Inauguration Day 2021: I invited Dr. Brad Sachs to share his thoughts on the attack on the Capitol by the Trump mob just two weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration. He offers an interesting perspective and a challenge to our thinking about this.
One enduring truth that I have learned from nearly 40 years as a family
psychologist is that the family system is least stable when someone is either
entering that system (most commonly through the arrival of a child) or departing from that system (most commonly through death, divorce, or a young adult leaving home). This verity comes to mind as we struggle to make sense of the barbaric behavior of the thousands of individuals who broke into the Capitol in Washington Jan. 6 to bolster President Donald Trump’s counterfeit claim that November’s presidential election had been stolen. From my perspective, it is not difficult to imagine a country as a very vast family system. And at this critical juncture, a significant leave-taking is about to occur as the man perceived by many as their federal “father,” Trump, is preparing to leave office.
Of course, in this case Dad framed his impending departure as an unlawful
eviction, rather than accept his election defeat with dignity and devote
himself to stabilizing our national family during a necessary transition. So it is
only natural that many “children” — his ardent supporters — are responding with
rage at what they perceive as the unjust exile of their victimized father figure.
Our governmental crisis reminds me of the acrimonious divorce crises that I
regularly see in my practice, often characterized by one parent’s belief that he is
being unreasonably, if not mercilessly, sent packing by the other parent. The
inability of the parents to come together and explain that the failure of their
marriage is the result of shared responsibility places their children in an
inescapable loyalty bind.
Uncertain when it comes to knowing which caregiver to trust, children in this
position may have no choice but to attempt to solve the unsolvable by leaping to
vigorously defend one parent against the other. Choosing a side — and doing so
with dogmatic conviction — becomes the best way for them to manage the
overwhelming anxiety and sorrow that they feel as their family is torn asunder.
Often the parent a child aligns with during these bitter battles is not necessarily
the better parent. In fact, it is sometimes the parent who is the least reliable of
the two that a child, for various reasons, unconditionally aligns with. That explains
why children may counter-intuitively place their trust in a parent who is, in
actuality, untrustworthy, and whose lack of lack of honor and credibility may have
been the basis for the other parent’s decision to end the marriage.
But when a parent is removed from parental office, the family will never be the
same, and the loss of a parent — no matter what kind of parent — needs to be
grieved. And when legitimate grief is not given voice, it transforms itself into
grievance that may be fueled by the wounded parent, who needs to rally as much
boosterism as possible to stave off any recognition of his failures.
So just as aggrieved children express, through defiance and disrespect, their
unacknowledged grief about a banished parent, the rioters who invaded the
Capitol may have been doing the same — they protested what they perceived as
their persecuted parent’s illegitimate banishment from the presidency.
Does this mean their violent behavior should be excused? Of course not. Adults
must find ways to mourn their losses without harming themselves or others. But
one of the postulates of mourning is that if we do not work through our own
grief, we out-source it and cause others to grieve, through our misdirected hurt
Moving forward as a country requires us to heal, and healing requires empathy.
Empathy in the face of inexcusable savagery may seem like a hopeless enterprise. But we can learn to understand the pain of others without
concurring with their beliefs or abdicating our own. Empathy is not a substitute
for consequences, and it is certainly not a comprehensive panacea, but a refusal
to empathize fans the flames of our proclivity to brutality.
It will take time for us to reckon the full horror of what happened on Jan. 6. But
this is no time to leave unturned any stone that has the potential to heal.