In typical fashion I am writing from the world view of a cis white woman. I am speaking to white folk, to look at ways we collude with white supremacy. I would like to cover some wide territory, to spark curiosity to support wonder. This is, as always, not exhaustive and full of cracks but if I wait for perfect I collude with harm so with that caveat, let’s begin.
in the natural world everything dies. A seed dies in order for the plant to grow, the plant dies in order for the soil to be nourished. Even the seemingly solid mountain is slowly eroding into a non-mountain state. In their own time all living things are somewhere on the life death life cycle.
You could say anywhere on that cycle, that there is a will for life or a will for death. Is the tree in a process of dying or a process of living? What is it working towards? Most likely it depends on where you are placed at the time.
The will to live can be seen as the incredible raft of functions that the tree, for example, has to correct any harm being done to it. The sap rises and becomes gum to seal off an injury. The roots communicate harm to other plants to help them prepare. The tree knows to still it’s growth in the winter to preserve it from harm in the cold. This is what the will to live looks like – a self-righting impulse to continue on, to thrive.
Humans too have this force within them, this self-righting impulse to mitigate harm, to navigate threat.
The polyvagal theory is an observation of this in action. When we experience threat our systems automatically respond in ways that are designed to get us out of trouble. We see a bull running at us and our sympathetic nervous system doesn’t give us time to think, it gives us the blast of adrenalin to run, leap over the fence and escape. The will to live.
The will to live is not just about surviving, it’s about making the conditions for thriving and our incredible self-righting organism of our bodies support that too. We are not designed to just move around escaping threat, but we are also encoded with the self-righting mechanism to come, like many other herd animals, to bring us to rest. Interestingly enough rest is not just about to being safe from the bull but also being with others with whom we are safe. So, no physical threat and connected = safety.
With this embedded equation the will to live and thrive, how do we explain people who are not coming to rest, like people who are experiencing anxiety. We can say that in anxiety our sympathetic drive doesn’t turn off. We feel like they are living in “AAAARRR BULL COMING” mode all the time. We can’t come to rest.
As a result a lot of things suffer; sleep, concentration, digestion, relationships, self-image etc. etc. When we don’t rest, we don’t thrive.
Is this a mal-adaption? Is this just a personal issue? Should we just get over it and be sensible and see there’s no bull and get on with it?
What about the dark cousin of anxiety, depression. Where is the will to live in that? Is that the will to die switched on? Is it the natural systemic response to overwhelming threat?
I would say inside depression is the will to live being confused or contorted somehow. I would say that the system gets overwhelmed by intractable challenge and, under resourced, goes into a shutdown state, aka depression. Depression, like all human experiences can be on a continuum and sometimes the darkness is so overwhelming it becomes the will to die. i think it’s a natural response to overwhelming threat to freeze – emotionally, socially, physically – it can turn up in many ways.
Would it be great if these people who are living in a state of exhaustion and distress could just switch it off? Well hell yes. But I think unless we look at the will to live, at the natural process that we come encoded with, we will continue to blame the individual, treat with cruel, disrespectful linear treatments and set them up for more distress.
I think we need to look at anxiety and it’s cousin depression, as natural responses to overwhelming threat.
What if we are able to look at anxiety and depression which is turning up in epidemic proportions in teenagers, and see what this pattern might be expressing or attempting to mitigate.
What if instead of using mouse’s view - what is wrong with this person, what chemical imbalance are they exhibiting, what thought are they being captured by etc etc, we took the hawks view of the systemic issues our teens are facing and began to see what effect they might be having.
It’s a modern western cultural norm to blame the individual for pathology and to seek perfection. Those are two of the features of white supremacy. Ok let’s name them all to get them on the table.
Firstly I want to name this article to thank the author for their rich insights and to name the lineage of this part of my thinking From Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun, dRworks.(1)
• sense of urgency,
• quantity over quality,
• worship of the written word,
• only one right way,
• either or thinking,
• power hoarding,
• fear of open conflict,
• progress is bigger, more,
• right to comfort
if we see ourselves, our children, as being embedded in a culture with these paradigms and oppressions as part of the air we breathe, is it unreasonable to think these are threats that the will to live and the drive to thrive are impeded by?
If we are constantly required to engage in a world that would have us be perfect, for example what does that do? Let’s look at a young woman. She is supposed to be pleasing and beautiful. She is supposed to be successful, but not too successful, thin, accomplished, academic and sporty, smiley and engaging. I can feel the way these impossibly narrow criteria for approval set young women to walk on a knife edge.
Each week I meet with young women who are sliced by this knife edge, profoundly harmed by this cage of acceptability .They blame themselves for their failing to meet this inhumane ideal. They see their “failure’ as evidence of their unworthiness. Each week I try gently to say “fuck that shit” “this is not your fault” “you are not wrong to be buckling under this pressure”
But often they just think I am trying to be kind to them. I think they sometime see me as naïve or simple because as far as they can see I am just a whisper against the roar all around them.
They understand the world telling them that they are wrong and not that the world is wrong.
What if they are not wrong? What if their response to this world is healthy and adaptative? What if their system perceiving the threats all around them is working just as it should? What if it’s a will to live screaming at them “get out, GET out, GET OUT!!!”?
What IF all the anxiety that is flooding the nervous systems of so many people is in part a response to the inhumane threat posed by white supremacy?.
Of course, if you are in a Black body or a brown body, you have a disability, are not cis, or adhering to the gender binary, or you are old, these things are a real physical threat. As a white person we are automatically privileged by this system. Imagine being this harmed and being privileged at the same time.
Make no mistake this system is one of deep harm making where very, very few are advantaged and it has us stepping over each other to get out of harm’s way. The criterion for thriving in this system are in being able to be the top of the pile and to get there we climb over the “imperfect”, the slow and gentle, the collective, the powerless…
What if this rise in anxiety and the smashing down of depression are our system saying fuck this shit. What if this will to flourish is saying we are at peak toxicity and we are not going to survive, let alone thrive?
My grandad was a coalminer so I lean into his legacy when I ask, what if all these heartbroken young people are the canaries singing “enough” while they can? What if with each cut they make they bleed out a little of the harm they are holding? What if with each negative thought they are hearing the whispers of the system we all participate in?
What if the treatments that tell them to work harder, think themselves lucky, be mindful are just corralling them closer to that which is hurting them?
Now of course, not all treatments and not all therapists and not all paradigms…. But until we can be assured that we can help each other see how our oppression guarantees us harm we will be suffering from our own collusion and I don’t think we can afford to do that anymore.
IF you are willing to leap you might want to wonder about this with me too. What if, seeing we humans are, in our true state and origin, a part of the natural world. We have become so “superior” in western culture that the idea of humans as natural seems risible. But if you are willing to leap with me – what if we are seeing the rise in anxiety and depression because we are part of the natural world? What if the suffering of the natural world (at the hand of humans and mostly white humans) is calling us into a deeper sense of alarm?
What if this is again, a healthy response to a planet that is suffering and that we are irreducibly linked to? What if these young people’s systems are reading the distress of the planet and are able to take on their responsibility where many of the older generations have failed? What if they are living expressions of “we can’t do this anymore”?
I believe that if we see these young people, well, all of us with anxiety and depression, as purely pathological we collude with the paradigm of perfectionism, with either or thinking, with reluctance to confront what is really there.
What if we can see our collective responsibility, we can honour the will to life being expressed by people with anxiety and depression?
What if we could use this as a chance to listen to the grief, to stay with the discomfort and learn what’s really there?
What if we could listen, to each other and to our collective and we could disconnect both as individuals and as communities, from this toxic paradigm and start to reclaim our humanity?
What if our systems could finally read each other as safe, because we are no longer treating ourselves like production machines?
What do you think?
What if we could honour our will to live outside of what this toxic system tells us is the only right way?
What if we could become safe with each other again?