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Collective amnesia

Dissociative amnesia — when a person blocks out traumatic experiences — is an integral part of the human body’s incredible capacity for survival. But therein lies a conundrum. If we totally repress trauma, it can bog us down — but so can continually reliving a trauma.

That dilemma highlights what a gift the current phase of the Jewish calendar is. With Elul, followed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d allots a specific time for us to re-open trauma, to try to process and grow from it. Yet He is also telling us that if we spend the other 11 months of the year relitigating the past, we run the real risk of living only in the past, failing to appreciate the moment and, ultimately, forsaking a fulfilling future.

Of course, by commanding us to pray daily, G-d also teaches us that it would be a grave mistake to abstain year-round from introspection. But if our personal cheshbon hanefesh — accounting of the soul — does not orient us toward growth, we would become extremely depressed. After all, who among us doesn’t have a slew of misdeeds over which to ruminate?

Recently I’ve been considering collective dissociative amnesia — when societies as a whole repress traumatic experiences. Specifically, COVID. We all know it happened, and we’re all facing untold costs of the pandemic — children’s education one of the largest. But it also seems surreal. Were we really not able to access the public library? Not allowed to visit a physical therapist? Sit in a café?

We all want to move past the trauma, and to a large extent we have, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it because its impacts are still being borne out.

So, even though COVID has become counterproductively politicized, we must endeavor to continue to uncover its origins.

A counter argument I sometimes hear is, Why does it matter? The pandemic happened, and dealing with its effects is what’s important.

Well, these aren’t mutually exclusive. Although we must address the impacts, we can only hope to prevent something similar from happening again if we know how it happened.

I was listening to a 2003 interview about the dossier that the British government used to justify the Iraq War. The journalist asked why the veracity of the dossier matters since the war has been successfully executed. How stunningly premature!

About alleged — but as yet undiscovered — WMD in Iraq, then Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 talked of “unknown unknowns.” Perhaps the only thing worse are the things we don’t know that we think we do know.

Dissociative amnesia may be essential to survival, but beware a society that fails to understand its past. Yet, just like in the case of the individual, if a society’s self-reflection doesn’t focus on the future, it too can become mired in the past, unable to use the insights gained to help create “a more perfect union.”

Shana Goldberg may be reached at [email protected].

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