose fault it was ever since. To cope with the stress of not being able to prove who was right, Guy One took up drinking, Guy Two got addicted to porn, their partners and kids got affected and developed all kinds of maladaptive coping of their own; shopping, binge eating, volunteering for everything. Until one day, look around and here we are. Diabetes, opioid crisis, obesity, crime rates, systemic oppression; all symptoms of repeated patterns to cope with the pain of two guys who just couldn’t call a truce a billion years ago. Nothing new under the sun. I should say there are a few people who I’m told had normal, happy childhoods but for some mysterious reason they sometimes end up with addictions and sadness too. I’m guessing their wounds are more subtle and because they’re surrounded by only certain kinds of news-worthy pain they get trapped in comparative suffering and never tell us how hurt they are until they jump out a window leaving us to shake our heads. Why?
Please Make Your Point.
In 1995 smart doctors at Kaiser Permenente were trying to figure out why patients on a bariatric unit were gaining all their weight back after having bypass surgery. Turns out people were overeating because processed foods are manufactured, legal drugs which helped them cope with traumatic events from childhood. Light bulb. This ground breaking research led to a paradigm shift for people with the pre-existing authority to share it with a larger audience. Therapists kind of already knew this but we’re introverts, expertly trained at keeping secrets. People hurt themselves and each other because they were hurt. It doesn’t excuse our behavior or make it ok to keep doing it but understanding and compassion can lead to change. If blaming, sensationalizing, triangulating headlines are perpetuating a culture of trauma reenactment within a parallel process, it stands to reason that headlines infused with this understanding of human behavior could support healing. Yahoo has a a big mouth. Imagine if it was yelling: LOVE THIS SEX WORKER instead of showing us a picture of her exposed bum while cops are raiding her workplace like it’s all her fault there are men who were emotionally incested by their mother’s and as a result developed sexual perversions and shyness. She was abused long before that headline, yet our current brand of storytelling is only serving to reopen her wounds.
Compassion heals. Imagine that? To tell a true love story requires both the writer and reader to put aside our anguish over the status quo to be with uncomfortable truth. Today I listened to a journalist tell the backstory of a photo he’d taken at the border; a distraught toddler who might soon be unjustly parted from her mother because an unloved tyrant can’t see the world through any other construct than conquer and defeat. He’s scared, which doesn’t justify brutality but understanding the source of violence is the first step towards peace. The journalist appeared sincere and yet his station is dwindling in popularity. Many journalists have versions of a story they want to tell but they also have an editor paid to maintain profits. Love is out. Winning is in? What have we won?
I don’t have the energy to dredge up studies proving the power of empathy. Ask yourself how you prefer to be called out for your faults? Pummeled with guilt? Public humiliation? Chased by a raging mob? Unless we suffer from biological sociopathy we know when we’re wrong. Confronted with a depth of understanding from a place of love inspires change. Bonus points for help from recovery friends; the modern tribe. Native people around the world have established systems for accountability, forgiveness and reintegration, maybe we should ask how things were before we leveled their land to build track homes.
In Snow White and The Huntsmen we’re told from the get go Ravenna is a raging narcissist because she has a trauma history which led her to use her beauty as weapon so no one could hurt, leave or out-do her ever again. We watch her reign in misery, fueled by insecurity and a sense of powerlessness which prompt her to hire a guy to kill her stepdaughter who’s predicted to become the fairest of them all. Botox sadly, wasn’t invented yet. The family dysfunction is no secret leading many fans to express empathy for the tormented queen. Empathy but not the removal of accountability, which is good. Maybe if there’d been an option to refer her to some kind of program or therapeutic prison, things could have ended differently.
Our pain doesn’t get to be an excuse but it can serve as an explanation. Explanations help draw us up and out of our primal brain into rational thinking, where solutions and peace are born. Evidence of public humiliation dates back to Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, though it likely has a longer history. Despite years of flogging, mud slinging, name-calling and cabbage throwing, humans haven’t changed much leading me to wonder if the powerful media gods told the whole truth, could we come to see ourselves and each other in the same fullness of truth?
Read all about it: Shrinks and Anchors Chart a New Course for Human History.
Another unfinished thought but we have to start somewhere.