How We Survive and Thrive: Thoughts from a Trauma Therapist
Humans aren’t necessarily the most capable species.
In fact, we are quite vulnerable individually. We aren’t as ferocious as lions. Nor swift as cheetahs. We don’t have the stature of elephants or whales. We aren’t as scrappy beetles. And we do not have the indomitable digestive systems of vultures. Yet we are at the top of the food chain.
And sometimes Mother Nature b*tch slaps us. Fair. Despite all the power we have, we haven’t been respecting her.
In many ways, the climate mirrors our nervous systems — when taxed they dysregulate to survive and come back into regulation to thrive. We have interfered with nature’s capacity to sustainably renew itself and now we are seeing winter storms with drastic impacts in Austin, Texas, and earthquakes in Oklahoma. The earth is in dysregulation in part because we have abused our power — and lest we forget, neglect is also abusive. So, there are no excuses.
Considering that our physical prowess is mediocre AF, how did we conquer the earth?
Two words: Social Capital.
Social Capital: Underrated Soft Power
As a species, our survival response system is wired in with our social engagement system. It is, and always has been, our capacity to connect with one another, coordinate resources, and operate as a group that has afforded us the resilience to survive en masse.
For us, it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the social.
Forging interpersonal relationships requires SOFT skills. And over time we have aligned “soft” with weak. How ironic that our culture would stray so far as to stigmatize the very thing that has made us so successful as a species.
But soft power is power.
Social capital can save our lives in a crisis. It comes in the form of others rescuing you if you are without power and freezing in your own home. Social capital can help you access food when there is no food to be bought. Social capital is at play when you bring your friends water in the ongoing Choose Your Own Apocalyptic Adventure™ (by my friend and colleague, Denise.)
Social capital has a hand in so many of the life activities that help us survive and thrive as a species. We find love and get jobs through social networks and social skills. After a trauma, having people who affirm us and see us through the aftershocks can greatly reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and somatic by-products of unresolved trauma. The richer those connections are, the more resources we have when we need and want them.
A lot of us made it through the snowpocalypse due to personal social capital, but it is so worth acknowledging that there have been repeated ruptures in the social contract we have with our government.
Social Contract Breakdown: Texan Edition
The social contract with our governing bodies is how we *should* be able to ensure social capital on a mass scale. When a major crisis hits, it can require all kinds of specialized knowledge and skills that a single human would be hard-pressed to have. In this storm, our government failed to keep millions of Texans safe in the face of climate change with basic necessities like food, water, power, and shelter.
As a native Texan, I am no stranger to the every-man-for-himself mentality that reigns here alongside the fabric of friendliness woven into our Texan identities. But, despite our extreme measures for independence, we are part of the union. We have a government and elected officials that we have bestowed with power to ensure our basic needs are met as a collective. Especially in a crisis.
Thus our government representatives should NOT flee to Mexico, nor tell citizens, “Sink or swim it’s your choice,” nor sling rhetoric about the use of wind power while so many are left to endure the brunt of this winter storm. That’s abandonment, victim-blaming, and gaslighting, respectively.
Technically speaking, these are social tactics designed to avoid responsibility. These are all relational wrongs.
These officials have social power given to them by us and when we need them to use that power in a crisis, they shed that social responsibility. And they even put us down in the process. Power and responsibility should go hand in hand. If this is not the case, then it’s a flag for abuse of power.
The failure of our infrastructure in the face of Winter Storm Uri reminded me of the power of social capital, the interplay of social capital with our government, and the danger of our overemphasis on individualism and academic logic in our culture.
Basic necessities for the 7.674 billion people on the planet (and figuring out a way to do that in such a way that allows the earth to sustain and renew itself) are part of the social agreement we make with our governments. As humans, our power is derived from the collective and the collective is only made possible through social relations on micro, meso, and macro levels.
Interdependent by Nature
Considering how little I know about primitive survival skills, winter weather, the complex systems of houses, and their durability in such conditions, social capital saved my hide in this disaster.
Coming out of this experience, there’s a part of me that wants to take survival skills workshops and learn more about emergency preparedness. I’m left with an incredibly strong drive to want to be able to sustain myself, independently. I doubt I am alone in this. It is normal and natural to have complex feelings like this all at once. And some of this is, for sure, a justifiable trauma response.
Even I have to remind myself: we are a social species. While we can learn new ways to protect ourselves to better ensure that we can independently survive, we also have to be realistic about the fact that we are interdependent by nature. Our power is rooted in collective connection. It’s literally wired into our biology.
If this experience has shown us anything it’s that we have a lot of work to do on the social front. On the individual front, we may feel compelled to invest more effort in nurturing our personal relationships. As a culture, we need to change our attitude about what we call soft skills and help each other develop greater relational capacities. It is also clear that we need our government to engender the social skills necessary to repair trust with us, be accountable, and take swift, thoughtful action to establish infrastructure to ensure that we are never in dire straits like this again.
Many of us have made it through this experience and some are not out of the woods yet. As the ice melts, power comes online, boil water directives subside, homes get repaired, and reorientation to physical safety takes root, I would call for us not to lose sight of the power of social connections. Process the event with others. Grieve the losses. Lend a hand to the many still in need. And consider the personal and societal connections that need repair and nurturance to establish greater resiliency for all.
Note: The use of she/they pronouns for the Earth reflects the perspective that the Earth is genderfluid.