Tensions have been brewing in our household as they have in our nation, and keeping up with the demands of "school" in the midst of a global pandemic, political turmoil and social unrest is taking its toll on our family and our community - I know we're not alone. It's brought to the fore how profound an impact this "unprecedented" time is having on the mental health of our kids - on all of us. I've grown weary of hearing the words "unprecedented" and "chaos" as we care for children who are grappling with anxiety and depression, isolation, and uncertainty, who take their helplessness out on themselves and each other and who rage against those closest to them. I'm struggling to manage my own worry, rage, menopausal angst, loneliness and dis-ease - I know I'm not alone.
Most mornings, I find solace in my daily journaling practice. In getting my frustrations and worries out of my head and onto the page - or pages and pages and pages, as it was today. I remain on the fringes of my religious upbringing, but the outpourings of grief I read in the Psalms have been resonating deeply with me lately. This morning, I heard these cries echoed in my own heart:
How long, my Beloved?
will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your
face from me?
How long must I bear this pain in my soul,
and live with sorrow
all the day?
How long will fear rule my life?
This is Psalm 13, rendered so beautifully by Nan C. Merrill. With the wisdom of mystics, Merrill acknowledges a need to shift how we respond to the suffering and pain we ALL experience as human beings. She writes about how the Psalms of Hebrew Scripture "often reflect a patriarchal society based on fear and guilt that projects evil and sin onto our outer enemies." Her reimagining of these texts into Psalms for Praying are an intentional turning from the outward and often harmful expressions of pain and suffering to turning inward toward "the reciprocity of Divine Love that opens the heart to forgiveness, reconciliation and healing."
My own writing took a turn this morning after I expelled all my anger and worries into my journal, and I found myself penning a prayer to that Divine Love, who came to me as Mother Wisdom:
Mother Wisdom, have mercy.
Give me the courage to lay down my cares at your feet.
Mother Wisdom, hold me for a little while
and do the work I can't manage to puzzle out
for myself or for my children.
Mother Wisdom, comfort me.
Let me fall asleep knowing all will be well in your arms,
in your lap of Love.
Mother Wisdom, I just want to be held
Maybe being seen and held in Love is the greatest gift we can give and receive. Children who aren't noticed, regarded, cherished, welcomed and loved act out their fear, rejection, isolation and pain with ever-increasing violence. Adults tend to act out in their own similarly destructive ways, and our culture typically responds with even less compassion to grown-up hurts and with decidedly more brutality and intolerance in response to the immigrant, poor, black and brown bodies among us. Showing compassion to others, much less revealing our own vulnerability, is so often seen as weakness, especially to those who promote a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" or "fake it 'til you make it" mentality.
I find it so distressing to witness the blatant disregard and lack of compassion for some of the most vulnerable people in our world today, especially in propped-up systems of oppression and religious, cultural, political and social "othering." Nan C. Merrill writes of old-world fear and guilt, but I am certain that every one of us still today - myself included - could make a long list of family members, friends, neighbors, community members, political and religious leaders, media outlets and social media followers who we'd include on Exhibit A of Those Who Project Their Evil Onto Others. And oh, it feels so good to point fingers and blame Them for the wrong that has been done to Me/Us. And THAT, my friends, is what gets in the way of us moving forward and healing.
Because it's just not possible to criticize, shame, blame, defend, reject or bully away your own pain, fear, loneliness, guilt or unhealed wounds.
Pushing our own pain, fear, loneliness, guilt and unhealed wounds onto others is what Resmaa Menakem calls "dirty pain," which manifests in making thoughtless and hurtful comments at the very least and perpetuating violence against and dehumanizing people at the worst. Plenty of powerful people in the world are counting on us to revel in our "dirty pain" for their own gain, and our righteous indignation is fear's handmaiden at their disposal. Menakem describes a more generative path of "clean pain," which is "pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth." It's what you experience when you're willing to respond to your fear or rage without reacting impulsively, and you take the risk to move into unknown (still fearful) territory with courage, integrity, honesty and vulnerability. "Clean pain" is what has the capacity to unite people with radically different viewpoints and perspectives in unlikely circumstances - like during a global pandemic and politically and socially volatile time.
This is why I think cultivating an inner life and learning how to express ourselves constructively with those who do not see the world the way we see it is critical at this pivotal moment in history.
The only way to do this is first by paying attention to yourself, not with judgment or criticism, but with curiosity. Start noticing your thought processes, physical sensations, memories and feelings. Be honest with yourself about how you usually experience a contentious, offensive, unjust, uncomfortable or painful situation:
mentally - Do you avoid, accuse, repeat yourself, bring up past hurts, tune out, lie, label, deflect, make crude jokes, consider yourself superior, believe you are "right," believe you "can't do anything right," play an argument over and over in your head after the fact, wish the other person could just see things they way you do...?
emotionally - Do you feel angry, afraid, guilty, enraged, ashamed, wounded, annoyed, worthless, apathetic, panicky, triumphant, regret, shocked, righteous, overwhelmed, sad, disgusted, frustrated, in despair...?
physically - Do you clench your fists, tense muscles, feel your heart racing, find it hard to breathe, get an upset stomach, grind your teeth, raise your voice, cry, laugh, walk away, break things, hurt yourself or others...?
If I'm being completely honest, I can say "yes" to a lot of these all at once! I'm also learning to recognize them as normal, biological survival mechanisms that are meant to protect me in dangerous or threatening situations - which even in seemingly innocuous situations or mild disagreements can be triggered by past hurts, very real fears and blatant injustices. During this time of uncertainty and social and political turmoil, I suspect most of us are now operating primarily in "survival mode." The problem is not the thoughts, feelings and sensations, though - it's getting stuck there and lashing out with actions and words that inflict more pain, worsen conflicts, stir up more fear and do more harm to others and ourselves. We are experiencing this "dirty pain" in full force, and it's damaging relationships and creating dangerous social and political divides.
There is another way. But it's a harder, messier, more complicated, time-consuming, humbling and counter-cultural way of engaging. How, do you do this? Learn to PAUSE. The next time you are frustrated by your partner or lose patience with your kids. When you're the recipient of a thoughtless comment or hateful remark. When you read yet another appalling news headline. PAUSE. Notice your pulse quicken, your hackles raise and your urge to defend, justify, retreat or protect and then PAUSE. This is the uncomfortable place where Mother Wisdom welcomes you in. Where you are invited to reckon with the harm that's been done to you. The pain that's been caused. The wounds that haven't healed. The wrong that's been perpetuated. All that you've lost. What you're really afraid of. And the unfairness and unjustness of it all.
NOTICE - be curious, turn towards, pay attention, move closer, observe, become aware...
HOLD - make space, invite, breathe in, allow, exhale, be with, see, feel, listen, name, honor, witness...
LOVE - soothe, refrain, soften, touch, acknowledge, confess, disengage, accept, empower, shift, challenge, expand, assert, concede, be brave, surrender, rest...
This is where I meet Mother Wisdom. Noticing, holding and loving myself more each day. While I am no expert at this yet, I am beginning to see the benefits of trusting in this "clean pain" practice as I work to resolve my differences with others - most notably with my kids and even my ex-husband! Could this make an impact with our social or political conflicts too? Valarie Kaur clearly demonstrates the possibility and power of this very approach in her beautiful memoir, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. Kaur recounts story after story of truly revolutionary love - not the overblown Hollywood romance based on an emotional feeling - but the act of responding, individually and collectively, to thoughtless, aggressive, demoralizing, violent, and de-humanizing acts with grace and compassion again and again and again, even when deeply wounded people could justifiably respond with rage, hatred, rejection and revenge.
Both Resmaa Menakem and Valerie Kaur have reminded me how critical it is to learn how to PAUSE. Take a breath. Step back. Wait. Notice, pay attention and listen deeply. To our own bodies. To the stories we tell ourselves and the battles we keep fighting with others. To new possibilities and additional perspectives. To the experiences that bind us together in our common humanity more than they divide us. We will not find peace, we will not find healing, we cannot solve anything or help anyone - including ourselves or our nation - unless we are willing to first turn inward and reckon with our own fears, our own anxiety, our own pain and our own guilt.
We must work tirelessly to heal ourselves if we are to ever heal our communities and our nation.
Most of the time, we can't do this work alone. This is where fierce friends, skilled therapists, loving partners, and caring communities are key to healing and moving forward. It's also not a one-and-done endeavor, which is probably why it's a less popular approach with our 24/7 access to media, instantaneous communication tools, better living through chemistry, five easy steps to personal growth and same-day delivery.
As I tell people who have marveled at my career as a musician, there is no magic in learning to play an instrument. There's simply a willingness to spend time alone working on the necessary skills and then learning how to play well with others. Becoming a musician is a lifelong practice that requires learning from mentors, colleagues and your own experiences. I'm starting to see spirituality, personal growth and activism in much the same vein - a constant, ongoing process of deep, inner work that is tested in our relationships and in new ways of expressing ourselves in the world. As my colleague and body mapping instructor, Amy Likar, says, "It's falling apart and coming back together, sometimes multiple times in a given day."
Another beautiful metaphor for this process is the labyrinth - there is one path, which only leads to the center and then back out again. I've been practicing labyrinth work for over a year and started building my own labyrinth in the backyard when the pandemic wreaked havoc back in March. I still need to complete the final 2 circuits, but even the unfinished nature of my contemplative walk in the labyrinth has been soothing lately. We are, after all, always in the process of becoming.
Thank you, Mother Wisdom, for noticing that I'm still becoming. For holding me always with your unconditional love. And for giving me the courage to invite others to do this work.