Dr. Robert J. Lifton on our collective traumas: The psychic impacts of COVID-19, climate change, gun violence, and divisive politics. A look at resilience in our time.
Our era is defined by trauma — from COVID-19 to climate change, divisive politics to economic pressures, gun violence and generational upheavals. And the collective effect of all these traumas can make it pretty hard to face the day.
Robert J. Lifton, this week’s guest on the WhoWhatWhy podcast, has inspiring and realistic ideas for coping with it all, as suggested by the title of his latest book, Surviving Our Catastrophes: Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to COVID-19.
The 97-year-old Lifton, a renowned psychiatrist, is also the author of the National Book Award–winning Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima and Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry.
Lifton argues that acknowledging these catastrophes is the first step toward resilience and renewal. He introduces the concept of “survivor wisdom,” urging us all to transform from helpless victims to life-enhancing survivors.
Lifton also discusses the threats to democracy and the role of misinformation in shaping public opinion.
His work serves as a roadmap for navigating these collective traumas, offering invaluable insights into how society can pull together when it seems that everything is pulling it apart.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Today we’re joined by Robert J. Lifton, a legendary figure in psychiatry, and most of all, in analyzing what ails us as a nation. His latest work, Surviving Our Catastrophes, serves as a compass in navigating the collective traumas that increasingly define our era. We’re 23 years into the 21st Century, and the pace of change and trauma seems to be accelerated beyond our ability to cope.
The 20th century gave us two world wars, the Holocaust, the Great Depression, an Industrial Revolution, and a host of other seismic shifts all within a 100-year span. And yet here we are grappling with a multitude of crises, climate change, divisive politics, a pandemic, economic pressures, and generational upheavals. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us sensed that life would never be the same. What we didn’t anticipate was that in many ways, it may have turned out worse than we feared.
Robert Lifton has spent a lifetime exploring the human psyche in the aftermath of mass tragedies and social upheavals. His work is a deep dive into how we as meaning-hungry creatures can navigate the collective traumas tearing at the very fabric of our society. He challenges us to confront these realities, urging us to choose witnessing and survival over denial and division. In a world where threats to democracy loom large, and the social core is fracturing, Robert Lifton offers us something invaluable, a roadmap for resilience and renewal. It’s a guide for how we can pull together when it seems that everything is pulling us apart.
Robert Lifton has written over 20 books, including many seminal works. He’s a recipient of the National Book Award, and his latest is Surviving Our Catastrophes: Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to the COVID-19 Pandemic. It is my pleasure to welcome Robert J. Lifton here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast once again. Robert, thanks so much for joining us.
Robert J. Lifton: Okay.
Jeff: It does seem that events, the tragedies, the trauma are coming at us at a faster pace today and in many ways faster even than our ability to recover from each one.
Robert: Well, yes. And the first thing we must do is quite simple, recognize the catastrophes for what they are. Whether they’re nuclear, climate, COVID, or the threat to democracy. Each of these is a catastrophe or a potential catastrophe. And if we are to deal with our catastrophes, we must first acknowledge them, and then we can call upon what I call survivor power and survivor wisdom. But our first step is fully acknowledging these catastrophes. I would say further that there’s a whole historical or even evolutionary tendency for societies to go through catastrophe and then undergo a struggle to recover from that catastrophe. But catastrophes are always with us, and it’s our task to cope with them.
Jeff: Is there a point that so many of them happen in such rapid succession and don’t give us enough time to recover, that there’s a tipping point from which it’s very difficult, if not almost impossible, to find equilibrium again?
Robert: Yes, it can be. And actually, our mind doesn’t always separate out the individual catastrophes in a fully evident way. It sometimes tends to dwell on an atmosphere of catastrophe. It can even become apocalyptic. But there are also forces at play in our society that identify the individual catastrophes, and in doing so, can help us, despite what you are saying is a kind of barrage of catastrophes, which can indeed be confusing.
The human mind is equipped to take in catastrophes because one of our evolutionary achievements is to imagine what can happen, and that imagination goes beyond the immediate. I speak of that at the end of my book as imagining the real, imagining the real, a statement of Martin Buber, which meant that we had to bring to our imagination the reality of the catastrophes we’re discussing.
Jeff: There’s also this tendency, it seems, to forget very quickly. We see it with COVID-19, with the pandemic, and it’s something that is for so many people in the rearview mirror, something they don’t want to talk about or confront again. And certainly, it has led to so much division today.
Robert: Well, yes. The COVID is the immediate all-encompassing pandemic. It’s a planetary pandemic, and it is what haunts us now, especially in its invisibility. But I would add that something interesting has begun to happen in relation to COVID. And that is various immediate survivors of COVID, whether they’re actual survivors or had family members who contracted the disease or people very close to them. And they are forming groups which they call Young Widows and Widowers of COVID, or Studies of Long COVID, or COVID Among Us, or names like that. And in that way, they are demanding that society take note of what COVID really is.
And when they do that, they point out that we ourselves, the rest of us who have been at a distance from all this, are also haunted by COVID. And in that sense, seeking to avoid it, becoming survivors of it, and fearful of the death anxiety that accompanies it. And bringing together immediate survivors and distant survivors like the rest of us becomes a task of society.
Jeff: It does seem though that the way most of society wants to deal with it at this point, three and a half years, coming up almost four years out, is to forget about it, to put it behind us.
Robert: Yes, there’s an effort to do that, and the society is very conflicted. It would like to believe that it’s all over, and sometimes there have been official statements to that effect, but it’s not all over. And there are always new offshoots which bedevil us now. And there is an underlying awareness that COVID still threatens us. So the society is torn between a deep desire to be rid of it, to put it behind us, which is quite real on the one hand. And on the other hand, the recurrence of COVID in different versions, which is quite active now. We need to continue to imagine the real, take seriously the existence of COVID, despite our desire to see it gone.
Jeff: In many ways, another analogy to it is gun violence that we see in the country today. And the fact that these things happen over and over again, these mass shootings, and we constantly put it behind us and we constantly want to forget about it and move on.
Robert: Yes, that’s right. I’ve been much concerned about gun violence as well, and about what I call “gunism,” the American relationship to the gun and embrace of the gun. And it begins with an early mythology that the gun was the necessary weapon of the frontier in order to liberate people and create the free America that followed. But that’s mythology.
Jeff: How do you see climate change and fear of that fitting into this equation of trauma that we’re talking about?
Robert: Now, I write that when the self is exposed to extreme trauma, it can either shut down or open up, and often it does a little of both. And in that way, the survivors of extreme trauma have– There is the task of people exposed to extreme trauma, the task of transforming from helpless victims, which they can be at first as they are injured physically and psychologically, or potentially. So they must transfer from the helpless victim to the change-promoting or life-enhancing survivor because the life-enhancing survivor can be a great force in enabling a society to recover from catastrophe or even avoid it. And the survivor becomes a key figure once that transformation can be made.
Jeff: When the tragedies keep happening of a different nature each time, and it happens so quickly, talk about how that death mechanism can work within that framework.
Robert: It happens quickly and there are changes, but there appear what I call emergent leaders, people who arise from victims and articulate what other victims are feeling, and begin to help with that transformation from helpless victim to knowledgeable survivors, life-enhancing survivors. Other survivors then who are former victims, can rally around these emergent leaders. And we saw this happen, and I describe it as happening notably in Hiroshima, where the victimization was as great as anywhere by the most cruel weapon ever devised.
But gradually, with emergent leaders, there formed groups that recognize that survival becomes crucial for people exposed and that transformation from a helpless victim to life-enhancing survivor has sufficiently occurred so that Hiroshima people exposed to the bomb have become leaders in peace movements all over the world and have sent emissaries throughout the world to tell their story. And it’s a story of grave victimization, but also of survival and the emergence of leaders in peace movements everywhere.
Jeff: How important is leadership then in dealing with public trauma?
Robert: Leadership becomes very important, but not cult-like leadership, but rather leadership from among those who are so affected. Leadership helps other survivors congregate around that leader and form groups that are life-enhancing. And survivors then become key actors in recovery because they know from experience they have special knowledge and potentially special wisdom.
The leader who emerges has a capacity to mobilize those sentiments. And so much has happened that even recently with a good UN decision in relation to ICAN, a recent anti-nuclear group, had the UN make the wise decision that stockpiling, not just using nuclear weapons but stockpiling them, is against international law. And Hiroshima survivors have been key spokespersons in bringing about that very important decision.
Jeff: Talk about the culture of victimhood that is so prevalent today and how that fits into this.
Robert: The Trumpists who deny the catastrophe or minimize it and even deny the effectiveness of the vaccine and sometimes blame the vaccine for the actual catastrophe, they look upon themselves as victims in their own way, and that skews matters because it is disinformation and it is bound up with the big lie about the election. But there are forces in our society that are still active from institutions which still value the truth such as the indictments made by Jack Smith and also in Georgia on the basis of violating the law. And our American institutions that hold to truth have been battered by Trumpists and their allies, but not entirely destroyed.
And we are seeing their activity and must support that activity to combat the falsehoods put out by the Trumpists and the denial that you are speaking of.
Jeff: How important is a democratic framework to deal with the kind of healing from trauma that you talk about?
Robert: Yes. A democratic framework which seeks rule of law becomes very important to the recovery of people who are seeking to join that framework, having survived disaster or recognizing it. So there’s an interaction between the psychological and the political in this process. The democratic framework encourages speaking out for a society of law, and living out, enacting democracy becomes crucial to the survivors who help achieve that.
Jeff: Take that one step further and talk a bit about the psychological impact of democracy being constantly under threat, and what’s the price that we pay for that?
Robert: Yes. The democratic process is constantly under threat, and we pay a terrible cost for that because what we hadn’t understood until recently is the extent to which lies and falsehoods can come to be believed by very large numbers of people in society. So the Trumpists and their allies first create the falsehoods, then disseminate them until the belief in them is widespread. And then they claim that society can’t be trusted because there’s so much doubt about it. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s one that we have to recognize and keep combating. And to combat that vicious circle, we ourselves must become what I call witnessing professionals or witnessing ordinary people.
So that when I did my Hiroshima study, it was, to the best of my ability, a scientific study. I had a protocol and asked all people similar questions to encourage a back and forth with them. But I also began to feel that I had an added responsibility, and that was to bear witness to what happened in Hiroshima and to convey that witness to a wider audience and retell the Hiroshima story as a witness, or one could say, a witness to the witnesses. And in that way, by retelling the story, I could bear witness to it and help it to be understood in various ways throughout the world.
Jeff: Why is there such willingness to accept misinformation in the public today?
Robert: One commentator spoke of what can be called an attention society. To gain attention is to gain power. And unfortunately, Trump and Trumpists have had a lot of attention. And when you have a lot of attention, you can disseminate falsehoods. That’s what we’ve learned, and we’ve learned it the hard way. That doesn’t mean that we can’t confront these falsehoods, but it’s shocking to the degree that falsehoods can be disseminated and embraced by so large a number of people. I still have sufficient faith in our battered institutions to believe as we see before us, that they can help combat this disinformation and this destructive attitude toward society in general.
Jeff: Is there something that happens psychologically when so much misinformation is believed over and over and over again that it’s very hard to turn back, to get people to believe in the truth?
Robert: Yes, that’s right. With the misinformation so widespread, it forms its own narrative which, as they say, is truer than truth. The narrative can contain lies and falsehoods, but it’s a narrative of extreme right-wing and white supremacy politics that holds. And there’s a sufficient tradition for white supremacism in this country for it to join with Trumpists from past development and all that is a deep, deep threat to democracy. What I say in my book is not necessarily optimistic, but it is hopeful. It’s a hopeful book, and we can see the power of our efforts despite the Trumpists’ destructiveness, the power of our efforts to sustain a society of laws for everyone.
Jeff: Is there a point of no return? Is there a point when it’s too late?
Robert: I don’t think so. It’s never too late because the consequences are so extreme. We don’t have the option of cynicism and saying that none of it matters, we’re going to lose out. That’s too easy. And we see that the forces that refuse an option of cynicism and instead take a strong stand of what I call survivor wisdom, we see those forces at play, and we know they can have and are having an impact. So that’s what I base my hope on, though I never say it’s easy and nothing is guaranteed.
Jeff: Finally, talk about generational differences and younger generations that have not survived collective trauma and may have no idea how to deal with it, particularly in the public sphere.
Robert: Younger generations become very important, and younger generations are increasingly catastrophic threats. Sometimes want to bow out, other times can be [unintelligible 00:25:36] and here the philosopher Ortega y Gasset spoke of the sequence of generations as being one of the great forces in history that prevents it from standing still but keeps a certain openness in history with each new generation, each new generation that shakes up the historical process. And when subsequent generations encounter catastrophe, they have available to them the words and the attitudes of the generation that actually experienced it. And that’s what I call a legacy of survivors.
The new generations can embrace the work of the original survivors from their own standpoint in relation to their own needs. But it’s very important that that legacy of survivors be available to them as it is and becomes a crucial and valuable source of information and potential recovery.
Jeff: Robert Jay Lifton. His newest book is Surviving Our Catastrophes, Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Robert, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Robert: Well, I’ve appreciated our conversation.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.