My dear mother was recently puttering around her kitchen singing the Dave Matthews song, “Trouble,” in this gorgeously eery voice. Every note was pitch perfect, resonant. Which is weird for her, because when she’s consciously trying to sing she tends to be off key, but I digress. La Mama’s magical voice is not the only thing weird going on.
Politics are crazy right now. Not to mention, ordinary life is hard. People get ill, pass away, go through STUFF. You know what I mean. These are the times when Stoic philosophy a la Marcus Aurelius (Read his meditations for free on MIT’s archive here) and Epicetus really matter (if you’re in a scholarly mood, check Epicetus out).
Stoicism doesn’t mean “RUN THROUGH THE PAIN” or “WALK IT OFF” like your high school coach told you. It means that trouble, challenge, is an opportunity for learning, and ultimately, growth.
There’s a bible verse my mom likes, since we already mentioned her singing habits (she’s a cool old lady, okay?). It’s this:
All things work together for good for those who love the lord and are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28
Now, this doesn’t mean that all things ARE good. Some things, quite obviously, are shit. But someday, somehow, if you keep on going and keep on loving and trying and growing long enough, flowers may grow from that shit, and you’ll have a whole garden.
Or, as they said in Latin, in the days of the stoics:
Dolor hic tibi proderit olim: Someday this pain will be useful to you. – Ovid.
Many people are emotionally reeling right now. In addition to the turmoil in the world, we all have our own stuff. My great-uncle passed away this weekend, and I loved him dearly. He was a hero of the Korean War, beloved by all, full of laughter and light and stories—and love. All he had seen, all he had experienced, made him more loving, more empathetic, and more compassionate. He cared deeply for all life. With my emotional red alert raised already by the refugee crisis, my uncle’s death was harder to process. This is normal; we’ve all got our “stuff.” And in times like these, what might have felt like ordinary obstacles can become full-on roadblocks, and traumas seemingly insurmountable.
Seeing refugee children torn from their parents’ arms and placed in cages and tent cities is terrifying. Perhaps it is even more frightening seeing people we know (or thought we knew) supporting this horrific violation of human rights.
When I taught the Holocaust, my students would ask me, “How could this happen?” There is no simple answer. Indifference, fear, hatred, and bigotry are the big ones. But the choice to be a bystander is in itself a choice. Do you look, and face the darkness, or do you turn away, barbecue something on the grill, change the tv channel? Do you believe the propaganda, because it’s easier than facing the darkness and then having to make the choice about actually doing something about it? Or do you find a way to stay kind, to stay aware, to stay good, and somehow remain sane despite all the madness around you?
These are hard questions. And I’ve thought about them for seventeen years. As a scholar of war and human rights, watching or reading the news is never simple.
Anxiety is running rampant in these dark times.
But there are some strategies I learned in my years studying the Holocaust, slavery, and genocide, that help me to stay sane.
The first is the most important. It’s about perspective. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard hundreds of hours of accounts of the worst violence, torture, and cruelty—what Victor Frankl described after the Holocaust as “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Oprah (yes, Oprah, legit!) asked Tutu years ago how he handled it. Tutu said that most people are like vacuum cleaners; they suck all of horrible things they see inside of them and it just stays there. Tutu said that we have to be dishwashers: to witness, to help others be seen, to process their stories, and to clean them.
It’s hard to be a dishwasher. Reading concentration camp memoirs and stories from the Warsaw Ghetto and U.S. State Department documents turning refugees away, such as the story of the SS. St. Louis, in which refugees from the Holocaust were literally on the coast of the USA, yards away from safety, but were turned away. They died.
I fell into a deep depression the first time I was studying these things, and understandably so. But I had to learn that the act of witnessing, of listening, of not turning away, is itself a good deed. It’s the right thing to do. When we don’t turn away, we can educate others.
When we don’t turn away, we have to process the grief and the horror and the compassion fatigue. It’s hard, but it can be done.
Reading memoirs of trauma and violence can be overwhelming. But they can also be sources of hope—many authors stand out in this category, transmuting their experiences into stories that can uplift us after they make us cry. Organized by going backward in time, here are a few to get you started:
And seriously, laugh! No, really. Even fake laughter releases endorphins that are very real for your body. If you can’t make yourself laugh, take a gander at “laughter yoga.” Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a long time.
Call the people you love and tell them how much you love them.
Take a hot bath. Use candles. Add bath salts. Music helps too. Go wild. Add a boat like Chandler Bing from Friends if you need to make it feel more manly. (Actually, here’s a whole fun thread about Friends!)
Listen to slow, soft music that slows down your brain. Here’s Peaceful Piano on Spotify!
Take deeeeeeep breaths. In to the count of three, out for the count of five. This gets your body out of fight or flight mode, and lets it normalize itself. Let the Berkeley scientists teach you mindful breathing here.
Play: pick up an instrument, lift weights, play video games with your kids or friends, toss a ball for your dog, annoy your cat by removing them from whatever box they are currently sitting in and cuddle.
Get in touch with the Higher Power of your understanding and ask for help.
Work on mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh is my favorite writer on this topic, and this is my favorite book of his. He even has a great quote on the magic of washing the dishes:
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
And please remember: it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out. Ask your loved ones for a little extra TLC or a hug. Talk to a trauma therapist. Send up a flare. Let someone see you, really see you—so they can know.
We are all in this together. Keep fighting the good fight and take care of yourselves. And love each other. Love each other fiercely, because life is short. But hang in there, because together, we dishwashers can help heal ourselves, hold each other up, and continue the great work of doing good wherever we can, however we are able
The sea. The mountains. The grass in the park. There is something primal about having our feet on the earth, barefoot.
In yoga, we focus a lot on grounding. Grounding into ourselves, the earth, the ultimate source. Our higher power.
Whenever I’m stressed, I have to stop. Take a breather. Take care of myself. And ground. Let go of what is hurting, binding, release it down. Dig my toes in–never mind the imperfection of the messy pedicure and flip-flop toe stub from the subway–and pull deep from the source. Feel the life in the ground beneath us, the promise in the earth itself.
Wherever you are today, I hope there’s a nice patch of land you can sink your toes in.
And we must not lose faith in people’s ability to change. We can make good decisions or bad ones. Today at the grocery, I saw a truck. A big, macho, green, shiny, expensive, deer-decal-ed bubba truck. The bubba in question swaggered out with his facial hair and muscles and marched into the store. I looked closer.
Amongst the hunting decals, there was a space where something that had been ripped off. Something about the size of a Trump bumper sticker. Lately, I haven’t seen those around, even here, in red-state redneckland.
“In spite of our desires, changing others will never be an option, whereas changing ourselves takes only a decision and is a choice always available.” ― Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Meditations for Women Hazelden)
We can only change ourselves! This is good news, though, because it frees us from the overwhelming burden of having to fix ALL THE THINGS for EVERYONE–as if we actually could…
I love my 90s kid cultural references (and if you haven’t seen Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, you should, because it’s my favorite adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, like, ever).
But on a serious note, part of recovery is recognizing that the only part of our mental health equation we can control is ourselves. Our reactions, our choices, our outlook. We got this. God’s got this. And daily meditations like the one from THIS FABULOUS BOOK (quoted at the top of the post) help immensely.
Anxiety is on the rise, in people with and without a diagnosis. Our political climate affects us all—especially those of us in recovery, so that’s why I’m talking about it here. In the spirit of full disclosure, my first alliance is always to human rights, and I’m pretty much a good liberal. But it’s not important to me whether my friends are liberal or conservative—the world needs both.
A lot of folks on both sides of the aisle are in a tizzy over the Supreme Court pick. I’d rather have Kennedy still in his seat, and Kavanaugh isn’t making my best staunch conservative lawyer friend very happy, either. But this is not, as many pundits assert, “the end of the world as we know it.”
No, really! Please hear me out. Bear with me.
A fine American tradition is our two-party system with bipartisanship at the center. That’s still actually working in the judicial branch. The late Antonin Scalia, representing all evil to good liberals, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG to fangirls like me) representing all evil to conservatives, were actually—wait for it—friends.
Donald Trump is not a proper conservative like Scalia. Trump’s a reality TV star who flaunts the constitution, and I think Scalia would be pissed if he were alive. Trump is a racist casino owner. He calls immigrants parasites and cockroaches. He mocked a disabled person on tv. He’s vile.
But that’s not what the SCOTUS nomination is about. Trump didn’t prepare the list; a group of conservative jurists called The Federalist Society did. They’re qualified attorneys with degrees, experience, and proper scholarship. I don’t agree with them in general; I’m team Ginsberg, and they’re team Scalia. But both teams share a commitment to the fairness of the judiciary branch.
There is hope for all of us. And in these troubled times, when anxiety grips us like an anaconda’s death embrace, I’m saying this is one less thing we need to freak out about. It’s going to be okay.
But there are other things out there—like the ongoing refugee crisis—that we need to fix. Vote. Organize. Pray. Work. But also, talk to people on the other side of the aisle. Be like Ginsberg and Scalia. We can all work together for the good of our country. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, can work together. We can be bipartisan.
If Kavanaugh is confirmed, I believe Roberts will be a swing vote, and not much will change in the Supreme Court.
So many folks in my recovery community are having a hard time with current political events. How do we stay sober while the world seems to be falling apart? The answer is simple, and complicated. The simple part is to keep doing the things that keep you sober in good times: keeping it in the day, giving the worry to your Higher Power, and making copious gratitude lists.
Harder right now, perhaps for those of us in recovery, the more complicated part is not giving in to the societal disease of power and indifference that we see around us.
It helps me, as a scholar of people, war, and human rights (and, weirdly, alcohol), to remember that countless people went through terrible times before in human history. The AA Big Book talks about World War II soldiers who went through the war in recovery; their stories can be inspirational. But on a more macro level, human history has always been full of troubled times: wars, famines, plagues—and we’ve made it through.
Celebrate small victories; I can’t do much about foreign policy right now other than educate those in my circle on how it relates to the USA’s history, and write. So at times like these, its important to celebrate small victories. I managed, after weeks of working at it, to take our household garbage down to just one can (bin for my Brits!); a lot of work on compost, traditional recycling, and my recycled paper art made that happen. Calling wiser friends who may be able to offer perspective, staying tight with your sober people, and being grateful for the things we can do, even if it’s just raise awareness, stay sober, or donate a few dollars (or pounds) to a cause we love. Hold the hand (or paw!) of someone you love. These things matter.
In fact, the simple act of being grateful for what we do have, saying a prayer, making a gratitude list, calling an old friend, or spending some time in nature, is itself a form of resistance. It is looking the darkness in the eye and saying, as Arya Stark said to Death: NOT TODAY!