responding to surprising times (responding to the election)
I have worn a bracelet, given to me by my friend Cathie Jo, for 20 years. If I’ve ever removed it, I can’t remember when. On it is written some of the greatest words of comfort ever penned. “You can never go down the drain. Mr. Rogers.” I’ve been clinging to this promise as the swirling forces of unrest and the ambient pressure of cultural upset have invaded every corner of this week. In surprising, unsettling times it can be easy to grasp at whatever is graspable in order to avoid going down the drain of despair, of anger, or, even, of glee and gloating. I want to share, today, some thoughts about how we might stop grasping and start grounding. How we might survive the bath even when it scares us. Even when there is real reason to be afraid.
I have been on a media fast since Tuesday night at 10 p.m. I have not read or watched any news coverage. I have switched my car radio from NPR to the local classical music station. Not a regular Facebook user, I have logged in to my professional account once this week to post a status encouraging folks to put their devices away. I have not engaged social media at all. I chose a similar response pattern following the crisis of 9/11. Knowing that I did not personally need images or editorialism to help me connect emotionally to the situation, I chose to use any time that I might have consumed media to simply hold the victims and their families and all parties making decisions about our national responses in the Light and Love of God. I am choosing that approach this week because I want to be clear headed and open hearted as I deal with the initial fall out of a situation I cannot control.
In a dedicated effort to put only meaningful content out in the world have written draft after draft of this post. I have written the political version, the therapist version, and the gender and race based versions. I have written the version filled with swearing and the version filled with tears and stunned silent spaces. I started a theological and faith based version and ended up deleting the whole 4 pages in a fit of utter frustration. I am choosing to post this version, filled with what I want to share with my niece and nephew, the thousands of young adults I have been blessed to interact and make friendships with in the last two years, my own kids and my “extra” kids, my clients and my friends about how we might best respond when faced with situations that make no sense, are largely out of our control, and spark fear or concern in our bellies and our hearts.
It feels important to share that the events of this week’s election coincide with the end of 17 months of travel (for speaking, research, and writing) for me wherein I have had my most profound, prolonged “Come to Jesus” moment about privilege, bias, and what Walter Wink refers to as “the Powers that Be.” I have made friendships in parts of my country heretofore unknown to me. I have been in Ferguson, Missouri (thank you Chris), affluent, gentrified, and hurting parts of Philadelphia (thank you Gage, et al), Ivy League Princeton (thank you Mackenzie and Mark), rural Western Pennsylvania, Nashville (thank you Heather), rural Arkansas (thank you Tracy) and in many other urban and rural parts of the West, Midwest, South, and East. I have pushed myself into experiences on all points of the religious, political, and cultural continuums in order to try to understand where people are coming from and what drives them. I have born witness to the devastation of racial discrimination, I have witnessed (and experienced) bullying, and I have heard stories of countless young individuals who have experienced all manner of shunning and shaming simply for being who they were born to be. If I, a middle aged, cisgender, straight, resourced white doctor, feel overwhelmed by what I have witnessed and learned, how can I hope to imagine what is has been/is like to experience all of life in this country as part of a marginalized or misunderstood community?
This year stretched and re-organized me and I was emerging from it, long before last Tuesday, determined to fight elitism, heirarchy, and domination in as many ways as I can. Believing that I was put on this earth to help individuals findwhat George Fox (the founder of the Quaker movement) referred to as “that of God” within them, after this year I am more confident than ever that we are created equal, that every single one of us is intended to live rich, complex, fiery lives, that we deserve attachment and safe community, and that our humanity has created a system that privileges some individuals and oppresses others. I believe that we all contain immense light alongside plenty of dark and I believe that no one is immune from this, especially me. While everything in me wants to call out the dark in others, I feel more strongly called to the struggle of determining how to effectively and actually live out what I say when I say that Love must win out over hate.
This life and this year have changed me. I am no longer able to live comfortably surrounded by people just like me. I must be a celebrator of diversity. I must set a table at which everyone is welcome. I must work to acknowledge my privilege and the powers that work actively and passively to oppress others. I must live in such a way that justice and Love are siblings. As my friend Tyler says, if I believe that there is that of God in everyone then I NEED everyone’s voice and presence to understand God and to experience the fullness of life.
This means I need to love those I disagree with. It means I need to find a way to respond non-violently to even my “enemy.” This week, and this year, this is difficult for me.
When things feel topsy turvy, don’t make sense, and feel as though they are sucking me toward the drain I have several options in response. I can become reactive, spewing my insides and acting out. I can become paralyzed, isolated, and afraid, reinforcing my fear by the simple response of inactivity. I can become overwhelmed and depressed or manic and out of control. I can also, however, choose to respond from a place of centeredness and calm. This is the response I hope to encourage with the following thoughts, ideas, and reflections. So, if I were given the opportunity to suggest five things to do in response to this week’s election to the people I care deeply for, they would be the following.
Find your center and work to function from an internal locus of control.
While there are understandable needs to be informed and aware (especially for certain people), there is likely nothing to be gained right now from listening to one more inciting news story, reading one more editorial, or scrolling yet again through one’s Facebook feed. Put down the phone, turn off the laptop. Drive in silence. The news, social media, and the noise can wait for periods of time while we find our center and experience our core. Our dependence upon and preference for hyper-connectedness does not serve us well when we, and those around us, are reactive and affectively dysregulated. Even if we are using media to stay safe or to organize, we will be most effective if we do so from a very grounded center and a filtered receptivity.
Most of us currently live from what I refer to as an External Locus of Control (with the word “locus” meaning “center”). We have acclimated to living life at such a hyper extended range and accelerated pace that we rarely take time for the kind of stillness required to be able to assess our emotional, intellectual, and physical well being. Unable to tolerate focused quiet and bereft of experience with the messy feelings we experience therein, we crave distraction or hand holds outside of our selves. This creates a vicious cycle where we feel dysregulated (sped up, anxious, depressed, manic) by the occurrences around us but incapable of stepping away to find our center. Instead we seek to be well-informed, well-entertained, or well-distracted which turns us back toward forces outside of our selves rather than within.
When we are our healthiest we live from a deeply developed sense of self and a well established internal locus of control. We seek to understand our thoughts and feelings and to give them voice or to resolve them as needed. We can look to our own selves to find strength and determination as well as comfort (a good nap, a long cry, screaming in the car), empathy and humility. We can be in relationship to others as whole inter-dependent individuals without being dependent upon them to validate us. We can attach and detach from others and from information sources without anxiety or fear, knowing that we are solid in and of our selves.
This is why I choose to fast from media in times of unrest and crisis (and I recognize that my privilege allows me to do so). I want to make my own assessments before I listen to others. I want to wrestle with my own emotional reactions so that I can come to the information I will receive in less unconsciously biased and reactive ways. I need to get grounded and regulated before I engage with a world of others who may or may not have done the same. While I need to be informed about and prepared for what will happen in the days ahead, my ability to be fully present to the moment I am in is of immense importance. I have very little control over the world at large and huge control over how I respond to and live within it. I choose to do so from a grounded center and an internalized locus of control.
Some simple ideas for finding your center:
Do a brain dump. On a piece of plain paper write everything that comes to your mind for five minutes. Try to release it from your mind as you write. Leave it on the paper. Take some deep breaths and re-enter your day imagining a clean slate from which to start.
Find a physical center. Standing with both feet hip width apart and firmly on the floor, feel your feet and imagine flattening them to make a very steady base. Slowly and with your eyes closed, rock gently back and forth and side to side while keeping your feet flat on the ground. Move your body in circles, experimenting with where you feel most centered. When you find that space stretch your head upward to lengthen your spine. Experiment with grounding your feet and lengthening your body, breathing deeply and feeling centered and stable.
Practice some mindfulness meditations. Some of my favorite of these can be found here. If you are a person who experiences a relationship with Divine Presence/God/a Higher Power there is a meditation for you on my website which can be found here.
Find appropriate and safe outlets for your strong emotions & practice self soothing.
I believe that we, as a culture, are easily provoked to strong feelings and have done little to develop skills of working with and through them. Further, I believe that we have bought into the lie that we are soothed by what are actually distracting forms of stimulation. We turn to mmorpgs, the news, social media, Netflix, whatever online game we are currently playing, YouTube, or a thousand other places when we need to “come down.” We tamp down our feelings with food or drugs, spending or excessive internet surfing or we rant and rage, pouring them out onto those in our path.
What I believe we really need is a developed ability to express our emotions in safe and appropriate ways, to have witnesses to our affective realities who can hear us and hold space for us, and to develop skills that allow us to soothe ourselves. Mr. Rogers frequently said, “Whatever is mentionable is manageable.” What I believe he meant by this is that the simple act of speaking our emotional truth makes it such that we can begin the hard work of managing it. If I forego a mentionable recognition of my feelings I am apt to act upon them or project them onto you unconsciously. This happens frequently in social networks where reactive emotional interactions rule the day. Instead of attempting to rid ourselves of our strong feelings by trying to convince, “school,” or rail at others, how might it look and feel if we simply named our feelings to our selves and, possibly, a trusted other. “I feel so horrifyingly angry right now!!” “I feel so powerless that I cannot imagine how to move forward!” and other such statements actually connect us to our selves and our experiences. From there we can determine what we need to actually soothe and “calm down” the strong feelings inside of us. This, in turn, grounds us and makes us healthier humans and better neighbors more capable of responding with truth to power. *
This way of “mentioning” also forces a pause from which we can find ways of actually soothing our selves. Different from distraction, self soothing aims to calm and regulate the self. Actions like deep breathing and prayer or meditation may work for some of us while others may prefer creative exploration (making something, listening to music, playing an instrument) or physical activity like stretching, yoga, or walking. The goal is a sense of stability not necessarily a sense of perfect calm. When we soothe ourselves we are able to trust we can care for ourselves or at least know what would be helpful to ask fro from others. This makes us capable of handling the difficulties we are facing and allows us to escape from the tyranny of expecting other people or things outside of ourselves to care for our selves. It also makes us calm enough that we can begin to hear our deepest longings, needs, and concerns. When the body is deactivated from threat it can step into the place of experiencing the stress as a challenge to manage effectively.
Some simple ideas for dealing with strong emotions and practicing self soothing:
Do a feeling dump. On a blank piece of paper write as many of the feelings as you have had this week as you can remember. Spend no more than five minutes doing this. Look at the list and circle the strongest of these emotions. Consider what you need to express and release these feelings? Do you need to run/walk/swim/stretch/do something with your body? Do you need to sing/play an instrument/pound on a drum? Do you need to draw or journal? Do you need to talk? Do you need to create a ceremony of some sort to release the feelings? Do you need a sacred space to contain you? Find these avenues and pursue them. If you can’t find them, ask for help to do so.
If you have a safe friend or two and you’d like to practice “mentioning,” set aside a time and place that is quiet and free from distractions. Allow for at least 10 minutes per person attending. Tending to quality eye contact give each person 5 minutes to answer the following prompts. “I feel…” “I wish…” “I need…” Set a timer for each 5 minutes and respect it. At the end of each person’s sharing take a minute to simply hold their sharing in the space between you. No comments or feedback, just holding the attention toward the person’s words. Move to the next person and do the same. At the end of the time find a way to affirm and validate each other as people.
* If we are bereft of safe places to process or trustworthy witnesses to our difficulties, there are some reliable places to look. Therapists are obvious choices (and exist in every shape, color, and “creed,” some even offering free or low fee services). So are pastors, priests, imams, and spiritual directors. Support and therapy groups exist aplenty in most cities and can be accessed by a call to county mental health agents or local churches, synagogues, and mosques. The key is to find someone who listens more than speaks and who directs you more to finding your answers than to converting you to theirs.
Be the change.
While we can never actually go down the drain there are many people and groups in our country that live in near constant threat of doing so. Many of these humans have been specifically threatened and mocked very publicly these last 18 months. While we all have reason to feel afraid at times, the repeated labeling, belittling, and direct threats toward people of color, Muslims, individuals with different abilities, women, trans, and gay individuals has had a large scale impact on feelings of worthiness and safety within these communities. We all have the ability to to make small inroads into restoring these individuals’ sense of worthiness and belonging. Without seeing ourselves as saviors (see note below about owning our privilege) we can reach out to those who are hurting in respectful, sensitive, and honoring ways, always listening and learning before acting. In order to do this we must begin with acknowledging the ways in which we are part of the problem and then seek out ways to be the change.
In terms of more systemic and large scale ways of being the change, it is important to give ourselves plenty of time and space to effectively discern where our efforts might be best utilized and with whom we might most efficaciously partner. Sometimes, when tensions are high and unrest is great, we leap ahead of ourselves and over-commit to too many efforts or sit paralyzed not certain where to invest ourselves. It would benefit all of us if we each worked hard to push through this reactive over- or under- response. While we are discerning which larger causes to give ourselves to we can take small with actions that cost very little. We can make eye contact or small financial contributions. We can write letters to people of influence. We can seek balanced, reliable information and data in order to be well informed. Above all we can take steps to understand our privilege, working to remove the log in our own eye that blinds us from the way in which our system of domination, heirarchy, and elitism favor some and pull down others.
Answer children’s (and other vulnerable populations) questions & honor their experience and needs.
Children and vulnerable people groups are particularly acquainted with the dynamics of power differentials and bullying. They have well developed truth and sincerity meters and, on certain points of the developmental continuum, are literal in their thinking. Whether you acknowledge it or not, children are watching, listening, learning, and internalizing the behaviors they see enacted by the grown people in their lives. They overhear our conversations and our off handed comments. They are privy to our most candid and unfiltered selves. They grow within the greenhouse of our bias and beliefs and encounter those of their peers’ parents on the playground, at rehearsal, church, and class.
When a person in a position of authority is repeatedly given free passes by other grown people to bully, ridicule, and treat others in inhumane ways, children notice. Some children will be empowered to act in similarly empowered hurtful manners, feeling certain that this previously disallowed behavior is now approved. Others will be confused and still others will be frightened. They take what they see literally and fear that the vitriol they see enacted in the media might, at any point, turn toward them. They have reason to fear this.
What we grown people DO speaks much louder than what we SAY. This means that we need to live with thorough intentionality and care. If we say that a person’s behavior is inappropriate but act in ways that support that person with no requirement of accountability, a child is learning from our unconscious modeling. For this reason and many more, those of us who interact with children need to tend to the first three points in this essay heartily. Children need us to be clear about our blind spots, honest about our bias’, and active about trying to do good in the world. They need us to be truth tellers with our words AND our actions and when we simply cannot be, they need us to be honest that our inconsistencies don’t make any sense. To be told one thing, and shown another is crazy making. Children need to see us cry AND laugh. They need to know that strong feelings are manageable and that they are safe when they come up against their own or ours.
Children need a range of safe adults to talk and walk with and they need to be invited to talk. By simply inviting the questions (e.g: “Hey loves, please ask every question that comes into your mind. There is no question that is un-askable.”) we tell our children that their fears are welcome and that we are available to help them cope with them. In addition, children learn, from their primary communities (families, churches, schools, classes, neighborhoods) whether differences are good and manageable or bad and to be avoided. The world will offer them opportunities to perpetuate these learnings time and time again. It seems to me that giving them the opportunity to experience relationships with grown people who are grounded, confident, and empathic enough to tolerate differences rather than be threatened by them can do nothing but make the world a better place. Children also need us to help them understand that there will always be people who will have different ideas and values than them and that learning to live with these people rather than tearing them down is the healthier path. To this end, helping children develop critical thinking and conflict management skills and then providing opportunities for application and practice is more important than ever.
When interacting with children, adults often passively disrespect the intensity of children’s feelings and lived experiences. In order to help children (and anyone, really) through swirling “bathtub” moments we must first be willing to be attached to them. We must listen as much as we talk, and truly “be with” as much as we “live along side of.” We must come toward a child’s questions or actions or emotions from a place of willingness to engage, speak their language, and answer them honestly. One of the primary reasons for my utter love for Mr. Rogers is his embodiment of deep respect for the experience of each individual child (and person). He took things seriously and did not shy away from difficult topics simply because his audience was young. We need to be these kind of adults in the lives of our children and vulnerable communities. We must be honest and humble, owning our own stuff and making space for the real stuff of the child and their world. For one of the most potent examples of this I offer this clip of Mr. Rogers addressing children and their parents the night after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
Speak (radical/ruthless) l(L)ove to narcissism.
Part of the universal appeal of Mr. Rogers is that he seems capable of doing that which we all wish we could do: Advocate for the immense worthiness of each individual without putting any other individual down. In so doing he has engaged in what Quaker Civil Right’s activist Walter Wink refers to as “the struggle to overcome domination without creating new forms of domination.” He sees people, values them, and loves them with power attempting to match to the hate they have been served.
The kind of love I am referring to here is one that is far from shallow or permissive. It is love that involves struggle (as the most intimate love does) to make space for those it seems impossible to love. It means being committed to love even when hate is the easiest alternative. It is neither coddling nor co-dependent. It isn’t whimpy. Speaking Love to narcissism means doing no harm but taking no shit (a line stolen from my favorite magnet). It means I work harness the power of my strong reactions in order to use the resulting energy proactively. It means I cannot use the very methods I abhor in my enemy but, rather, must find a way of counteracting the powers of self interest and hatred. It means I must work to keep my attention on what I can do to change the reality of those who hurt rather than squandering it on those who simply seek the intensity of my reaction.
Psychologically, narcissism is born out of insecurity and emptiness. From a core that feels unlovable, unacceptable, or less-than the individual who functions from a narcissistic perspective looks outside of them self to find affirmation, confirmation, and security. The narcissistic self needs others to praise it It needs intensity of response to it. The narcissistic self needs us to respond largely to it. Positivity or negativity is irrelevant…intensity is all. Where a more grounded self might say “I hope that my presence adds positivity” the narcissistic one might say “I hope my presence makes an impact.”
In my own experience I have come to believe that the best response to narcissism is one of radical compassion toward the heart of the individual acting in narcissistic ways and radical disinterest in response to their efforts to win the intensity of my attention. If this is an option, one way we might move forward would be to engage in efforts to redirect our attention away from the provoking attacks and attention seeking behaviors all around us and toward pro-active, hope driven, tangible actions that confront hatred with the kind of Love that can’t not change things.
Where do we go from here?
Late at night on the 3rd of July I was flossing my teeth. Half way round the top I tasted something funny and heard a “ping” in the sink below me. It took less than a second for me to realize that my front cap was rounding the bowl of the sink, inching it’s way down to the hole at its bottom. The panic I felt as I realized that I’d have no front tooth if the cap went down the drain was real as, in seeming slow motion, I remembered that the next day was a holiday (the dentist’s office would be closed) and the day after that I was leaving for Ireland. Panic upon panic fueled my focus as I calmly covered the drain and captured the tooth.
I think that many of us, regardless of our political leanings, feel a weird sense of slowed down/sped up panic and fear in the face of the vacuous unknowns that are pulling at us this week. We also know that we will be required to manage these feelings (and help those around us manage those feelings…especially the children and vulnerable amongst us) into the months and years ahead. In the coming days I am choosing to use some of my focused energy to encourage an active attack on narcissism along with a corresponding attempt to inspire empathic empowerment. I cannot single handedly turn the tide nor remove the fear of the drain altogether but I can function from a calm center, taking responsibility for my bias, privilege, and feelings, working to change the systems of domination one small and focused action at a time.
I’d love if you’d join me in this pursuit. Each day for the next several weeks I’ll be posting a ten minute “speak (radical/ruthless) Love to narcissism” activity. These will be self contained experiences, each lasting approximately 10 minutes. I’ll be posting a link to sign up for daily emails tomorrow, otherwise, check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram beginning Friday to take part in this experience.