Embrace Fearlessly The Burning World: Essays
Random House, 2022
In his final collection of essays, Embrace Fearlessly The Burning World, Barry Lopez got me thinking on trauma. His was a life-long struggle to understand that we don’t ever get over it. Nor do we successfully bury it under a stoic silence. But his resolution, his moving beyond trauma, led to empathy, to the awareness that we all face trauma in our lives from time to time — the trauma that “… nearly everyone encounters, at some level, at some time, in their lives”.
This conclusion that trauma is part and parcel of all our lives led me on to consider degrees of trauma. Because some experiences seem more “worthy” of trauma responses. For example, Barry’s childhood of sexual abuse and violence seems a bit more traumatic and damaging than a childhood of lies and silence and duplicity — but no overt or even intentional abuse — which is how most of us in this culture spend our formative — and most vulnerable — years. But Lopez obliquely tells us that this is looking at the problem wrong.
He says that, when he finally began therapy late in middle age, the horror he expected to face down and extract from his subconscious would be the physical abuse — which was heart-rending even in his dispassionate account. However, to the contrary, with the aid of opinions and perspectives that were unaffected by Barry’s specific trauma, he discovered that the true horror was the internalization and normalization of abuse. The truly horrifying aspect of his childhood was that he had “learned to accommodate brutalization”. This is what remained, weighing him down and undermining relationship and connection for decades after the abuse ended and specifics had faded from conscious memory. He convinced his childhood self that “it wasn’t that bad,” that he had turned out all right; and he carried that lie with him for a lifetime with traumatic consequences. The trauma response was to the lie as much as to the abuse. He says that when faced with tension — particularly disrespect — he reacted all out of proportion to the offense and with no middle ground between becoming enraged or completely shutting down.
To rank the causes of trauma is to miss both the root cause — the destabilization of falsehoods that are central to our self-conception — and the even more troublesome fact that this response is universal. We all carry trauma around. And while the impetus is different and some causes are certainly easier to comprehend in terms of trauma, we all feel the effects of trauma in the same ways. As many writers have noted, it is the same response no matter the kind or the degree of the cause.
Barry’s response — throwing up walls of silence, blowing up at little provocation, feeling, as he described it, a hollow center in place of the soul — is precisely what most of us feel every day with little difference in degree. Specific abuses have served as triggers, but those specifics hardly matter. The response is the same — because it is that universal accommodation of brutality and violence and betrayal that is the trauma-inducing horror. The harm is in the acceptance of harm as normal.
And in this culture we are all harmed. This is a brutal, violent, duplicitous culture. To navigate it at all requires accommodation. Living in it requires actions and often beliefs that are counter to our innate sense of right and wrong, and too often we find ourselves on the wrong side of the scales. We are all violated, and we all participate in this violation. Indeed, those who are most “successful” by the standards of this culture, those who seem to have suffered the least damage and would by the logic of cause and effect seem to have the least traumatic response, are instead the most damaged. They have mutilated their souls to succeed. They have accommodated the violence they do, enable and perpetuate so deeply they are deadened by it. They are traumatized. They are soulless, un-alive. In the destruction they have unleashed on millions and in the rationalization of their own role in this damage, they have destroyed their only life and any prospect for living well.
It is very hard to feel empathy for the people who have caused so much harm and, at least in terms of this culture, have benefitted from that harm. But all these un-dead, un-living people, mindlessly spreading ruin and hatred, all of them were children who learned this. All of them were scared and hurt when they most needed nurture. All of them were taught to destroy, themselves as much as the rest of the world. They were taught this severance from the world of connection. They all suffered a traumatic childhood, learning to suppress empathy and a sense of interrelationship with others, human and otherwise. They learned coldness and competition and emptiness. And they drank in this harm from infancy, from this culture generally, but also from the specific people they trusted. Or at least respected. They learned un-living from the place that a child ought to expect to find love, and when love undermines connection and empathy, it destroys itself. (And thus our hollow and denuded notions of love… )
Look at the sneering animosity dealt to the parent-child relationship in this culture. This, I now understand to be the distress call of the traumatized. A culture — and the specific actors within that culture — that disparages nurturing relationships has severed itself from life. It has killed itself. These people who run from responsibility and care relationships are children who never escaped the abuse from those who ought to have cared for them. They were not nurtured. And they have normalized that. Except the subconscious still keens for the connection and love it never knew.
The post-war generation suffered particularly from a cold childhood, and those who were most privileged most of all. Look at the culture of their childhood years. These are children who were abused in every conceivable way, but most of all through the lies they learned from those who should have shown them truth and love. They were forced to accept harm and difference and duplicity. They were spanked and sent to bed hungry for their own good. They were taught silence. They learned to hide emotion and action and any indication of their own fears and insecurities. Their culture lionized, well, lions… Their models were self-reliant, independent, strong, free from connection. Any evidence of the interdependence of life was quashed violently. Indeed, they were taught to think of themselves as ephemeral foreigners in a savage world that they would exploit, master and then leave behind.
With eyes forcefully averted from the truth of the world, they became unable to see their own dependence. They easily denied their debts and responsibilities. But they also were cut off from any expectation of care and respect and love given to themselves. They were lied to monstrously. And now this generation is facing death having never lived. Some never even come to that realization.
This is the horror. This is the expression of trauma. They never learn what it is to live. They waste life.
And this is what our culture demands of us all. We are all damaged children, even those who now cause the damage. That is the nature of abuse; it perpetuates itself. It is the worst disease humans — or any species — has ever endured. It creates its own army of un-dead, soulless bodies programmed to its service and sustenance, unable to turn away because they have no perception of any other path. This is what they were raised to be.
We talk of zombies as if that is not a real thing. But perhaps our fascination with the un-dead is also a cry for help. We laugh a bit too uneasily, subliminally recognizing ourselves in these monster tales. What but a zombie could so relentlessly plow through existence, spreading destruction and sloughing off all hurt to itself? You can’t kill the un-dead. You can’t frighten them or make them suffer any more than their own primary state of continual pain. Does this not sound like the average automaton in this society? And most particularly those who have claimed the most power within this culture, the zombies in the corner offices, those with rotting fingers on many of the world’s most vital buttons.
When you come to the realization that trauma underlies all this, everything in our culture, there is the same visceral response as to a monstrous zombie. To see our culture for what it is, in all its repulsive rot and filth and desecration, is to be violently nauseous. To understand your own part in perpetuating this disease is to feel wretched despair, to need to run screaming from this horror. You want to make it a story… a story that has an ending… and a reconciliation. We want the tidy happy ending of gods and heroes that ride in to save us from the horror that is us.
Hence we have eternity and other delusions. We spend our only existence as the un-dead, doing that which we despise, being what we recoil from, and have great need of restitution, recompense for being as we were taught to be despite the damages we inflicted on ourselves in doing so. We need something other than this un-life, something to hope for.
But there is nothing else. And that too is horrifying.
Still… Those who have faced the zombie infection with both eyes open and with hearts able and willing to perceive the trauma in others are not notably despairing. Lopez lived a life of hope and love. His last book is titled Embrace Fearlessly The Burning World. The underscore is on that singularity. The burning world. Not one of, but the only one we have and know and experience. Embrace this damaged world and live it fully with all its pain and flaws — and flames. Yes, work toward healing what is within your reach, but love all of it nonetheless. Without fear! Because once you embrace the world, once you recognize that this is the world, our world, our life, once you feel it burning in your arms, there is nothing more to fear. Fear is part of the un-dead culture, its greatest weapon. Fear is the traumatic response to abuse. Fear is bound up with uncertainty and isolation and lies. It is not part of living. It is not part of the real world.
What I am trying to do with all this scribbling is to reason my way out of this zombie culture, to describe practical escape routes and prescriptive potions for healing and health. Lopez cuts to the core of everything I’d like to say — embrace fearlessly the burning world.
Choose life. Choose love. Choose to actively hope. End abuse through an outbreak of virulent empathy. Smother the flames of pain and fear in strong, caring arms. Live. And with that living, heal. Hope is the enemy of trauma. Hope does not accommodate. It does not normalize. It does not rationalize. Hope is… and it is a verb. With it, we creatures create this miraculous, interconnected, beautiful, loving world. With it we embrace the flames. With it we live.
What is singular about Barry’s resolution is that he found and forged it wholly within this bodily life. The healing of his emotional hurts flowed from immersing himself in the physical world — flames and all. He felt most alive, most capable of believing in the possibility of life, when the noise of the “near woods” melted away and left him standing thigh deep in the fierce embrace of raw life. When describing a sense of rightness and wholeness, he says “If you were eaten by an animal, this is what you would taste like” — this being the small portion of the world you call home. This is, I think, the cure for trauma. Making home. Here and now. Fearlessly. In this burning world.