“How are you doing?”
Easy enough question, but do you want the Fine answer or a harder one? I’m not being shot at while watching a music festival, not drowning on an island with no power. I’m not being beaten by police officers sworn to protect me, I’m not being bombed for my political beliefs… so really, “Fine” should suffice.
But I’m not.
I know it’s much worse for many, vast numbers, of people facing real trauma. I’m safe and comfortable, and want to be caring, and I want to make a difference. My pain is so small compared to those on the front lines of strife around the globe. And I feel assaulted by the daily headlines. Las Vegas, Myanmar, Syria, Puerto Rico. Missiles over Japan. Police brutality in Catalonia.
My first reaction is to shut down. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to turn off the news feed. Stay off social media. Stay in my bubble of comfort.
How are you doing? Fine. I’m comfortable. Isn’t that good enough?
Our brains present a particular challenge when faced with strife. Our brains LIKE being comfortable. As stress rises, our own brains push us to deny facts and cling to righteousness. We find people who agree with us. We withdraw into a smaller circle sameness in a primal drive for protection.
My second reaction is rage. I want to curse and stop and smack some sense into this turbulent world. Isn’t it time to grow up and play nice? But then I realize that my rage is hiding something deeper. Underneath is the lurking dark. Helpless and hopeless, impotent as the raiders burn the village.
This morning, amidst the onslaught of stories in my once-was-fun-“social” media, I saw a quote from the Dalai Lama, perhaps this one:
“…use our short time here in living a meaningful life, enriched by our sense of connection with others and being of service to them.”
My first reaction, this morning? No.
But on deeper reflection, my third reaction is yes. This is the world I believe in. This is the world that I’m spending my life toward.
How are you feeling? I’m feeling the thunderstorm of change.
Yes, I’m shocked by the thugs with tiki torches, horrified by brutality that seems to be growing all around. Terrified to see the depths of human depravity. Despairing. I feel rage. I feel helplessness. Yet at the very same time, I feel fierce. I feel the determination rising. I feel the voices echo in my head and heart: never again.
I walked today by the ocean, and now I feel the crashing waves. Powerful, incessant, even brutal – yet the waves are beautiful as light glistens through the water. This is the paradox of emotion. These feelings don’t cancel each other out. They coexist; literally they are chemicals, mixing and stirring within us, preparing us to cope… or at least to try.
I’m So Stressed Out
In an effort to simplify, often we put this thunderstorm of feelings into a word: Stress. I love Kelly McGonigal’s definition in her book, The Upside of Stress. Stress is when our perceived challenges are greater than our perceived resources. In the face of these intense, brutal, impossible challenges, I feel inadequate. I don’t have resources to solve the problems, and voila, stress.
Yet McGonigal and others’ research throws light on a basic truth of emotion. Feelings are power. She wrote that how we think about stress changes our reaction to it. Stress and excitement are twins. Perhaps this can be true for despair and determination?
If stress means, “the problem is bigger than my resources,” we need to either shrink the problem, or grow our resources. What if emotion, itself, is a resource. What if our fear is a voice of clarity? Our rage is a voice of conviction? Our helplessness is a voice of solidarity? What if all these turbulent feelings, this thunderstorm of emotion, is harnessed to step forward?
How do we turn our turbulent emotions into resources?
1. Stop hiding.
It’s ok to have big feelings. Big feelings mean something big is happening.
2. Get real.
Our feelings are based on our perceptions of the world. Don’t accept the narrow slice of data from the iPad. Go outside. Listen to real people. See your neighbor arguing with his son about how the lawn should be cut, and the bagger at the grocery store flirting with the cashier. The world of pundits and politicians is fiction, the real world is all around us.
3. Get active.
Channel the energy somewhere worthwhile. Go for a walk. Talk to a friend. Write a letter. But most importantly, find someone to support.
The Big Ripples of Little Actions
In the world of Big Headlines we may be powerless, but the real world is different, it’s our world. Maybe we can’t change the course of history, but we can change the course of one another’s lives. In the epics, there are magnificent villains and heroes – magnificent as in, magnified. In the real world, the villains are regular people who long for love and respect, but can’t find it inside, so they try to make people respect them. They are petty bullies who laugh at a kid pushed to the floor, or a bureaucrat who says, “wait in line” when there is none. The heroes are all of us, the ordinary people who live in ordinary time and turn to help someone with their suitcase on the subway.
Natalie Hampton was bullied in middle school, assaulted and harassed till her stress and depression led to hospitalization. When she changed schools, she gained a chance to try again. Remembering the despair of hiding alone during lunch, she wanted to help others who suffer from this isolation, so she created an App, Sit with Us. Here’s an interview we did with her last year.
Natalie’s work has grown to the point that few weeks ago she spoke to the United Nations. This weekend we caught up with her, and she shared a story of a fellow teen who faced a similar struggle that led to the creation of Sit with Us. Spontaneously, Natalie asked this girl to, “Come sit with us” at lunch. Years later, the girl told Natalie: “I’d started harming myself, and I was thinking of suicide, but that small invitation to lunch changed everything for me.” Natalie recently told the story of the creation of Sit with Us in an absolutely lovely TEDxTeen talk. She concludes,
“We go through life not always being conscious of the people around us. So if you take just one second to be more perceptive and to be more kind, imagine what you could do.”
She says it without fanfare, but it’s profound truth, hard won. Our greatest power takes just moments of attention, moments of compassionate action. In the real world, we suffer not from “fake news” or even presidential pettiness. In the real world we suffer because today we feel lost and lonely and helpless, and one small action alters the moment. The moment ripples to another moment, and another, and our lives are transformed by the most basic acts of human decency. Of human connection.
Call Your Mother
Michael Miller, a writer on our team and Editor of the EQ.org library, told me that his parents were in Vegas over the weekend. When he saw the news, he called her, they were safe. The stunning moment for him: I don’t called my mother often enough.
It sounds so small, yet it’s like Natalie’s story. Contained in this moment is a whole world. We FEEL disconnected, yet most of us belong to many circles. Circles of friends, of family, of neighborhood, of church/synagogue/mosque, bowling club, office mates. These are our circles of influence. These are the circles of our most profound power.
Sure you can call your elected officials if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where that’s possible. But if you really want to change the world? Call your mom. Call your childhood friend. Call that person who you danced with in 7th grade and never had the courage to call up afterward. In these small acts we defy the politicians who seek to divide us to strengthen their own power. We defy the petty differences on which so much media focuses so ardently.
The statistics that say we’re more lonely and afraid than ever in history. We have very little power to affect the 7.5 billion people. We have very little ability to change the course of global warming. We have almost no capacity stop flying bullets. But we have nearly infinite capacity to share love and compassion.
I heard something about our culture being much more interested in “heroes” as the folks who ride into battle to confront conflict. We rarely spend the same effort recognizing the much more time intensive process of growing, healing, caregiving, teaching, making. It takes a moment to destroy something and a lifetime to create. Let us spend our lifetimes creating in the real world, with the tremendous power we each have to connect. One smile. One invitation to lunch. One moment of generous service. One hug. Then another.