It seems that we in the U.S. have become accustomed to the tragedies of abuse, oppression, and assault. It is a tragedy within these tragedies that our response to horrors such as mass shootings, campus rape, violence and oppressive rhetoric are completely predictable nowadays. First, we respond with well-honed shock, and then panic, followed by assumptions, many of them rooted in ignorance or bigotry. As the picture of the horror becomes more clear, we descend further into anger and division. Finally, we are called by various factions — the media, religious institutions, celebrities, social media — to either condemn or love.
It is this call to love those who have committed the heinous act of the moment that puzzles me most.
The basic, bare bones tenant of neuroplasticity is that neurons that fire together, wire together. This is good news for anyone struggling with bad habits or ingrained thought patterns. In its most simple manifestation, a person who wants to quit a heavy coffee habit, for example, can do so simply by replacing the act of getting coffee whenever they crave it with another activity — walking around the office, perhaps. Over time, the same parts of the brain that were once aroused by getting a cup of coffee become aroused by a short walk. Theoretically, if we stick with replacing our undesired habits with healthy ones, our brains will eventually re-wire to prefer the healthier choice.*
It stands to reason, then, that we can also re-wire negative thoughts that control us. Barring neurological aberrations (i.e. mental illness), we can alter our responses to stressors by basically faking it until we are making it. To illustrate, I’ve been working at this to quell jealousy, a stubborn parasite to my psyche. Lately, instead of writhing with jealousy over the success of others, I work to see the joy in their triumphs. Not so surprisingly, given what we now know about neuroplasticity, it is working. I am a genuinely less jealous person than I was even a few months ago.
It should also follow that people who have been victimized or oppressed can easily reduce the damages inflicted by their trauma. Triggers could be battled by responses that work to re-wire the brain. So a victim of rape who fears a relationship with any man, for example, might re-wire her brain by forcing herself to believe that engaging in a committed relationship with a man actually makes her more safe. A child adopted after abuse who feels deep loss on special occasions, especially their birthdays, might dedicate holidays to helping others — thus re-wiring the brain to experience the euphoria of service over the devastation of abuse and loss.
Like the popular response to the horrors of mass shooting and other inflicted tragedies, a common response to people who have experienced trauma at the hands of others is that they should love those who have hurt them. When a mass shooting occurs, there is always a strong urgency to forgive and love the shooter. Historically, slaves were told to love their masters, abused women have been told for all of time to love their abusive partners, abused children have been admonished to forgive their abusive parents and to love them. Myself a victim of abuse by two different fathers, I had numerous professionals — therapists and members of the clergy — tell me exactly that. Hating my abuser, they told me, would only hurt me more.
Often religious texts are invoked to fortify the rubric that that we must love such enemies.
Most victims of trauma, however, will tell you that the hardest person to love after trauma is actually themselves. Being guilted into loving their abuser before they can love themselves usually only serves to deepen their trauma.
When we make an immediate call for love post-trauma, we rob the victims of the important space needed to figure out how to love their newly tortured selves. Instead, we encourage neurons to fire, and thus wire, that fuze a dangerous permanent message that love and abuse or oppression are interconnected. Our brains literally re-wire themselves to love where love is neither merited nor healthy.
Further, when we are told, modeled, and wired to love those who inflict abuse and oppression, we then become more willing to tolerate it. The cycle of abuse and oppression is strengthened for another revolution. Each cycle is freshly fueled by neurological responses to abuse and oppression that run contrary to healing. A victim cannot break a cycle of abuse, a population cannot break a cycle of oppression, if they are wired to tolerate it.
Perhaps the core problem with the adherence to post-trauma love is that we believe that the opposite of the hate that created the trauma is love. We believe that by not hating those who abuse or oppress, we are casting a wider net of love into the world.
Sometimes, though, the opposite of hate isn’t actually love — it is action. In essence, we destroy the forces of hatred that cause abuse and trauma by taking action.
Just as the person trying to eliminate their coffee habit by taking a walk develops a new neurological pathway, we can respond to hatred with an opposing action that re-wires our brains for healing. I have a friend who responds to each act of racism she observes by donating money to the NAACP. I know a teen adopted out of trauma who responds to triggers by doing something nice for someone else. Many children of abuse, myself included, make a joke when we are triggered. It’s no accident that we are often the class clowns and the life of the party.
Lately, every single time I have begun to stew over the most recent mass shooting or violent act of racism or sexism, I’ve sought another way to contact my representatives about the policies they should consider voting in. I have signed every petition I can find and written numerous letters. In taking action, I do not find myself loving the oppressor, as many have asked us to do. I do, however, find myself not hating me. Not hating me fuels me to further action and the cycle turns to one of healing and change.
If we are to truly re-wire our brains to create a world absent of hate, our primary recourse is not a call to love, but a call to action. In doing so, we allow the victims of abuse and oppression to move towards a healing love for themselves. More globally, we work to eliminate the neurological patterns that lead us to both tolerate and proliferate abuse and oppression in the first place.
*For a more comprehensive look at neuroplasticity, read The Brain That changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.