“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and
though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also
critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”
“Ever since college, I have had only one goal: to become minister of education and change the system in Afghanistan […]. I have worked so hard to reach this goal. Every night before going to sleep, I imagined myself in a ministry chair as secretary of education, but now I find myself imprisoned in the corner of a room.” With “tears in (her) eyes” a psychology student from Kabul University recalls August 15, 2021, the day her “palace of dreams” was shattered.
“When our colleagues are threatened by murderous power, we bring them close to us and make a home together,” Carter J. Carter wrote in his introduction to “Names Withheld: From Afghanistan.” This is not a single essay. It is a communal cry for help in the midst of crisis and terror. Along with messages sent by two psychology students from Kabul University whose futures are now unthinkable, “Names Withheld” holds a poem in the form of an email sent from their professor Sayed Jafar Ahmadi and the story and image of a precious painting that Dr. Ahmadi has taken with him into hiding.
Sayed Jafar Ahmadi was one of the many mental health leaders who, over the last twenty-one years, took part in a national plan to integrate mental health and social support services into public schools, health clinics, juvenile justice centers, and women’s NGOs. The program spanned all of Afghanistan’s 491 districts, both urban and rural. Because his teaching, publications, and fieldwork attracted significant interest and because he is a member of the Hazara community, a group of people the Taliban has vowed to eliminate, Dr. Ahmadi is, at the time of this publication, in mortal danger. There are thousands of individuals who, like Dr. Ahmadi and his family, have been placed on evacuation lists but remain trapped in Afghanistan because they have no exit papers. In “Names Withheld: From Afghanistan,” their words fly to us from the border they are not allowed to cross.
In their memoirs, Susanna Stephens and Susan Silverman share how their highly particular life traumas, blanketed by COVID, have become enjoined with the whole of the world. In “I Need a Guide,” Silverman wants to know not just “how to be a psychotherapist during a pandemic” but also “how to have a homeless brother during a pandemic.” Mostly she just wants to know “how to not give up.” The pandemic is also backdrop to Stephens’s “Leaving the Hole.” When the briefest gesture of another child’s hand throws her into her own child’s uncertain future, she writes, “How can the slightest movement hold an entire universe? […] What have I been clutching to all this time? […] It is nearly impossible,” she observes, “to notice how the tides change when you are submerged underwater.”
It is also “nearly impossible” to notice the real sea change when the fullest knowledge of our environmental crisis can only be gleaned abstractly through digitalized metadata that is outside all human comprehension. “Climate Change and Knowledge Production” takes us in a post-human direction that some ROOM readers might argue lies outside the enlightened humanism of psychoanalysis. If psychoanalysis gave us traction to recognize the impact of our unconscious on how and what we perceive, Clough is pointing us to yet something else that lies outside our awareness. Her essay is a quick and deep dive into the gap “between weather,” which we consciously experience through our senses—and climate change—which involves “massive amounts of data calculated outside the time frames of human experience, consciousness, and perception.” In this species-humbling turn, Clough implores us to look outside ourselves and recognize how this more-than-human knowledge impacts our relationship to reality.
Turning inward, Wendy Greenspun recounts how “splashes of recognition” led to “steadier streams of evidence” until she was “drowning in extended periods of sleeplessness, preoccupation, anger, sadness, and fear.” Elaborating specific stages along the “arc of climate awareness,” “Climate Crisis: A Reckoning” is a unique and important contribution to psychoanalysis. Facing disavowal, complicity, and panic opened a way to “transformative encounters” with others that became “a tunnel through the impenetrable wall of past and future trauma.”
“Solastalgia” was coined by the Australian environmental researcher and philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2006 to describe the anxiety, despair, or trauma felt when lands or communities undergo unwanted, adverse, or unforeseen environmental changes. The word, which was derived from the Latin word for “solace” and the Greek word for “pain” is meant to capture feeling homesick in one’s own home. From Kabul to Brooklyn, solastalgia sweeps through ROOM 10.21. But hope also sweeps through these essays. For Greenspun, “the ability to connect and mourn helped let in some light.”
In their essays, Kerry Malawista and Lee Jenkins also take on, as Jenkins puts it, “the inexorable challenge and difficulty of being alive.” In Jenkins’s “Black and Blue,” he reminds us how “this human effort has been given a special signifying image and meaning in the lives of Black Americans, who’ve endured a history of the most demeaning and destructive betrayal of their humanity, from enslavement to the present-day undermining of their existence.” The Blues, he tells us, are “what human beings express when confronted with adversity with little possibility of escape.” The music is about “sadness and the transcendence of sadness, contradictory things existing together.”
Malawista’s insights, like Greenspun’s, emerge out of her own grief. Following the death of her daughter, Malawista discovered “a middle distance” she had never known existed—a place to stand between what never can be again and what can never be let go of. In “The Faraway-Nearby of Trauma and Loss,” Malawista writes, “Giving words to the unspeakable is necessary. This is what happened to me, we need to say.” This year Malawista created a national program where mental health and medical professionals working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis had space to “give words to the unspeakable,” to write what happened to them.
Eric Chasalow’s “Elegy and Observation” and Katie Gentile and Kathleen Del Mar Miller’s “An End of the World as-we-know-it: After da Silva” are “spaces of temporal complexity,” of “nonhuman and human relationships,” and of “collected layers of sediments.” Carved to hold what cannot be spoken, they “leap and lurch from the intimate to the global, from the tender to catastrophic”: “Who was I?” writes a young woman in Kabul, sending her words into the ether of the internet. “Where am I going? Where am I going to end up? […] What is my hope?”
Perhaps hope lies in our ability to read your words even if you are thousands miles away, to create new words that match this new world, to think together, to feel together, to create new music and more art, and to not turn away from complexity and loss that is beyond human comprehension. Perhaps hope lies in our turn toward each other. As Toni Morrison wrote, “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Morrison, Toni. “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.” The Nation (March 2015)
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