Given the terrifying unraveling of events in our world recently, it’s not surprising that many of my clients have spent a portion of their sessions talking about their fear, sadness, powerlessness, and hopelessness. As my clients, course members, and readers are highly sensitive people (possible even highly HIGHLY sensitive), when the world seems like it’s falling apart, they’re going to feel it in the deepest folds of their hearts. How can people commit such atrocities, they ask with tears in their eyes?
I don’t have the answers. I can’t even hypothesize about how the world has devolved to this state. The underlying reasons are complex and multi-layered, and must draw on every facet of our internal and external realms: psychology, spirituality, sociology, economics, politics, ecology, religion. We desperately want to understand this so that we can fix it, and address it we must. But as that’s not my area of expertise, I will address what I can here in hopes that it might ease a bit of suffering.
I worked with a client last week who is struggling with the world’s recent events. She spent half the session talking about it, and while I encouraged her to feel her raw feelings (sadness, vulnerability, heartbreak) and take action where she can (prayer, awareness, fruitful conversations – more on taking action in a bit), I had a sense that the degree to which she was immersing herself in the details of the events wasn’t serving her. I asked, “How much time are you reading about this?” “Too much,” she replied.
At that point the focus of the session changed to talking about self-care, and how limiting the time she spends reading the news is a profound act of self-love. I talk about this all the time with my highly sensitive clients, and it’s never been more critical than now. I said to her, “If you had a child, would you sit them in front of the news and make them watch the details?” Never, of course. We protect our children as best we can because there’s no point in them knowing about the details – especially the way mainstream news terrorizes us with their telling and re-telling of the stories. If children are in school, they will likely practice emergency procedures, but they still don’t need to know the details of the actual attacks that have recently occurred. We must protect our “inner child”, our tender hearts and souls, with the same fierce and loving protectiveness as we would or do protect our outer ones.
Here’s what I’ve noticed: The more energy I spend reading about the details of the attacks, the more fearful images enter the bloodstream of my imagination. The less I read, the less I fear. I’m not suggesting to bury our heads in the sand; we need to stay abreast of what’s happening in the world. But once we gather the basic headlines, it doesn’t serve to read and read and click and click until we feel sick with fear. Are the recent attacks on my mind when I take my son to a holiday event at a large theater downtown? Yes. But the more I limit reading about the details, the less frequently the scary images arrive.
Let me be clear: I am NOT saying to simply feel, pray, and go into denial. The world needs us to take action, now more than ever. To be a bit crass, we need to get off our privileged asses and actively help whenever and wherever we can. We need to sign petitions and donate time and money whenever possible. In fact, taking action is one of the best antidotes for fear in all ways. When I’m talking about relationship anxiety, I often use the phrase, “Action diffuses fear”, which means act against the fear instead of becoming a victim to it. The same applies here. In the aftermath of the Paris tragedies, even the Dalai Lama said that prayer is not enough. But we must act without obsessing. We must become informed without immersing ourselves in the terrifying details. And we must carefully choose which news sources we choose to ingest. As my husband poignantly wrote as we corresponded back and forth about this post, “Of course the obsession of checking the news and listening for when the bad guys will attack is media madness. The 24-hour news cycle uses bad news to keep people hooked, and they prey on fear, too. It’s clear that the news is part of the problem of getting people inflamed and more angry at those who are acting out.”
How do we acknowledge that the world is a mess without falling into the pit of despair? How do we breathe into the truth that there is darkness in the world without become paralyzed? For darkness there is. I don’t believe that people are born dark, but somehow, through the perfect storm of genetics and sociology, the darkness takes root and manifests to the point of human beings killing other human beings in completely senseless acts. But the truth is that there’s always been darkness in the world, which could be another way of saying that there have always been people who have acted from a place of profound fear. When I was growing up, the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed over our heads. In other eras, the fear of wars, plagues, pogroms, Dark Ages, Inquisitions, and other violent atrocities lurked around the corners. I say this because it’s easy to jump on the train of, “Our world is falling apart,” and thus inflame the fear-based mindset that the lays like a sticky skin over our society. But perhaps the world has always been falling apart.
And perhaps it’s always being mended back together in new and essential ways. For just as there’s darkness, there’s also great beauty, goodness, light and hope. The vast majority of human beings, I believe, are profoundly good. Through my work, I’m privileged to sit across from people every day who radiate goodness. My heart is broken open by their willingness to peel away their fear-based stories. My soul uplifts when I hear their stories of vulnerability and open-heartedness, of how hard they’re working to soften their fear-walls and live more and more from a place of love. And it’s not just my clients, of course.
Kindness is everywhere. It’s the small act of someone letting you have a parking spot on a busy pre-holiday weekend. It’s the neighbor bringing you a cup of milk. It’s the enormous acts of rescue workers risking their own lives to save others. Heroes are everywhere. And we can be those heroes every time we act against fear, both internally and externally. Richard Seidman, in The Oracle of Kabbalah, relates this story about performing deeds of loving-kindness:
The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach tells a moving story about meeting a hunchbacked street cleaner in Israel who as a chid had been a student of the famous ‘Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,’ Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. The street sweeper describes how Reb Kalonymus would always end his teachings by saying, ‘Children, precious children, remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.’
This teaching gave the street cleaner the strength to resist suicide and survive the Auschwitz concentration camp. ‘Do you know how many favors you can do at night in Auschwitz?’ he asks Shlomo. Then, this teacher helps him resist despair and the temptation to kill himself in Tel Aviv. ‘Do you know how many favors you can do on the streets of the world?’ he says. This street cleaner, hunchbacked from being beaten at Auschwitz, found his own nourishment and ability to continue living through performing deeds of loving-kindness.
We can also look for the worldwide ways that kindness and goodness are emanating on a bigger scale. As my husband wrote to me this weekend:
There was 125 countries involved in drafting a historic climate agreement. People like Dean Kamen have suggested we develop a U.S. Department of Peace so that we can get fresh water and electricity to people in the world who would become our enemies because they suffer. We are a dysfunctional global family and we need to respond to these situations with real solutions that address the root causes of the problems instead of more aggression and violence.
I often recall an interview I did with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone many years ago in which I asked, “Are we going to be okay?” To which she responded (with a smile I could hear through the phone lines), “I believe in miracles. I believe we will.” I understood her statement to mean that goodness prevails, that there is more goodness than darkness, that love is stronger than fear. Mister Rogers concurs:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. That’s why I think it’s so important for news programs to make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming in to a place where there’s a tragedy, to be sure that they include that, because if you look for the helpers you’ll know that there’s hope.”
The helpers are everywhere. When we devolve into hopelessness, we dangle into despair. But if we can see the light that shines inside most human beings, we can hold onto a thread of hope. Look for the helpers. And become the helpers in any way that you can. There are angels in human form and invisible presences that are guiding us toward greater goodness. But we have to look for them. We have to focus our attention there. We have to be them. If we allow our terror to take over, we tumble into despair. I write every week about working with fear on the internal level, and it’s the same work externally. We hear the fear, but we don’t listen to it, and we consciously re-orient the focus of our attention toward thoughts, feelings, experiences, and actions that will nurture more love, gratitude, hope and real change in ourselves, in people and in the world.
As an article about the Dalai Lama recently quoted:
When the interviewer suggested his sentiments of peace, love, and compassion have fallen on deaf ears around the world, the Dalai Lama declined to entertain a pessimistic view. “I disagree. I think that only a small percentage of people subscribe to the violent discourse,” he said. “We are human beings and there is no basis or justification for killing others. If you consider others as brothers and sisters and respect their rights, then there is no room for violence.”Rather than dwell on the small minority of violent instigators, the Dalai Lama focused on solutions. “If we emphasize more on nonviolence and harmony, we can herald a new beginning,” he said. He also cautioned against failing to work toward this ideal: “Unless we make serious attempts to achieve peace, we will continue to see a replay of the mayhem humanity experienced in the 20th century.”
Thank you to my husband for his invaluable feedback on this blog post, and for staying so informed without fear about what’s happening in current events. And for the all the ways, both big and small, that he brings light into this world.