I’m re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s You are here. Page 39 popped out at me this morning; he’s talking about the beauty of being still and fully present for the moment. And how freeing that is.
I like to make a practice of reading something positive in the morning to set my day off on the right tone. It helps to get me in a place of, hopefully, presence and stillness. The more I practice, the more it works. Like playing the piano, or doing yoga. Mentioning yoga, I’d better get on my yoga flow before work.
But after the coffee. Always, after the coffee and the books.
The Great John Lennon once said: whatever gets you through the day. So go forth and you do you this morning. Even if it means making your silver fingernails look artier in the pic (but hey–I was in the moment 😉
Sometimes we don’t have flowers. Sometimes we have weeds. But there is beauty even in that, in the work of weeding, hands in the earth, knowing that hard times are the fallow fields preparing us for tomorrow’s beautiful growth.
So we accept what we cannot change. This ALLOWS us the mental space and the time to work on what we actually can. The serenity prayer is simple, freeing, and actually pretty deep. When we make space in our heads by giving to God what we can’t change–accepting, surrendering to our Higher Power’s higher will–we have a lot more time and emotional energy to change the variables under our control. God’s got this–but we are her hands.
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.
“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.
I work on it. I actively practice observing my thoughts and shifting them to different topics when I notice anxiety rising up. This book helps.
But one of the best things for me to do is stop and pray. Ask for help. Make a gratitude list. Check out some funny cat videos. Think happy thoughts—on purpose. Make an anxiety busting Pinterest board! And do what makes you feel cared for. For me, I love alone time with books. Or the ritual fun of crafting a new mocktail in a sparkly glass (recipes here!).
Sometimes it feels like like I’m tackling a calculus problem (actually, calculus was a lot easier for me than dealing with anxiety)… But it’s worth it. Because winning small battles against anxiety adds up to winning the war. But a little humor and prayer go a long way.
I sat in my back yard looking and actually took the time to STOP and LOOK. What had just been a green space to step outside and take a breather from work became so much more when I let go and let myself become fully present in my garden moment.
I reflected on the changes from the cold winter, when I sat under the February Stars and watched the cold, naked tree limbs extent toward the inky blue sky. The world–my world–had transformed.
Now there are green leaves everywhere, wildflowers, grasses, soft moss. A squirrel was working in my favorite tree. A butterfly flitted by me, and a hummingbird hovered. A red robin looked for worms. Even the insects had come alive! But the winter didn’t show it.
One of my favorite songs is Catie Curtis’ “Everything Waiting to Grow,” about the beauty underneath the surface. In season, over time, after we work on it, our lives will sprout new growth.
It has been waiting, under the surface, for the spring to come.
Whatever season you are in, keep working, keep waiting. You will bloom in time.