Have you ever had a rescue fantasy before?
Most of us probably have.
Anyone who has ever been abused or traumatized or victimized has at some point had in mind what we simply call a rescue fantasy. Someone will come and save us from our oppression.
It’s not at all uncommon for the clients I see in counseling who have gone through such times to lament that no one came to their rescue. A fairly typical dialogue may then appear like this:
ME: So how did you end up surviving, then, if no one came to your rescue?
CLIENT: I guess I just ended up doing what I had to do.
ME: Which means, what, that you really have largely yourself to thank for surviving by
kind of rescuing yourself?
CLIENT: Well, I guess that’s maybe possible.
ME: Who disappointed you most? Who did you hope would rescue you that didn’t come and do so?
CLIENT: I suppose there were several who I thought should have come forward.
ME: But you had to stay and be there for yourself. That’s mostly how you managed to survive all that you went through? Would that be true?
CLIENT: I guess. Now that you mention it.
ME: In looking back, even though you were not actually rescued by anyone else, was there anybody you can think of who was there to influence you? Maybe encourage you in some way?
CLIENT: My Grandma. And Mrs. Jones, my 3rd grade teacher. Both of them helped out a lot.
ME: Didn’t outright rescue you but were there at different times to help in their own way. Is that true? More like an influencer but not actually a rescuer like you’d first hoped for?
Why do you suppose I’m bringing up such a subject as victims with rescue fantasies at a time like this? What’s the whole point?
Today happens to be the eve of Juneteenth, the holiday resulting from the delayed freedom from slavery by the African American people living in a region of Texas that had to wait well over 2 more long years to learn of their emancipation.
It could be argued that the vast majority of American immigrants initially crossed our borders as victims. Poverty and violence has driven generations of immigrants to our shores and fence lines in hopes of crossing into safety and freedom or emancipation from something.
America was, and still is, herself part of oppressed peoples’ so-called rescue fantasy.
What’s different about the African immigrants kidnapped and brought here as slaves is that America became their place of trauma and victimization. Not their rescue fantasy. Indeed, what rescue fantasies the slaves themselves had were, at best, influential figures who helped make life somewhat tolerable in the work of self-rescue. Figures like the old Negro Preachers in the churches that dotted the rural southern landscape and eventually even the urban northern landscape across the land during our Jim Crow era. These churches, like Grandma’s house or the 3rd grade classroom of Mrs. Jones, became like safe spaces in which to draw strength for the work of self-rescue.
I find it most interesting to note that the so-called “black church in America” never offered to rescue the victims among her own people. Influence, yes. Rescue, never. Instead, they pointed the people to Jesus Christ as their only hope of rescue. So it was the black church in and around Galveston and Houston, Texas that led the celebration of the emancipation proclamation on June 19, 1865. Doing so, for them, meant that Jesus had freed them from all bondage. They had indeed finally been rescued by one far greater than any American politician or preacher. Such leaders could influence, but survival started and ended with “self” and was merely assisted by such leaders. Jesus alone, he being a victim himself upon his own flogging and then death by government execution, in every sense for those slaves freed on that June nineteenth, was worthy of a rescue fantasy.
So let me pose a contrast here today.
I have to think about what amounts to an all-too-common rescue fantasy being acted out in today’s America. The rescuer? His name is Donald J. Trump.
Like other authoritarian populists who have come before him, Mr. Trump has managed to convince many millions of his own fellow American white citizens, male and female, rich and poor, that they are being oppressed and victimized by the federal government and its institutions (except for the military) and that he is the One who by being a victim himself is qualified to rescue them. By tapping into the common man’s experience of being occasionally abused in some fashion, Mr. Trump has taken on a messianic role or “cult-hero” position in today’s American society. Over the years, America has had other such cult heroes who created movements of loyal and dedicated followers willing to even die for the cult. Arguably, this cult movement sometimes referred to as Trumpism is the first to reach critical mass and become a force capable of revolutionizing our entire nation.
Whether one is, like the African slaves and the millions of other abused victims of society who are authentically oppressed, or like the millions of Americans who now perceive themselves as oppressed, there will always be rescue fantasies in mind. Many who claim to be rescuers turn out to be victimizers themselves, the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book, “How Democracies Die,” note that democracies are not taken over by invading armies or foreign enemies. They die by the votes of their own people for a home-grown dictator promising to rescue their victimized voters and save them from all invading armies or foreign enemies. They essentially die as cults that expand into majority status in support of cult-leaders.
So what’s my point?
Be careful whom you see within your rescue fantasy.
You may be looking at someone who promises rescue but never rescues. Someone who instead victimizes all over again.
Or you may be looking at someone like the black Jesus, in some community like the black church after June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, who promises to rescue not by force or control but only by influence. Someone who really lives like a true lamb, and not a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing while in the course of devouring his own cult.