HEALING OUR NATION’S SOUL
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Rumi
If You’re Hurting, You’re Not Alone
As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July and commemorate our nation’s independence, like many of us right now, my heart feels heavy. My soul hurts.
While navigating through the array of conflicting emotions over the past few weeks, I observed an interesting pattern in many of my conversations.
Amidst my numerous online meetings with university colleagues, email exchanges with faculty and students, and phone calls with family and friends from across the country, there’s one phrase I kept hearing over and over.
When people say “I’m hurting,” it’s the cries over social injustice we hear that drive our despair. It’s the plea for compassion and the desperate appeal to our common humanity that we seek in order to heal our hurt.
Along with the fireworks and festivities of the Fourth of July, we are collectively and rightfully hurting. Our nation’s soul is wounded. The psyche of the American people is in pain.
Even as our nation continues healing from the pain of a pandemic, America is now hurting from a chronic wound—the collective anguish and grief from being forced to confront the ugly moral crisis reflected by the national protests for racial equality. While the wound may feel fresh, the suffering is old. The agony is all too familiar.
As my students in Chapman’s “Happiness” course discover, happiness is more than just an individual pursuit. When the Founders of American democracy penned in the Declaration of Independence the famous phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they understood that the “pursuit of happiness” spans both the self and society.
Social justice, human rights, and the general welfare of all people are integral for any society to thrive and prosper. As my colleague, Dean Gail Stearns, writes in her piece: “…some stress will not go away until we collectively dismantle the unjust structural causes of that stress.”
When the fundamental right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is only conferred upon a selective segment of society—while at the active and systemic exclusion of others—the result is a divided and wounded nation. The success and longevity of American democracy and the healing of our nation’s soul happens by remembering there is more that unites us, rather than divides us as a people.
The Need to Be Needed
In my role as Chapman University’s Director of Contemplative Practices and Well-being, with an academic focus on brain science and behavior, I recognize that how we respond to hurt is a reflection of how our brains have evolved to process pain and stress. Some of us will react to this collective hurt with anger, some with anxiety, some with alarm.
All these behavioral responses are expected, as they reveal a fundamental truth about how our brains are biologically wired. Recent studies attest how emotional, psychological, and social pain are processed in the shared regions of the brain that regulate physical pain.
It’s actually a recent revelation affirmed by a powerful discovery about the human brain. Your brain fundamentally evolved as a “social organ”. We humans intrinsically crave community and connection. We seek a sense acceptance from and attachment to others. Most of all, we all desire the “need to be needed”.
As I share in my book Science of a Happy Brain: “When the lack of feeling a sense of value, belonging, and engagement is unrelenting, it triggers a cycle of despair and hopelessness that has the potential to accelerate the levels of anger, anxiety, and addiction in society.”
The need to be needed is a fundamental drive that exposes why many feel compelled to be called to action—we simply want to know that our life bears value and our presence in the world matters.
We all want to be heard and seen. It’s precisely the nourishment our “social brain” requires—to belong.
In his piece Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded, His Holiness the Dalai Lama perfectly gets to the heart of the hurt that many are feeling. He teaches, “This helps explain why pain and indignation are sweeping through prosperous countries. The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies.”
Whether it’s an individual or a population of society, experiencing any form of marginalization or neglect produces actual stress and trauma in our brain, body, and being.
The pain we experience from broken bonds (social) is just as real and strong as the pain we feel from a broken bone (physical). Simply put—pain is all the same in our brain.
Letting in the Light
We know from biology that when a bone breaks and mends, it becomes stronger. While our wounds—whether personal or societal—rightfully cause us pain and hurt, they equally provide an occasion for healing and for making us more resilient.
As the renowned Sufi poet Rumi relays, the wound itself is what makes it possible for the light to enter into the soul. Healing is a process of returning to a state of wholeness. In fact, the word “heal” is directly related to the word “whole”.
As painful and raw this crisis appears, as agonizing and hurtful the wounds feel, something beautiful and wondrous is happening.
We are witnessing the healing of America’s soul.
In the eloquent words of the late, great Senator John McCain: “To be connected to America’s causes—liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people—brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”
We are in a seminal moment in our nation’s history. There exists a precious opportunity to heal our nation’s torn, weary, and battered soul. Honoring America’s philosophical ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness resides in our ability to invest in causes that unite us, not divide us.
Yes, our nation’s soul is wounded. Yes, we are all hurting. Healing the deep social and racial wounds—not just in America—but in our world occurs once we allow the light of compassion, empathy, and justice to be let in.
This is how we honor the Fourth of July and uphold the cherished values of American democracy.
By fully committing ourselves to heal the painful wounds of racism, injustice, hatred, and divisiveness that have plagued America’s soul, we ultimately grow stronger and become more resilient as a nation and people.
Our wounds begin to heal. Our collective soul becomes whole. We remain the United States of America.
Stay Safe. Stay Strong. Stay Compassionate. Stay Connected.
Dr. Jay Kumar
Director of Contemplative Practices & Well-being
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