A Bright Shiny Indifference

The events we’re experiencing will be among the most critical of our lives. Shall we treat them with indifference or honor them in memory?

By Jan Warrington

A tweet from Donald Trump a few weeks ago didn’t get anywhere near the attention that I think it deserved. I’ve been stewing over it ever since. Here it is, from April 8, 2020:

“Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten. Our Economy will BOOM, perhaps like never before!!!”

Think of that: Must be quickly forgotten. You’re allowed to remember if you lost a loved one, but otherwise, you’re under orders from the president of the United States that you “must” forget what you’ve been through — and it had better be fast! (Pssst! The presidential election is only six months away.)

As president, Donald Trump may be powerful, but I don’t think he carries a magic wand that can erase “the horror” of what every American has experienced during this Covid-19 era. And come to think of it — bear with me, history and memory at work here — I don’t recall hearing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ever ordered Americans to forget what happened at Pearl Harbor.

You can hear the desperation in the president’s tweet, his fear that his hopes for reelection may be diminishing in direct relation to the number of CV-19 deaths. This statement would be ineffably sad if it weren’t for the destructive here and now in which this CV-19 story continues to unfold — more cases, more deaths, more grief, more gut-wrenching tales of lives flicked away, even more lives torn apart.

Trump and members of his administration have often been criticized as lacking in empathy. If ever there were a time and an opportunity to show compassion and caring, it is now. But instead, Trump’s tweet blithely dismisses the deep fear and profound disruptions to all of our lives.

As a psychologist, I think this is as thoughtless as any statement I’ve heard from a leader of the United States. One important lesson that I’ve learned in my years of doing therapy? More than almost anything else, most people want to be seen, known, heard, acknowledged. Just imagine such a comment in therapy. What if one partner  — who had deeply hurt the other partner — said: “When we’re back together, you’ve got to forget what happened.” How much would that help to repair the relationship? I’m betting you just made a good guess.

I think it was Ernest Hemingway who once remarked that we should not turn away when we see a dead animal in the road. That animal can be — if we have the courage to look — a reminder of the fragility, of the impermanence, of life. I don’t want to do what Donald Trump is doing and issue a command that — instead of forgetting — you must remember, you must look at the dead animal in the road. I understand that everyone processes memory and emotion in uniquely personal ways. But I hope that as a society, we are able to remember and bear witness — now, and for years to come — to the immeasurable sacrifices that Americans have made during this time, and continue to make.

I believe that we will need time and space to reflect on what we’ve gone through, to understand, to learn. We need to tell our stories — and ask others to listen to those stories, as we as a nation have done after other defining moments in our history. Books, oral histories, Facebook entries, newspaper and magazine articles, poems, music, journals, novels, podcasts, plays, videos, art work — they all have a role in this complex tapestry just starting to be woven.

But how to learn if you can’t remember? When we don’t remember and learn, what flourishes instead is a swamp of murky conspiracy theories, a swamp that feeds on naivete, ignorance, and mistrust.

I sometimes worry that we have lost our collective ability as a nation to share and to process that pain and suffering. I wonder how the thousands of health care professionals, or grocery workers, or transit workers felt after reading that tweet. We’ve got to forget? Devalued, angry, maybe even bitter. I was reminded, now, decades later, of how returning Vietnam veterans were treated with scorn. As a nation going forward, I hope that we can stop such a divisive trajectory this time.

But I also worry that a kind of bright, shiny indifference has already begun to fester and thrive here, long before this virus. An indifference that says, Who cares about you? I’m in it for myself.  An indifference that says, as I once read on a Facebook post: “Just don’t care, you’ll be happier that way.”

Several months ago I saw a young woman wearing a T-shirt that read: Once Upon a Time I didn’t care. I still don’t care. The End. I’ve also seen a T-shirt that said, “Kinda Don’t Care,” and another that depicted the back side of a rat with the words: “I Don’t Give a Rat’s A – – .” And I can’t forget the message on the jacket that Melania Trump wore on her way to visit immigrant children: “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” The First Lady’s message of indifference was only trumped by those who chose to defend her action.

Indifference can arise from so many sources — depression, fear, arrogance, world weariness, exhaustion, deprivation, a need to survive. But what are these wearers trying to tell us, and what do the slogans say about who and where we are as a country? And what does it say that West Point cadets have been ordered to return to hear Trump’s commencement speech in June? I’m important, too bad if you get sick.

And what should we think about Vice President Mike Pence, who managed to humiliate himself and the Mayo Clinic at the same time? Mask? Me? I’m the vice president; who cares about you patients? Or Jared Kushner, who described those who continue to use social distancing (recommended by medical experts) as the “eternal lockdown crowd”? Thanks for caring, Jared.

Ivanka Trump tweets to show us how to make hand puppets using a book from the 1800s (really!), and Melania sends random thoughts and prayers. (Looks to me as if she’s socially distancing from her “Be Best” campaign.)

But one constant can be found in the rising death count shown in the corner of our TV screens. We may not have images of planes slamming into buildings, or towers falling, and we may not see the personal and physical devastation wrought by this virus. One image that I’ll remember is that of a mask-less Mike Pence surrounded by people wearing masks. The powerful composition resembles a Renaissance painting, message quite clear.

Now Donald Trump wants us to hit the Mute (Forget!) button, and he’d probably like it if we kept it on through November 3. He must have forgotten the classic 1980’s research on thought suppression in which participants were told not to think about a white bear. You can guess the results — so much harder not to think of a white bear.

The president’s new press secretary went on TV Saturday to peddle the administration’s new approach to the virus: optimism. Yes, I’m guessing that we’d all like some hope that this pandemic will end sooner rather than later. But this attempt at optimism sounds an awful lot like a politically correct version of “must be quickly forgotten.”

The irony is that as Trump urges us to forget, we would not only forget the agony but we’d also be forgetting the countless good deeds spun out of this crisis — communities and individual Americans coming together to help those less fortunate. And we would be forgetting those essential workers upon whom we have so gratefully depended to get us through this time.

I, for one, will not be diminished by such indifference. I won’t forget these CV-19 months, and I won’t forget Donald Trump — though he might want me to forget what I remember about him, his tenure in office, and his administration’s indifference at a time that cried out for genuine caring. The president asks us to forget, but what he seems so sadly to have forgotten is any real notion of humanity.

What I hope for? That no one now alive ever forgets the year 2020.

4 thoughts on “A Bright Shiny Indifference

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