On Monday morning, I spent three hours writing about cultivating empathy in the face of COVID-19.
By Monday evening, I was ranting to my husband about a particular group of people,
a divergence that didn’t amuse me until Tuesday morning.
For months now, I’ve half-heartedly worked on making a habit of morning “RPMs”: Read, Pray, Meditate. The days I begin thusly are often the most manageable of all, a fact that isn’t always persuasive to my 4 a.m. self: “Do I really want to RPM, or do I want to just stay here in bed and half-doze until the kids wake up? I mean, both of these things are good for me, right?”
Until this week, half-dozing has tended to win this morning battle within myself. Fortunately, I chose wisely this Tuesday morning, grumbling as I climbed out of bed and went to find my healing books.
As luck would have it, the words I read were exactly what my heart needed. They brought Monday evening rushing back to me, but brought it back in such a way that I could both laugh at my particular Monday evening “relapse” to hurtful ways and, from a place of compassion and humor, contemplate how to help myself reduce the occurrence of such relapses in the future.
I came upon a number of useful-for-me ideas, which I later that morning shared with my husband,
who agreed they were, in light of my particular histories and needs, sound.
Two aspects of my particular histories and circumstances clashed in a Monday news story:
first, my many childhood experiences with white women, usually liberal, whose “thorn-covered charity,” as I described it on Monday, whose gifts to the lesser beings of my childhood family given in self-affirming displays of their goodness, caused deep and lasting hurts;
second, my many experiences witnessing numerous words and acts of racism since dating a Black man, and having Black sons, and watching—too relentlessly, given my own history of profound trauma—in the early months of #BlackLivesMatter.
What was this news story?
On Monday morning, a white woman called the police on a Black birder. His crime: Asking her to put her dog on a leash, per bird-protective regulations for the area in which their paths happened to cross.
When she refused, he began recording her on his cell phone. This angered her, so that she threatened to call the police if he continued recording.
He did continue recording, so she did in fact call the police and state that an African-American man was threatening her. This, she did in a country where Black and brown men are somewhat routinely killed by policemen based on the subjective threat they perceive in dark skin versus any actual, objectively threatening act.
For the prospect of increasing her own comfort, this woman risked a man’s life.
Except: I didn’t call her “a woman” on Monday evening. I called her a Karen,
before then grumbling about various liberal Karens I’ve known/
Monday-evening-believed myself to know
(self included; before moving leftward,
politically, I was myself a liberal).
I was already frazzled heading into Monday evening.
That frazzlement played a significant role in my evening PTSD-triggered relapse. To better stay grounded in compassion and thus reduce future relapses, then, Tuesday-morning me understood minimizing frazzlement as key.
To effectively minimize frazzlement, I had to identify specific measures to take. “Move slower” or “be gentle with myself,” fuzzy as they are, would not cut it.
I identified these specific measures:
1. Commit to my RPMs. When I give myself this quiet, contemplative, wakeful space before the rest of my family awakens each day, I fuel myself up for the day. Without this, I begin the day already running on fumes, which never bodes well for the rest of the day, where opportunities for quiet reflection are both briefer and scarcer.
2. Limit my reading of self-traumatizing books to 10-15 minutes per reading session. For all I’ve been so grateful for the Paul Farmer works I’ve been reading, and for the gorgeous compassion that so evidently fuels his labors to ensure poverty is a barrier to neither medicine nor justice globally, I’ve also traumatized myself by continuing to read about so. many. lives. needlessly. lost. long after my body is shouting to stop-stop-stop reading.
Even before I read about the dangers of this in Elizabeth Stanley’s PTSD-healing resource Widen the Window, my husband and I knew, thanks to #BlackLivesMatter, how my urgent pursuit of knowledge can hurt me. When I spend hours daily reading about suffering perpetrated worldwide, without attending to my emotional health, I actively harm both myself and my family.
3. Limit my visits to/time spent on non-WordPress social media to 10-15 minutes a few times weekly. Related to #2, with rare exceptions, my time spent on social media strengthens fear and disconnection, which cannot, within me at any given moment, co-exist with empathy.
4. Correct myself when I notice I’m speaking of “a Karen” or “Karens.” Outside being triggered, I don’t actually believe there’s such thing as “a Karen” (noun), but rather “karening” (verb). By speaking of “Karens” on Monday evening, I was erasing the kindnesses these so-called Karens can and do work in their daily lives. By reducing entire people down to a handful of their acts, I was making caricatures of real human beings. I was, in short, dehumanizing them. (For more on both the modern-day prevalence and dangers of this, please check out Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.)
This #4 Tuesday-morning understanding was brought to me by wonderfully wry, insightful author Neil Postman, who wrote, often and engagingly, about how the English language constantly presents to its speakers—by its infernal dedication to forever noun-ing—the illusion of fixedness where there is none. For example, we speak of “having perspective” instead of “perspectiving,” thereby fixing as unchanging what is actually an ongoing process.
By taking these steps, and others I’ll identify as I notice myself hurting myself with my unskillful behavior, I can better enable myself to spend more of my hours in empathy and aspiration, where I want to live,
instead of in frazzlement and fear that only sounds like rage.
On Tuesday morning, I opted not to half-doze in bed, but to instead get up and contemplate.
Doing this ended up being a great kindness given to myself, which has already, in turn,
better enabled me to, by the minute since, be actively kinder to myself …
an absolute prerequisite, for my being kind
not only to strangers, but also—
more importantly—to the man
and children who, nearest me,
when not subjected to fear-filled ranting,
get to be not anxious in-house
but truly, deeply, in all ways,
safer at home.
By what acts are you taking care
of and for yourself these days?