“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
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, there’s one phrase I kept hearing over and over.
If you’re hurting, you’re not alone.
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 healing our hurt.
Along with the Fourth of July fireworks and festivities, 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.
Known as the “Happiness Professor” where I teach at Chapman University, my students discover that 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 the “pursuit of happiness” spans both self and society.
Social justice, human rights, and the general welfare of all people are integral for any society to thrive and prosper.
Yet, 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.
As we’re now witnessing, the pain from social trauma and racial oppression—forced upon many Americans over the centuries—has never fully healed. Until we collectively confront and disassemble the unjust structural causes that have prolonged America’s deep wounds, our nation’s strife endures.
The success and longevity of American democracy and the healing of our nation’s soul happens by remembering there is more that unites us 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 to 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 acceptance from and attachment to others. Most of all, we all desire the “need to be needed.”
As I state 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.
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.”
I find it fascinating that experiments by social scientists continually observe that what generates enduring happiness in our life isn’t the primary pursuit of money, but the pursuit of meaning. This runs contrary to what we’ve been told to believe about human behavior and modern society.
Here’s a powerful truth that’s been largely forgotten: we all want to be heard and seen. It’s precisely the nourishment our “social brain” requires—to belong.
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.
United We Thrive
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 ancient and renowned Sufi poet Rumi beautifully states: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
It is the wound itself that 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 as this crisis appears, as agonizing and hurtful the wounds feel, perhaps 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.
Together, our wounds begin to heal. Our collective soul becomes whole.
United we thrive and remain the United States of America.
Stay Safe. Stay Strong. Stay Compassionate. Stay Connected.