Nearly a third of the world population – 1.9 billion people — watched the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. More than 11 million people follow their every move on Instagram.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are two of the most watched people on the planet, yet when they announced recently their desire to “step back” as senior members of the royal family, people around the world expressed shock and pundits claimed the couple had ‘blindsided’ the family in the palace.
This global surprise followed by endless speculation about their motives tells us that for all of this watching, we aren’t seeing very well. On the contrary, the reaction illuminates our collective blindness to the devastating impact of personal trauma and what it means to heal from it.
Prince Harry repeatedly describes his trauma to the public. In an interview broadcast this fall, ITV News anchor Tom Bradby asked about the ongoing effects of losing his mother at age 12: “Do you feel at peace in a way yet, or is it still a sort of wound that festers?”
Harry’s reply was a stunning testimony to how trauma can shape a life.
“[E]very single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash it takes me straight back,” he said.
This statement is all the more heart-wrenching when you consider Princess Diana died 22 years ago and Prince Harry is photographed many times a day.
In a different interview in 2017, the prince, then 32, said that he bottled up his emotions for nearly two decades — more than half of his life. He told the world that his emotional turmoil nearly destroyed him.
Prince Harry also told us that trauma doesn’t heal from a one-time fix. It can require repeated attention over a lifetime.
“It’s management, it’s constant management,” Prince Harry said in the ITV interview. “I thought I was out of the woods and then suddenly it all came back.”
So what have we talked about since the Duke and Duchess’s announcement? Royal watchers have speculated on a rift with his brother, Prince William, a tiff between sisters-in-law Katherine and Meghan, and his lack of loyalty to his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge that his mental anguish is real and the root of his decision? Why is it so hard to respect his heartfelt plea to let him go so he can heal?
For starters few people have the vocabulary and experience to recognize trauma and its aftereffects. Acknowledging the pain of this public figure also forces us to look at people in our own lives and reconsider the stories we tell ourselves about them: If the Sussexes are merely selfish, then our depressed spouse simply needs more sleep; our reclusive teenager just needs to get out more; or our employee who keeps calling in sick is lazy or unmotivated.
Such shorthand explanations enable us to look away from people instead of turning toward them and their genuine suffering.
With Prince Harry’s exit from duties of the royal family, we have an opportunity to learn from someone suffering who has outlined what he needs to recover and has the support of his spouse to do so. We can learn to believe it when people choose what they hope, as Harry said, “can be a more peaceful life.”
What might it mean if our conversation could pivot to acknowledge this, respect it, and most importantly, learn enough about such trauma to act out of compassion to ourselves and those around us?
Perhaps, instead of being spectators to a royal drama, we can choose to see a fellow human being with empathy, and by meeting his trauma with compassion, learn to extend healing to our own lives.