By Mary Summerbell
Almost first thing this year, January 3rd, I had a car accident – smashed in the whole front end of a car I just bought the week before Christmas. Not the way I wanted to start a fresh, new annual cycle. I admit to spewing appropriate expletives as I hit the car in front of me. In those elastic nanoseconds of inevitability, impact, and just after, I was so very, very surprised. There I was – four blocks from home, in no hurry, no bad weather – just the usual wetness of a busy street on a winter day. I was paying very close attention to traffic, not following too closely, being careful with my new car. The only reason I was out was to take care of my car. I hadn’t driven it in recent very cold days, and it’s not good for a car to sit like that, so I was taking it out a little way to warm it up a bit, then home again. I was doing everything I thought I should be doing to be a safe driver.
Then – Bam! The car in front of me stops like a wall. I slam on the brakes but can’t stop fast enough, and my car is pieces of junk all over the street. What the —-? As reality hits me, I am stunned, upset, angry. Things are exploding inside me. But then, very quickly, almost instantly, something else inside me silently takes hold. I slip out of denial and resistance into a strangely calm acceptance – and resilience. It was like flipping a switch, or shifting gears. The situation was the same, but I could see better, think better, cope better. Something of a struggle was gone from me.
I remember saying to myself, in my head, “This has happened. Now what do you need to do about it?” Instinctively, without thinking, my body responded. I took a very slow, very deep breath. Then another. And another. I was still “shook up,” but not as much. My mind was still spinning with questions and concerns. But I felt myself slowing down inside, getting more control of my mental, emotional and physical responses to this unexpected event. It occurred to me that I might be hurt. A quick check showed no obvious injuries. No pain, no blood, no broken bones. “Lots of trips to the chiropractor,” I thought, to get my right hip and leg back in dancing shape after slamming on the brakes. Otherwise, I seem all right. I feel relief. Gratitude. “Thank you,” I say, to whoever is listening
Waiting for assistance, I stayed in my car out of the cold and wind. But it was getting dark, and no one was coming to help. Finally, I got out to talk to the woman in the other car, exchanged the usual awkward pleasantries and information for such an occasion. Walking back to my car, something odd happened. I remember a sense of expanding awareness, like a rubber band stretching in my head. I said to myself, “You’re probably in shock.” Someone answered, “You are in shock. You may not know it, but you are in shock. You may know it, but not believe it. You are in shock. It was as if one part of my brain was trying to tell another part of my brain something it just wasn’t getting, and repetition was the ticket to get in.
I remember a feeling of wanting to master this situation, to be master of myself in it. I felt that the messages to myself in my head were helping me get a spiritual grasp of what was happening to me – giving me clues, or cues, to guide me through it.
I’ve learned a lot about shock in Traditional Wisdom classes. One important thing to know about shock is that it’s the most dangerous energy an organism can be in – because it robs us of our normal senses. Psychology teaches that humans and other animals have a “fight or flight” response, meaning that, in order to survive a life-threatening situation, a creature must either confront it – “fight,” or avoid it – “flight” But another possibility is freezing. Shock freezes us. Freezes us in fear, so we cannot choose to fight or flee, leaving us extremely vulnerable, if not helpless.
Another factor to consider about shock is that, when we are in it, we don’t process information in our usual ways. Shock and fear decrease and/or distort our sensory input and our cognitive functions. So, in shock, we may not only not be thinking clearly, but we may not even be getting clear or valid information needed to process thoughts at all. We may not see, hear, smell or feel things as we normally do. Our senses can literally shut down. Extremely dangerous.
We can adjust to reduced sensory input and impaired cognitive function – if we know that’s what’s happening to us. It’s possible to function flexibly with a lesser skill set. But without awareness of diminished capacity, our chances of survival quickly and dramatically decrease. When I had the crash, the fact that something, or someone, was telling me that I was in shock was extremely useful information. I was then able to better deal with my skewed senses and wonky thinking.
My accident turned out to be a very valuable experience. (Expensive, but valuable.) It impressed me with a new, more real perspective of personal shock, and my ability to handle it well. And it got me pondering on more expansive applications of shock in our current national circumstances. I think it is no overstatement to say that Donald Trump becoming president has been a huge shock – to our nation, and the world. His election was stunning enough, even to those who supported him. But that was only the first impact of his term in office, that has been wave after wave after wave of chaos – uncertainty, instability, unpredictability. Day after day after day of deliberate disorder and intentional manipulation, affects many of us in very harmful ways. We don’t feel safe.
I think that, as a nation, the United States has been in shock the past two years. But we didn’t realize it fully, if at all. We don’t know we’re in it. We may have known it on some level, may know it now, but the ongoing shocks have been so continuous, so deeply pervasive, that there’s little, if any, recovery time between them. This kind of strong and/or long-term shock can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that is a lasting inability to cope with the stresses of life. Maybe our country has P.T.S.D. Maybe we need counseling.