Whispers of the Devil: An Invitation to Think Differently About Our Abilities to Effect Change

By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP

A decision to watch a few movies during a relaxing afternoon away from the busyness of the past week proved to be a welcome escape. As the third and final movie was ending, a montage of sequentially presented clips from earlier parts of the movie came across the flat screen. The series of flashbacks to earlier parts of the movie nicely illuminated the craftily planned and well-orchestrated con that the main character was quite cleverly perpetrating on another leading character. I smiled as the montage ended and privately proclaimed, how ingenious! At that very moment, the voice narrating throughout the movie resurfaced, confidently asserting with diabolically infused satisfaction, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist!” How timely and apropos, I thought, given America’s current and toilsome struggles with two pandemics, COVID-19 and racism.

Indelibly etched images of the ravaging effects of the coronavirus continue to be inked into our individual and collective psyches. Even with ease of restrictions of the stay-at-home orders, the unrelenting stream of life’s uncertainties, abundant triggers that expose emotional vulnerabilities, economic shake-ups, and pressures to manage relational responsibilities continues to flow precariously like raging whitewater rapids. A piece of good news in this pandemic is that scientists across the globe are racing to discover a COVID-19 vaccine and predictions are that this ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach will produce an effective vaccine likely earlier than previous medical breakthroughs. Yet, despite hopeful outlooks and amidst constant reminders from public health officials and the CDC to hold steadfast to safety protocols while easing back into life as it used to be, violations of said cautions are evident in the resurgence of COVID-19 in at least 20 states. I began to wonder if the Devil was up to his old tricks getting people to believe that the coronavirus really is not as serious as it is.

The pandemic known as America’s original sin, racism, has never been eradicated. As the putrid smells of festering wounds left untreated linger until cleansed, so too, has the four-decade-long festering wounds of racism created a foul and rancid stench that continues to permeate the consciousness of American society. Socially-sanctioned systems of oppressions rooted in premises of racial superiority, evidenced in historic and contemporary laws, policies, and constitutions, were put in place to keep people in place! Like Groundhog Day, collusive and patterned practices of inequities within economic, education, health care, employment, housing, and political domains are repeated with such habitual regularity that we became anesthetized to the associated psychological and emotional pain and trauma that comes with always feeling “less than” and anchored perpetually to proving yourself to others.

Relative to racism, the Devil has never abandoned his old tricks. He has some people believing that the election of President Obama is confirmation that we live in a post-racial society, thus there is no need to do more. He has others acknowledging that America has failed at eradicating racism and that they are willing to advance conversations toward meaningful change. Curiously absent in the pandemic of racism, is the race by scientists across the globe to discover an “ism-vaccine,” if not an outright cure for racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious intolerance. The all-hands-on-deck approach that would all but ensure success at eradicating “ism-ideological” beliefs and practices is nowhere to be found.

The Devil about which I speak is the unchecked negative self-talk in which all of us engage from time to time, some doing so more than others. You see, self-talk, our inner voice that is always with us, comes in the forms of an “inner critic,” a motivational speaker, or an instructional healer. Subconscious beliefs, biases, and assumptions about ourselves and about the world around us when coupled with our conscious thoughts determine the inner voice that subsequently emerges. Further, when people repeat internal messages to themselves, irrespective of whether the internal messages are negative or positive, they begin to believe the messages they are repeating. And, when they believe those messages over the course of time, they begin to behave as if the messages are actually true and factual. The principle of “say, believe, behave” is always operative, never taking a day off.

Inner voices from four centuries ago spewing messages of hate, racial superiority, segregation, and inferiority of all non-white persons culminating in the development of instituting systemic structures to support said messages, continue to be believed and practiced to this current day. Thus, could it be that America has not failed at eradicating racism and other forms of oppression? What if we began to hear and see what the Devil wishes that we did not … that America has succeeded mightily at maintaining systemic structures that fuel racism, sexism, agism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious intolerance. And, we can be and do better by creating action narrative fueled by the audacity to hope!

By creating new narratives with commensurate actions, we can succeed differently in at least two ways. First, by exercising our inalienable rights to vote, we can dismantle laws that sustain gaps in areas such as economic development, educational attainment, employment opportunities, and housing options. We can also put laws, policies, and procedures in place that ensure equity and fairness and that uphold basic human rights and dignity. We can succeed differently in a second way, by voting to ensure a one-term stint for current national executive leadership and by supporting the collaboratively-informed short- and longer-term vision and concrete actions of new and fresh executive leadership grounded in foundational principles of honesty, integrity, compassion and cura personalis or care for the whole person.

Within the last three months a montage of sequentially presented clips have run across the flat screens of our lives. The first set of clips came in the form of our global community experiencing months of COVID-19 adjustments, restrictions, and incalculable loss. The second set of clips came in the form of our global community watching a public 8 minute, 46 second lynching-by-knee of George Floyd, one of many Black men and woman dying at the hands of police, opening old wounds and forcing far too many to relive unreconciled traumas. Springing forth from both crises continues to be a range of emotions including, but not limited to, anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, sadness, hopelessness, and uncertainty. And, opportunities to see our way forward, though clouded currently in the still-unfolding drama of today’s trials and tribulations are, nonetheless, available for us to take advantage.

Are we going to allow the negative inner voice of our inner critic narrating throughout the movie of our lives with diabolically infused satisfaction with status quo to resurface? Or, are we going to seize the opportunities to silence that voice? Choosing to drown out the negative self-talk of the Devil’s whisper is achievable using our collective and compelling voices as motivational speakers and instructional healers foretelling victory by steadfast commitment to action thus moving the needle of real change.