The cost of fixating

What is something you really want that you CAN’T have right now?

I’m not running right now, and it’s driving me crazy. In any given year, if you asked me to list my top 5 favorite things in life, “Running” would be somewhere on that list. I never want to not run. Unfortunately, these last couple years have been sort of on-again-off-again for me as a runner. And some pain in my glute, leg, and feet, these last couple weeks are keeping me sidelined for a spell. And it is making me really sad Every Single Day.

I think about people who find out they can never run again, dance again, sing again, hike again, play sports again–at least not in the same way they always have. People who have a big thing permanently taken away from them. I can’t think of a much yuckier feeling.

So my little thought for you today–little reminder, since I know it’s something you already know:

Can we stop fixating on the one thing we don’t or can’t have, and missing all the amazing things we could have instead?

Before we charge ahead with our new-found positivity, let’s hold up and acknowledge something together. Because if we don’t, we’re going to run out of steam. There IS time for SADNESS. If you love love love running and you can’t run, that is sad and you should feel it. Denying your feelings doesn’t go well. For example, positivity can feel tough for me around the specialest holidays. Holidays are supposed to feel happy and cozy with family to excitedly see and catch up with and love on. And that’s not something I have in my family. And each holiday will have a little bit of that sting. Respecting and exploring that sting for a while helps me feel better. Sadness is supposed to be felt through. The sadness also teaches me good things, it reminds me to be a good person, of the good things to nurture and the bad things to avoid. Sadness teaches people to break sad cycles. And it makes happy-things, loving-things, good-things more special.

But then . . . once we’ve felt the sad through . . . do we stay there?

Denying sadness costs things. But so does staying there. Fixating on the things we can’t have paralyzes us. It sucks the life out of us. Sometimes “You only live once” is the best reminder. How much of this unique, once-in-a-lifetime year are you going to spend regretting–wishing hopelessly?

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. Defeat is nothing but education; it is the first step towards something better.” ~ Alexander Graham Bell

Fixating on what we can’t have leads to bitterness, purposelessness, anger, burnout, lifelessness, addiction, heartbreak and broken relationships. Yes, there are some beautiful things that, had life gone differently, you could have, but that just aren’t for you now. So we can brood. We can chase. We can try to find illicit ways to take those things. We can complain and complain. We can find ways to numb the pain, sometimes replacing the thing we’re sad we can’t have with another thing we probably shouldn’t. We can become so obsessed with the idea that we can get our thing back that we neglect and run over the good things and the good people in our lives to try to get the one missing thing back. Sometimes we get it back, only to realize it cost too much.

This pandemicky year holds lots of great illustrations of what happens when people fixate on what they can’t have, instead of processing the sadness and then moving forward toward things they still can. Anger, bitterness, and tantrums every day from those who really just want to go to the theater, a concert, to eat out at a restaurant, who can’t have the state fair now, who don’t get to see their grandchild for a while. If you’re feeling like that’s not fair, let me say again–these are really sad things, you should feel grief and anger. But feel it through, feel it big, express it, explore it, and then remember to turn and look at the good things a lot, too. To chase the things still here. This year, we have seen each other get so fixated on things we’re losing that, in our grief, we offer to sacrifice other really important things–like vulnerable people–to get back the stuff we want. The cost of losing our things is so high, that we feel it would be better to just let the sickness and death happen to more people, because my life without XYZ is worthless. . . . . . Is it? What other good things are you forgetting? Things you still have? Things that, even just temporarily, you can transfer your energy to?

I’ve had lots of times to learn and relearn this lesson in my life. Running is a big one. Concussions are big, too. Sometimes people don’t realize the long list of things a simple concussion can take away from you. I’ve spent days and weeks in recovery from concussions fixated on the fact that I can’t go for a run or even a walk, on the fact that it hurts to watch movies, the fact that I don’t even enjoy music or laughter or friendship for a while, because everything got scary and all the noises and sounds are massively overwhelming. I had forgotten that I have spent weeks in my everyday life craving the freedom to just sit or lay quietly, to just sit under a tree and feel the breeze on my skin, to try meditating for hours. Fixating on what was lost . . . cost me so much precious time that I could have cultivated beautiful things that were still there waiting for me. Sometimes this happens with little one-person vacations. I love, love, love having time totally alone. Time to check in, to reset, to sink deep into who I am, how I feel, what I want. Time to read, to write, to plan, to dream, to feel, to rest. If you ever ask me, “How would you like a weekend all to yourself?” I ‘d say ohmywordYES howaboutTOMORROW! But then when those weekends come around, I feel this pull to fixate on the temporarily lost things. Human connection. Missing my best friend and life person. Conversation. The security of being seen and heard. It takes a lot to refocus, to let those things go for a few days, and to embrace all these wonderful things I’ve been wanting. Isn’t it strange how good we are at latching onto the losses and the hurts and the disappointments? This year, I’ve found some presence to try on some mindful focus during a pandemic. There are a lot of favorite-things I can’t have this year, but I’ve gotten to practice shifting my focus to the good things I can have. To see that as some doors shut, others are opening. To ask what possibilities this unique year holds. It has helped.

Of course, it’s not natural or easy to let go of the heartbreak and redirect toward the good things we still have. Here’s a little hint for moving forward: Sometimes the thing keeping us from looking at all the good things we have is the fact that we’re squeezing our eyes shut tight so we don’t have to look at the hurt of the things we’ve lost. The best way to get to the other side of sadness is to feel it all the way for a minute. Feel all the sad. And then open your eyes to all the beautiful possibilities.

So I’ll ask again:

Can we stop fixating on the one thing we don’t or can’t have, and missing all the amazing things we could have instead?

2 impactful things to do every day–ONLY 2

The other day I sat down and wrote a schedule that would help me actually do all the things I want to do every day, every week. I did that a while ago, too. And before that. And again and again and again. And it HAS HELPED. Every time. But it has never “worked” impeccably. Schedules, to-do lists, planning sessions–they’ve never guaranteed lasting consistency in my life. I’ve had to keep trying again.

Like in meditation, where you keep wandering, so you keep gently redirecting your mind.

For years I saw the ebbs and flows of life as a weakness. And “weakness” meant BAD. I don’t really see it that way anymore.

Life comes in waves. In cycles. In “I’ve-got-this” weeks and “I-can’t-even” weeks. And I’m thinking, more and more, that . . . c’est la vie.

Imagine the alternative: Being ALWAYS ON. Going at the same pace through all of life. Never feeling the low times again. Never taking a break from your productivity. Never understanding the “struggle” that all your friends and family experience. Being perfectly consistent. I don’t think that’s how life works. In fact, I think the cycles help us self-regulate, and help us change with life’s seasons.

The cycles in life help us make little mini-course corrections–or sometimes not so mini. Sometimes my heart or my body or my subconscious says something like “Hey, too heavy on the socializing these days,” or “I think you might need to slow down,” or even “I think it’s time for something a little more meaningful.” And then for a while, I become a little more this and a little less that. For a season. Until it’s time to correct again.

In other words, it’s okay for life to be up and then down, back and then forth, busy and then slow, happy and then sad, productive and then relaxing. It’s okay that today-me and tomorrow-me and next-year me are each going to be a little different.

Let yourself not be always “on.”

Let yourself change. Let yourself throw caution to the wind today, stay in bed all day tomorrow, and then go conquer the world the next day.

 

In the context of that disclaimer, and only in the context of that disclaimer, I’d encourage you to try two little things every day. The mountain-top days and the valley-days. Two little things with big impact:

First, keep one centering ritual:

One thing that brings you back to who and where and why you are. Some days the ritual will open your eyes to exhaustion in yourself, and some days the ritual will open your eyes to an almost limitless energy. How important to know which days you need a break and which days you need to give it everything you’ve got! Some days the ritual will show you that you are at peace, and some days it will show you that you’re torn. Good! You know what you’re working with! It’s about slowing down and seeing you and your world.

Over the last several years I’ve learned that for me it’s a mixture of quiet time, meditation, and yoga. And if I can do it first thing in the morning, I will be so much more present that day. Not always more “happy” or “productive,” just more present in reality. Able to show up for my real life instead of wishing it away.

What is that centering ritual for you?

And second, keep one difficult ritual:

Being who we want to be every day, choosing our reaction to life’s roller coasters, takes strength. And not the strength to choose “positivity” every single time, or to choose “productivity” every single time. Just the strength and discipline to say, “Today, I think this is what I want or need,” and then to follow through. Don’t underestimate the power of doing one difficult thing–maybe even one “painful” thing–every single day. If you were able to do that tough thing–that thing you don’t “like” or that didn’t feel good . . . then when the consequential choices show up later in the day, the opportunities to be who you really want to be . . . you’ll remember that you are strong!

At times, for me, that has looked like really uncomfortable running training. Pushing myself past what I thought my limits were. Keeping up that pace even when it’s not “fun.” I’m not always a proponent of that, but it has had its incredibly effective place in my life as a tool for learning discipline. The correlation between the running-as-discipline and making-the-choices-I-really-want times of my life has been pretty shockingly close. Lately, it’s been wrapping up my morning shower with a blast of icy cold water and just standing under it for a while while I find my controlled, capable breath. It just proves to me first thing in the morning that today I can pick the uncomfortable option or make the tough decisions or do the scary things if I need to.

What is that difficult, strength-finding ritual for you?

 

Good luck, my friend, as you show up for your life and choose to be the Light you want to be in the world, every single day. And it’s okay that it will look different day to day. Just don’t lose YOU in all the waves.

~ namaste ~

P.S. And if you ever do lose you, just wake up the next morning, check in on your heart, and take a cold shower.

P.P.S. You’ve got this!

Peter Elbridge - can't be always on can be always you

Death

To my friend Peter F.
You’re one of the tenderest souls the world has known.
Be at peace.
~

Death is yucky.

It’s been on my mind this year. A lot.

One of my first, best work-buddies died suddenly the other day. His name was Peter, too, and we used to set up a cup across the room and take turns trying to throw pens into it. We got into trouble together–a lot. We drank Monsters together and always, always made each other laugh. He did this hilarious thing where anytime you’d tell him anything–anything–he’d whip his head around and, in an exaggeratedly defensive voice snap back, “I know!!!?” So much laughter. Peter was the best, and he was a deep, deep, loving human. . . . One of the hardest things about death, to me, is that you can’t talk with the person about it afterward.

This weird year . . . I’ve watched videos on the news of Black Humans dying who didn’t need to die. I’ve looked at graphs representing hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic. I’ve been there with people barely hold on–wishing I could fix it, knowing I can’t. We’ve adopted a 13-year-old dog who we absolutely adore, but who we know doesn’t have too many more years or months to snuggle with us and eat yummy treats. We’ve talked through preparing for and dealing with “if you or I die,” since that’s a thing adults do, especially this year. And I’ve wrestled with some of my own fears and associations and assumptions and feelings about death.

A close friend recently asked the question: Why aren’t we using this year to reflect on death more? It seems like a healthy activity. But sort of like cod liver oil is healthy. It’s healthy but it is no fun. Cheese tastes better.

Another close friend recently suggested being honest more about the stuff we don’t have all put together. The stuff we aren’t confident about, or don’t know what to say about. The stuff we do struggle with. None of us have all the answers. So it’s good to get real with each other.

So, real from me to you: I don’t like death. Death gets to me. Like all the way.

Since I know you think about death sometimes, too–here are my thoughts–very random and disorganized, as this topic is for me. Once you’ve read this, maybe you can share your thoughts with me? Maybe they’re words I need to hear. Or words you need to say. Maybe you can share those words with others? Maybe we can face these yucky things together more.

First and maybe most of all: When someone dies, there’s this urge to say the right thing to make it feel a little better, to relieve a little pain. Don’t. It doesn’t work. At all. It’s almost hurtful–it is hurtful–to think your words can somehow fix the sting. Death is the worst. Let the pain happen. It needs to happen. Death is awful. Don’t downplay it. Don’t deny it. Don’t “at least” it. Maybe there’s nothing to say, and it’s just time for hugs and for just sitting next to each other.

That being said . . . here are some thoughts to (maybe) help prepare for it? . . . to give the awful experience of death some context. . . .

In some communities, death is very normal. For example, free climber Alex Honnold talks about how routine it is in his community to hear “[this-friend] just died.” Their sport is so full of passion and aliveness. But it’s an incredibly dangerous sport, so they become more used to death. From what I understand it still hurts, but it’s . . . different. It’s more . . . normal. The death? Not surprising. The full-tilt life? Worth the risk, and worth celebrating. “They died doing what they loved.” . . . Sometimes you hear doctors talk about how dying is just a part of the life cycle. In some poor parts of the world, early or painful death is much more “normal,” too. Maybe the experience of death is somewhat subjective.

A Buddhist view on death stresses how natural it is as a part of life. The flip side of the same coin. That it is such a struggle because we try so hard to deny that flip side, clinging to the things we love as if they are permanent, and seeing our individual selves as extra special instead of as one little part of a big, unified, flowing world of life.

“We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.”

~ Geshe Dadul Namgyal, Feb 26 2020 interview in the New York Times . . . maybe you should read that whole interview!

So what about after death? Do you know exactly what happens? Are you sure? Pretty sure? Not a shadow of a doubt? . . . Or do you not know? Are you comfortable with being unsure? At least able to accept it? Is there some “trust” somewhere in there? Do you think you could find a way to know for sure what happens? And do you think it would change things? . . . Do you need to know? . . .

What will you leave behind? . . . You loved and treasured your moment of life. Will you leave behind a better chance for others to treasure their own lives? Will you leave the world a little better, a little happier, a little more hopeful? Your friends and family? Or the strangers you do or don’t smile at?

Death is uncontrollable. But there is a lot we can do to probably influence the quality and length of our life. Taking care of our bodies, of our health. Taking precautions. Not being a free-climber. Never ever eating happy yummy treats. Steering clear of poor inner cities where violent crime is more common. Not volunteering in war zones. See? It’s not that straight-forward. There are some “good” things we can do to probably lengthen our lifespan . . . and there are things we can do (or not do) that give us more days on the calendar, but days with less meaning.

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. . . . You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. . . . You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr

What evil or hurt do we do to each other and to the world in our desperate attempts to cling to our fleeting lives? . . . And what unhealthiness do we inject into our own lives to try to escape death, or to deny its pain and fear? . . . Stop and think . . . . . . .

But the good things we can do–taking true care of ourselves, and not to an extreme . . . pause and ponder how deeply you treasure your life. Imagine knowing your last breath. That deep, unsettling feeling of loss . . . it’s real. Life is worth holding onto, for yourself and for others, in every healthy and balanced way you can. So maybe do eat your veggies?

Just, also eat pizza sometimes. Balance. . . . And consider doing some big, brave (if scary) good in the world.

In other words, while you’re clinging to life, don’t forget to taste life and to help others find their lives, even if it may cost you a couple years.

At the end of the day, you can’t control death. I keep catching myself wondering, day-dreaming, hoping–maybe I can find a way to help our furry friend Willoughby bypass death, postpone it, live an extra whole lifetime. But eventually, reality steps back in to say: You can’t control death. I can’t control my furry friend’s. I can’t control my wife’s. I can’t control mine. And you can’t control yours. It could be an accident tomorrow. It could be disease a few years from now. Or it could just be time to go when you’re old and grey and full of memories. And I think it may help to accept that–the fact that you can’t control death. It may make your grip a little looser, your fears a little calmer, and life a little sweeter.

One sort of sick but sort of true silver lining–which doesn’t take away the sting but might offer just a little peace: Think what will be over at death. What will be no more. What will be done. Life does include plenty of suffering. And our bodies seem to see more and more pain as we slowly grow older. Some live to see such pain and helplessness that they choose no longer to cling at all costs to their life, knowing it is time to stop fighting a brutal fight. And when there is that much pain, the fact that death will someday relieve it is not an entirely unwelcome thought, though it never makes life less precious. Pain can’t last forever. And so we hear people at funerals give the over-simplified, maybe unwelcome encouragement, “At least they’re not in pain anymore,” and no, it doesn’t fix it, but . . . it’s sort of true. . . . There is a natural end to suffering, just as there is a natural end to life.

Yes, it still stings.

What experiences, feelings, emotions, treasures–are only a part of our lives because we know that one day we will die? There is a sweetness. There is a deep love. There is attentive, expressive, desperate love that comes along with mortality. Because every minute counts.

“If we were vampires and death was a joke,
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke,
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans,
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.
Maybe time running out is a gift,
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift,
And give you every second I can find,
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever,
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.
Maybe we’ll get forty years together,
But one day I’ll be gone,
Or one day you’ll be gone.”

~ If We Were Vampires, a song by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Time is a strange and arbitrary measurement of our lives. We crave and cling to our youth, our “prime.” And we don’t want to grow old because we believe growing old means we will lose those things–the things we’re passionate about, the things we do, and love to do. Does this interpretation of time do us a disservice? Does it rob us of what we have? Of the parts of us we never really lose–that just show up in a different “time” of our lives?

“You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished. . . . Why do they count less ten years later? . . . The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.”

~ You still are and you still can, a blog post I wrote a little while ago

Here is the most comforting thought I’ve ever found about growing old–about the irreversible passing of time–though to be fair, I’ve shared it with some who don’t find it comforting–so, in case it does happen to help you, too:

“I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past . . .”

~ Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Nazi death camps, in his beautiful little book, Man’s Search for Meaning

So . . . time. It passes. We grow old. Death comes. But I am still me. You are still you. The reality, the identity, the beauty–it always IS. It will always be real. One day we’ll be done looking back, but all the love and passion and beauty will still be there, will still be real. . . . any comfort in that for you? For me, there is.

But death still hurts. It’s the worst of the worst of the worst. So . . . how do we face it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard that people really need someone there to hold their hand. So maybe we focus on how we can help each other face it. We do need each other.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Frozen II and you don’t want to know any bits of what happens, skip down to the next paragraph. Remember or imagine with me: Olaf the larger-than-life little snowman is suddenly dying. Anna comes over and holds him as he slowly fades. “I’ve got you.” Wrapped in her embrace, Olaf says, “Hey Anna, I just thought of one thing that’s permanent.” “What’s that?” “Love,” says Olaf. “Warm hugs?” offers Anna. “I like warm hugs,” says Olaf, at home in the love of Anna’s arms. And then he goes. . . . And there it is. . . . “Warm hugs.” If we have to go–and we do–can we go with warm hugs? Can we give someone the warm hugs they need? This year, so many people are dying alone in hospital beds, too far from the loving arms that would give anything to be there to offer warm hugs. So–maybe warm hugs aren’t just physical, in-person, immediate. Maybe we can provide each other a love, a sweetness, a tenderness that proves those warm hugs, even just felt deeply in the heart. Maybe it would help to talk about death more with each other . . . to express, to promise the warm hugs, so that when the time comes, we can feel them, no matter how it happens.

Maybe you get the chance to be right there with someone to hold their hand . . . to hold them. That is a gift you can know is good.

So I don’t know what to do about death.

I don’t.

It is indescribably bad.

But the sadness and hurt of death gives you and me a meaningful purpose in each other’s lives:

Treasure people now. Give happiness now, while people are still here to feel it. Life has plenty of hurts, and death is scary. So when we see each other, maybe we can remember the hurt and the fear we’ll each face, and we can take the opportunities we have, while we still have them, to ease each other’s pain in any way we can . . . to bring love and light and laughter and warm hugs into each other’s impermanent, beautiful lives.

Willoughby 1 (2)

No more looking the other way

A poetic quote has been making the rounds (not sure where it originated), relating to the pandemic: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.”

I think that’s as big as the rest of life, too, in every corner of the world.

 

These words are not going to be enough. But I hope they help a little:

 

I want to tell you something about the world I grew up in.

We tried desperately to look the other way when bad things were happening that we didn’t want to be bothered with.

Racist, sexist, and homophobic statements and acts were all somehow justified, excused, or explained away. For some reason it was the victim’s fault. The victim “should have known better” or “was asking for it” or “should have made different choices” or “shouldn’t dress that way.”

Jokes and mockery at the expense of vulnerable, disadvantaged, and oppressed people were normal. Tacking on the phrase “We’ve got to lighten up a little” absolved us. We threw around hurtful words like “retarded,” called avoidable suffering “God’s judgment,” used the hell out of the phrase “Well maybe he should get a job.” And goodness knows my old world is on the front lines of making and sharing “Kung Flu” videos. “Okay, folks, lighten up!”

The only way we could stomach these selfish behaviors was by carefully turning a blind eye to the sad and violent realities behind the things we were making light of. “Kung flu” only stays “funny” if you ignore the real and sudden and very sad rise in harassment and assault of Asians who are being generically and vaguely blamed for the coronavirus.

If we admitted that in life and in its storms, some found themselves in tougher, scarier, less fair boats . . . then we might have to do something about it. And we couldn’t be bothered.

For example, I learned that racism was largely a thing of the past. That remaining inequities or disproportionate suffering in and harassment toward America’s Black population, by this point was sort of their own fault–holding onto the past, up to no good, “their culture.” We certainly never looked closely enough to see that Black (and Hispanic for that matter) Americans are stopped by the police at a much higher rate. If we had looked–had acknowledged that so, so many people in our society are still genuinely discriminated against just because of the color of their skin–from unequal pay and work opportunities to heavier prison sentences for the same crimes–if we had opened our eyes, we would have had to stand up for them. We would have had to acknowledge that maybe, yes, we should be helping. That accountability is an absolute necessity in the face of racism. That devoting economic resources to undoing the cycle of oppression is only fair. But then we would have had to stop making the jokes and loosened our grip on our disproportionate access to wealth, comfort, and ease.

Another example is how we judged victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, manipulation–pick anything. In almost every case where a female was used sexually, the responsibility and blame was placed on her. Or, if the blame couldn’t be placed on her, she at least had to share a good chunk of it. She probably wouldn’t have been assaulted if she had “dressed modestly.” She wouldn’t have been coerced and abused by her husband if she had “fulfilled her wifely duty” with enough frequency. It was on females to know that males were uncontrollably attracted to them, and to shield themselves. If we hadn’t so consciously looked the other way, we would have seen that 1 in 6 females in America are sexually assaulted. That 1 in 7 females are sexually abused before they even turn 18. And that 20% of sexual assaults on minors happen by age 8. Meaning that we live in a world where real, inexcusable, hateful sexual abuse happens, and it’s NOT because girls ask for it. We would have had to stand up and say, “Males, STOP. Stop assaulting, harassing, and abusing females. This is on the abuser, not the abused.” But then males would lose some of their excuses to use and manipulate females, lose their control, and their free passes. Be opened up to scrutiny. No . . . easier to just shake our heads and say “She asked for it.” (I know that this is not an issue that exactly follows these gender-lines, but in the world I grew up in, excusing male’s abuse of females was what was focused on.)

One last example was how we viewed and talked about and confronted poverty. Poverty was the responsibility of the poor. Their fault. Not our problem. We always began with the assumption that some character flaw led them into the poverty they were experiencing. I remember a hundred conversations about all the ways we couldn’t or shouldn’t help the poor. How giving money or food to “beggars” (as if that were the word that summed up their identity) would just enable and make worse their “laziness.” How we couldn’t make them diligent. How “sinful” attitudes and behavior, like a poor work ethic, led them into poverty. How state-run social programs were theft and would make poverty worse. A hundred conversations about how we can’t help and how it’s not our fault. I don’t remember conversations about how we could help. We didn’t have those . . . we couldn’t have those, or we’d have to do something. There was one way, I guess. Support for the poor was exclusively the responsibility of “the church,” and “the church” solved everything by teaching people to find their hope in an after-life where it wouldn’t matter that they lived a life of suffering and poverty (at least the churches I grew up in; I know there are other churches that do genuine work on behalf of economic support for those living in poverty). Every conversation about poverty was about how it’s “not our fault,” and “we can’t help,” and “they’ll have to fix it themselves.” We didn’t talk about systemic, cyclical patterns in society that unnecessarily push people into poverty and hold them there. If we explored those ideas, we’d have to do something uncomfortable. We’d have to acknowledge we had it easy and look for the inconvenient, messy ways to help. Easier to just live in blissful, intentional ignorance.

In sum–the world we grew up in was one of desperately trying to look the other way when bad things were happening that we couldn’t be bothered with. So we always, always, always started by looking for the reasons why the “problem” wasn’t real, the “oppression” wasn’t real.

I’m not the only one who grew up in a world like this. I would venture to say that we are all plenty familiar with a big chunk of America that sees “not-my-problem,” status-quo-justifying Non-Action as a value–a goal to aim for–an ideal to live by. There are social and political philosophies built on this. “They” are not our responsibility, not our problem. It’s on them to take responsibility and fix their own problems.

 

If this is the philosophical world you grew up in, I invite you to try 2 new things:

 

First, when you see hurt and suffering–don’t look away. Look really, really closely. Watch the sickeningly awful stuff.

As someone who grew up in a world that tries desperately to look away from bad things happening (as long as they don’t hurt us), I DO think there’s a solution–a way to effectively transition ourselves and each other out of this habit.

If you’re trying to bring awareness to somebody who grew up with the philosophy I did, honestly I don’t think arguments, statistics, or ridicule are the way to go. When looking-away was my go to, I still, in general, was a very loving and compassionate person. I had just had it trained into me to assume the “problem” wasn’t valid and that it wasn’t my place to help. So calling names won’t help. Every argument and statistic can and will be countered by someone who needs to believe there’s not a real problem to deal with.

I think that arguments and statistics and history and et cetera are all helpful, but only after someone is actually ready to listen. And emotion is generally what gets people ready to listen–as it should be. Because suffering, oppression, murder–those are emotional things. They are deeply sad and painful and angering things. We have emotions for a reason.

So if you’re raising awareness among people who have learned to look away, start by asking them to just look closely at the yuckiest stuff. To just look. To just watch. To see the videos and the pictures, to hear the really awful stories, to go look at the horror face-to-face wherever they can.

When I don’t ever have to see a homeless person–don’t ever have to talk to them, don’t ever listen to their stories, it’s much easier to live in a different world, as if the homelessness-problem doesn’t exist.

When I don’t ever have to see racial discrimination and oppression actually happening . . . when I get to quickly walk away from the headline instead of watching the sickening video of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd crying for help until he dies under the knee of a police officer who onlookers couldn’t stop . . . when I get to treat Ahmaud Arbery like a statistic instead of watching the stomach-turning reality of his murder that was then covered up for months . . . when I get to look away, never see or feel the emotional torment in suffering, I get to keep saying “not-my-problem.”

Seeing the shocking, brutal reality of hurt and suffering–confronting the emotions they bring–that is where minds start changing and people start looking and listening.

If you are the person who starts with this not-my-problem philosophy, I encourage you to LOOK–to LOOK CLOSELY when bad things happen. Go watch the videos and look at the pictures and read the stories. Let yourself get emotional about them. Imagine yourself or someone you love in those stories. Remember that you’re seeing real humans. If that homework seems to you like a bad idea, seems “unnecessary”–ask yourself why that is. Why do you so badly need to look away? What will change when you look?

 

Second, imagine being part of willing, compassionate solutions to suffering.

Try shifting your perspective for a minute from protecting your right to look away to asking what love and compassion could do to help.

You might find that there are lots and lots of real ways to help. You might find those ways through reaching out individually to suffering people, through volunteering and non-profit work, or through bringing awareness on a larger scale to the needs of suffering people. You might even find that there is a group of people who, motivated by compassion, not compulsion, have elected leaders who can help focus society-wide efforts on helping those in need and making this a safe world for every human. There are lots of people who don’t cling to their “right” to not be forced into solving suffering, and who start instead with “Okay, how CAN we help?”

You might find that we really can help make the world a better place, but only once we can give up our focus, for a moment, on protecting our own need to cling to every dollar, convenience, comfort, ease–“right”–that we have.

What would your role as a benefiting and contributing member of society look like if you switched your focus (at least sometimes) to how you can help, instead of focusing on the threat of being “forced” to help with something that “isn’t your responsibility”?

 

No more consciously or subconsciously denying that we’re not in the same boat. No more automatically denying the possibility of inequities, hate, bigotry. No more scrambling to justify, excuse, or explain away every racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, or greedy act. No more ignoring things that don’t fit our agenda. No more looking away from realities that make us uncomfortable.

I know that part of the discomfort is, “But if I DO acknowledge the massive problem, I have no idea how to help, and maybe I’ll get it wrong, and where do you even start???”

That is okay. Awkwardly, messily speaking up for your suffering fellow humans leads to change. It doesn’t matter if you get it a little wrong. The worst possible thing you can do is look away and let the suffering, abuse, and oppression continue.

We’re not going to get this perfect. But when we have the chance to do some good, to help the vulnerable, to fight injustice and protect our fellow humans . . .

We need to stop looking the other way.

We need to step in and help.

We need to take a stand for love and justice and the right of each human to not be degraded and used and oppressed.

No matter how messy.

William Wilberforce - looking the other way

When life gets normal again

I have an idea.

Get a piece of paper and write down some of your deepest thoughts from these lonely, scary, inspiring, deeply humanizing coronavirus days. Thoughts about yourself, about the world, about your neighbors and friends, about hope and kindness and sacrifice. Thoughts about what matters.

Then bury it somewhere in your closet with all the boxes and bins of old stuff.

A couple years from now, when you come across it again, I bet you will learn something about the depth you found during crisis. There may be some bits you had forgotten about as soon as the crisis. ended. Really important bits. Really special bits.

Can we find a way to remember the depth we are finding in crisis? The beauty, the courage, the friendship, the purpose? Can we draw ourselves some little maps, so that when life gets normal again, we won’t forget the deep places we found in these not-normal times?

Some of the changes in ourselves will be good. Can we keep them?

when life gets back to normal 2