President-elect Donald Trump. / Gage Skidmore
Maximillian Alvarez,  November 11, 2016

Show Me Where It Hurts

President-elect Donald Trump. / Gage Skidmore
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History hurts. That is how we know it. That is how we must understand our place in it. It may not hurt for everyone all the time, but that doesn’t mean the bones aren’t broken under the skin. Too often we may not feel it, and that is probably by design. Because so much of what we’re saturated by in our media, what we’re prescribed by doctors and wellness gurus alike, what we’re given in infinite, prepackaged, purchasable forms—so much of our twenty-first-century experience amounts to a general anesthetic. In myriad ways, we’re enabled and encouraged to retreat, to not feel the world hurt.

For many, the anesthetic wore off on Wednesday. For others, the pain itself is nothing new; history has hurt for them for as long as they can remember, and they’ve been living under conditions that disallow them the chance to fully numb the pain. But it still feels like the open wounds are beating far more fiercely with the news.

I woke up hurting today. And I couldn’t quite say where it was coming from. I woke up angry, too, and fearful, yes, but more than anything I just lay there in pain. I imagine you, like me, don’t quite know what to do about this pain, or what to do with it. But perhaps the answer, at least for now, is very simple: feel it. All of it. Don’t run away from it, don’t try to cover it up with distractions, optimistic forecasts, and white lies.

More important, don’t rush to “resolve” the matter too quickly. There is, as Judith Butler has eloquently written, an ethical, political, and irreducibly human power in deeply breathing in the sense of loss, mourning, and vulnerability we’re feeling right now. There is, moreover, a well-documented history of people and nations being so utterly unable to deal with feeling this exposed and unsure that the only compensatory action that could make it stop hurting was violence against those who purportedly caused the pain. “Suffering,” Butler writes, “can yield an experience of humility, of vulnerability, of impressionability and dependence, and these can become resources, if we do not ‘resolve’ them too quickly; they can move us beyond and against the vocation of the paranoid victim who regenerates infinitely the justification for war.”

This doesn’t mean we should sulk. To sulk is to curl up, to accept our pain as an endpoint. But to feel as much of it as we can bear now is to confront the deep gash in our side not as a momentary puncture in an otherwise closed-off thing, but as an opening in ourselves that has never been, and will never be, stitched up. In a way, it’s always been there; we just might not have felt it until now. In a way, the pain we’re feeling now is so hard to place because it is coming from a part of ourselves that an oppressive social order has convinced us doesn’t exist. It is coming from the thing we don’t see when our vision and our livelihoods are so desperately trained on our own self-advancement, from the thing we don’t hear when walk around with our brains locked up with headphones, from the thing we don’t feel when we have been, in the most literal meaning of the term, desensitized. It is coming from the place where we are connected, always, together, to the body of history. 

To feel it all now means taking time to ask what we have already lost, what we are in danger of losing, and what we will continue to lose if we rush to stop the pain at all costs. Ask yourself—and I mean really ask, not in some bullshit, vaporous, self-help sense, but in a deeply meditative and critical and painstakingly discerning way—what it means to lose something, and why it hurts.

To lose someone, for instance, is to also lose who you are with them in your life. And to feel pain in mourning is to acknowledge something that is actually incredibly scary, something that our self-serving utopia of endless consumer choice tries its best to hide from us: that who you are is actually way less in your control than you think. On the contrary, the pain you feel from losing someone reveals that your very being doesn’t just originate from some special, untouchable thing inside you—it is ineradicably dependent on others. You do not just move through space as a pre-formed entity, interacting and relating to other pre-formed things and people; rather, you are your relations to them, they are what make you, to such an extent that it actually, physically hurts to lose them.

To take time to feel it all now means understanding where the pain is coming from. It means understanding that what may manifest for you in a singularly personal pain is the scorching and lacerating of something that can’t be located anywhere on or inside you. It’s a phantom limb, a severed piece that won’t stop itching and hurting. To feel it all now means acknowledging, perhaps for the first time, that you need other people—that the most basic sense of who you are always comes from somewhere outside, in the things that make up, and reflect back to you, a world in which you make sense.

Waking up in Trump’s America, this is what we have lost. We have lost an unspoken sense of ourselves that depended on our routine interactions with a world in which fear and hate had not completely eroded our faith in one another. We’ve lost it, and it hurts.

Acknowledge what our self-serving utopia of endless consumer choice tries its best to hide from us: who you are is actually way less in your control than you think.

To feel it all now, though, also means rebuilding a trust among us. It means erecting, perhaps for the first time, a community out of this pain that has revealed, in our loss and hurting, just how connected we actually are and always were. A community wrought from history, and a history understood as the still open wounds whose hurting we are collectively responsible for. A community of understanding, yes—but more than that, a community that understands what must be preserved, what must be created, and what must be shattered along with the demons Trump has stirred up. A community that does not hand over the maintenance of its wellbeing to gurgling opportunists, technocratic elites, or thin-skinned, bullying shitheads.

It’s going to be hard. And, of course, it’s going to hurt. In the wake of a depressingly broken official politics, to collectively feel will require a downright masochistic resistance to the chance to save yourself and only yourself: to once again, and again, embrace all the millions of perfect machine-crafted ways that our capitalistic culture has produced for us to withdraw, one by one, and numb away individually. At the dawn of truly uncertain times, when our trust in others has rotted and we have all the more reason to turn inward, it will require an ethical choice to bear our wounds to one another and to know ourselves through them. Because the wounds that mutually bind us, the ones that bleed, are the ones that we can never sew up ourselves, the phantom limbs of history that reveal just how vulnerable we are to others, and how dependent we are on them, always.

History is a body in pain. When it hurts, we all do. And a politics of hurting must be one that is willing to feel the worst of it together.

At every point in history, between the peaks of past and future, we’re suspended in a web, high above the abyss. The strands of trust, cooperation, and ethics that hold the web together were already frayed, overburdened. We didn’t make this web, we inherited it, but we still rely on it, all of us, to make it even relatively possible to live together. When it weakens, we all hurt. We all get closer to falling. Vital strands in this web have been irreparably cut, and we are entering a time in which our natural instincts will take over, telling us that there is only one way to save ourselves . . . to kick others off.

Never forget, though, that the people for whom this is truly a victory are the ones who can afford their own nets high above, the ones who convince us that the web they helped build for us is the one and only, the best that “human nature” can produce. The web we live on is tied together by money and power and the rule of all against all, keeping us deathly convinced that what’s unreachably high above us is all that can save us from the darkness below. But also never forget that there is a difference, there is a choice, between hoping for the best as we lie anxiously on the groaning web that’s been made for us, and forming a new, stronger one ourselves. When the web is breaking and the abyss is yawning beneath us, only your hand in mine will keep the world from falling.

This may seem, for now, like nothing more than a survival strategy for the next four years. But it is also the only hope for our collective survival, and for the survival of our planet, beyond that. This, and not what you’ve been told to fear, is the foundation for re-making our communal web into the thing called socialism.

Don’t rush. We’ll need all your strength. Take stock of the things you still have, the things that make you kind and warm and brave and happy. Feel what hurts now, and find solidarity among those who are also hurting. Hold tight to the things they’ll never be able to take from you without your consent. Tell the ones you fight for that you did your best. And if you didn’t, show them you can do better. We’re going to need it, all of it, to get us through and to do the hard, painful work of reshaping the world into something that doesn’t hurt anymore.

Show us your pain. Then show them what it can do.

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He received his BA and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 2009.

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