the internal alarms and the stories they are telling me
“The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Patti Digh.
All stories I tell are through my experience and so come with this caveat — the lense I see through is that of a white, middle class, able bodied, cisgendered woman, who has a hetero experience as coloniser offspring in a land stolen from Tangata whenua, far from my ancestors’ land.
The wtf chapter.
My story has seemed quiet for a while. Not the kind of quiet that means all is well and I am off lunching with friends and skipping through the spring fields, but rather the kind of quiet that occurs after a prolonged period of living in fight and flight; the kind of quiet that looks like shut down.
My story is that the shut-down arrived after a long period of WTF?! The wtf started in March, when the pandemic escalated along with the rise of explanations for the covid situation that countered the narrative from science. I was seeing misinformation, quite easily mis proved but convincingly produced and containing a kernel of truth, being treated as gospel. I watched people begin to share similar language and slogans, similar responses and defences in ways that seemed uncharacteristic.
The story in my body.
The story my body told was one of high alert- translated into fight and flight. It told me in no uncertain terms that something big was up. It told the story, through my body, of permanent bracing — a generalised stiffening of my torso, pushing backwards in space, tension, feet driving into the floor, shoulders hunched, neck rigid.
The story also lived in me as a psychological bracing. That looked like reading a lot ( A LOT!) of information, a lot of time on social media sifting and sorting, discussing. It included rising alarm at an escalation of unkindness, sneering and contempt from people who had, in the past, been good hearted, thoughtful and kind. A thread through that rising alarm was one of wanting to find some explanation, of hearing the story and wishing the plot was different.
The fire alarm and the usual buffers
This story I was living into was like a volunteer fire alarm going off over and over again; waking me up, getting me into a state where I was ready at all hours of the day and night to jump onto the fire truck and go put out the fire; but where was the fire? What evidence did I have of it? Where was the smoke? Why were so few others running around with hoses?
This story created a drive in me to put out the fire and having no other fire fighters nearby, no water mains to connect to, let alone any idea about where to point my hose took its toll. It began a prolonged period of physical pain and psychological despair.
It was made more difficult to manage because the threat I was responding to, the cause of my sympathetic nervous system being on red alert for so long, was based on something I could barely see let alone touch or understand clearly.
I wasn’t having to tend to visible violence or direct aggression but the alarm my system was reporting was as if I was in a very dangerous situation. My mind couldn’t make sense of the level of alarm because ostensibly, despite the pandemic, daily life looked mostly normal. (I see my privilege here and know that’s not everyone’s experience).
My numerous buffers from the reality of life and the way many of my privileges, unearned and related only to accidents of birth and sheer fortune, have set me up to be unfamiliar with this “big shit’s happening” level of alert. I’m not used to living this way. I don’t know what it’s like to be pitted against an immense and ubiquitous force that is working against you. I know what it’s like to be a woman in a misogynist world, to be considered less than because of my gender, but to feel an ongoing threat to my survival is new. People who live with racism, ableism, ageism, heteronormativity, or who are gender non binary know this deep alarm from the inside out.
The fact I don’t is purely because of my privilege.
An old story new to me
And there’s something happening that I am only just coming to see through the gift of a story.
Last night a friend, who grew up in the early fifties in the Netherlands, where occupation was something embedded in the psyche of her entire community, began to talk about her experience. The story she gifted me was about growing up with the knowledge that people could and likely would turn on you. That outside and malignant forces could invade and destroy what was good on your own soil. That you might have to decide where your loyalties lay and pay a price for that. That was the story she gifted me last night and it has given my system a connection to water that the fire-fighting aspect of me had been searching for.
Her story helped me to name a facet of the alarm I have been feeling; alarm at the harm of misinformation.
What has alarmed me about the presence of misinformation is that it is an invading force. The rise of theories around the virus, Bill Gates, Trump as a leader of an ascension have been created, with deliberation and malice, to utilise the injuries of a population, particularly white “spiritual” people who are unfamiliar with discomfort, who have been nourished on the notion that if you think yourself into a perfect state all will be well, in service of a right wing political agenda.
I have watched this same misinformation press into the sovereignty wound of Maori in Aotearoa creating a form of action which would lead to betrayal of whanaungatanga and kotahitanga.
I have watched people become sneery, righteous, mean-spirited and cruel to others who do not agree with them. I have watched people put their own rights ahead of the rights of more vulnerable people, including saying that if you are old you are going to die anyway (hello ageism), ignore the fact that Māori and Pasifika people are more likely to die or be harmed by the virus (hello racism). I have watched friendships crumble and felt the sting of losing connections when I have disagreed.
I have seen the way people have been whipped into this anger and rage by a saturation of misinformation that seems designed, as all propaganda is, to capture strong feeling, a sense of loyalty to the cause and to divide and dehumanise. I name it as propaganda because it is following the age old pattern of parsing information to suit a particular purpose. The Oxford definition is:
(n) information or ideas that are spread by an organized group or government to influence people’s opinions, esp. by not giving all the facts or by secretly emphasizing only one way of looking at the facts.
The information so many are claiming as the truth and freedom of expression and freedom of speech is in fact, being used to create a certain outcome; to divide and build dissention and fear, promote right wing ideology and disrupt gains made by liberal politics over decades.
Hearing my friend’s story last night made sense to my system and my psyche — there has been an invasion. Information that seems to be generated by far right sources in the US, wanting to ensure the current regime is strengthened, has, through the glory of the internet, not stayed in that place but leaked into the hearts and minds of people thousands of miles away.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have been lead through the pandemic by a leader who took decisive action, consulted health experts, minimised outbreaks, financially supported struggling economies and got us on our feet a damn side faster than most other nations. Due to the right- wing anti-liberal rhetoric embedded in the propaganda and misinformation, there are a swathe of people who are maligning our leadership, who spit the word liberal like it’s a pejorative.
It’s in listening to my friend’s story about what it was like to be a child whose world was echoing the nazi occupation that I realised I have been feeling the building presence of an occupying force.
It’s not a fire alarm I’m hearing but an air raid siren, and the bombs, dropped via wifi, are going off every time a Youtube video, a quanon related, Breitbart media post is shared.
So what story do we choose?
I know that connection matters. I know that returning over and over again to my values matters. Our shared values matter. Kindness matters — not the sort of kindness that feels silenced by the thought of speaking up, but kindness that will respectfully say NO! I know that remembering beauty matters, creating matters, taking action matters.
On this day where the potus (deliberate lowercase) clearly told us the story about his unwillingness to respect the postal ballot, I refuse to be demoralised.
As Rebecca Solnit said today “ … we have to hold fast and persevere, and help each other through it and remember why it matters.”
The air-raid siren will stop sounding when I once again inhabit a community where we remember that being humane matters, that respect matters and that love looks like values like kindness, generosity, compassion and connection.
That’s the story I want to live into and until then I have some work to do. I hope you can work alongside me — we all need to take turns on this watch.