Monday, November 7, 2011

There are none of us so strong, none so smart; we are all vulnerable to violence – and to be violent

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I was listening to an interview with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s former Secretary of State, about her new book. One incident she shared was when on the White House lawn. A plane appeared overhead, flying unusually low. It immediately hit her that it might be heading for the Presidential mansion. Then she shook the startle response off – because that is what it was – and told herself, “I’ve been in this job too long!” Stress.

 She stayed with her work, nevertheless, because this is a woman of great maturity. The lesson for us, however, is that none of us is so mature, so intelligent, but we can escape a startle response triggered by an anxiety filled event grafted into our memory system. It is just there and it can on occasion go off like a flashbulb. The question is, “how do I respond to that?”

The immature response is, of course, to put ourselves down as just weak, It is pretty hard to admit, in retrospect, that we could ever have been so judgmental as to deny medical coverage to persons who have been impacted by an overwhelming life threatening experience. Even more so, when there have been multi-exposures in so many instances – I use “instances” here deliberately. I rebel against using “cases” in any way with the post-traumatic. You agree, don’t you? It’s like “disorder.” Lousy term, to describe so many situations.

What we also have to learn, as Rice’s illustration shows, is that we are also vulnerable to stress. This stress has to be calculated; we ought to be glad her assessment was to stay on the job, but in some instances persons ought to admit it is time to step aside. When I had been a pastor in the Civil Rights struggle years ago, I got to the point where I finally told myself, “Nobody stays on the line forever.” I went off to graduate school, and it was the right decision. If we use the term, “maturity,” it ought to be in how we weigh our responses to stress.

What we also have to acknowledge, is that too often these startle responses foreshadow an impact on decisions. That image of one plane and then a second one, going into the Twin Towers have blown away a lot of people – startle responses that have flashed and then hung on – unacknowledged - and altered decisions, not always for the good. We really need to have greater recognition of what an explosive event can do for us as a learning experience, but it can also push us towards impulsiveness and bad decisions. On the personal level, it may be a divorce or trying to drown that memory; on the policy level, it may be to retaliate in gross and inappropriate ways.

Oh, dear God, please help us to learn from our violent exposures and respond in more thoughtful ways…

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