Four weeks ago, I wrote about unlikely inspiration: being laughed at and photographed for wearing a face mask. I wrote about how reflecting on that encounter helped deepen my commitment to practicing empathy even—perhaps especially—when it’s hard:
If I rage at [Unmasked Woman], the maskless woman who set this post stirring, I do not show care. I do not show empathy. I do not reflect, in act, my deep belief that “redeemable” is a category into which every single human being may fall.
A few days later, I’d learn of the police murder of George Floyd. I’d see my husband, a Black man who has gently walked with me as I’ve grappled with the enduring consequences of my own many encounters with trauma, split open and bleed out decades of racism-born trauma. Unskilled at being with him in his own trauma, I’d leap right into the roiling waters of trauma with him, leaving us both exhausted, wounded, and wary.
From such a place, empathy is impossible, which I could see but not figure out how to address,
and which is reflected in several agonized posts the last few weeks.
Last weekend, I saw that I could not sustain empathy or my own health from deep within trauma. I saw that I was, as Widen the Window author Elizabeth Stanley might say, moving ever further outside my window of optimal functioning. The further outside my window I get, the unwiser the choices I make; the unwiser the choices, the further still I get from my window.
To practice empathy for myself and others, I saw I had to actively work on staying grounded—staying in my now, not in my bodily remembrance of past traumas. That meant identifying particular steps away from living in trauma, and then taking those steps, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.
Over the course of the last week, I prioritized rest. I made sure to do my morning reading, prayer, and meditation,
to bring my head back to my feet by touching in with the sensations of my feet where they touch the earth,
by doing lunchtime grounding exercises to bring me back to this. very. moment.
Instead of endlessly checking Twitter for more distressing news, I’d more briefly check in with Twitter and then pick up books that connect me with this something deep and wondrous, life-affirming and all around us, something ready to heal and uplift those who listen for it, and hear.
Right now, these books are:
- Learning to Walk in the Dark – Barbara Brown Taylor
- In the Company of the Poor – Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutiérrez
- What You Have Heard Is True – Carolyn Forché
When I spend a few moments with any of these books, I am able to experience grace;
filled with the experience of grace, I am less likely to get into the business of judgment,
and more likely to see that we are almost all doing the very best we can
in the many overlapping and often violent contexts in which we live.
On my old blog, I wrote indiscriminately about anything and everything I’ve experienced, often in pursuit of personal catharsis. Here, I have a rather different inspiration: to document my transition to working in public health and/or global health, and to take, as I make this slow transition, steps that might help improve, if incrementally, the experience of health in this world.
The point is no longer personal catharsis. The point is discovering and learning to live the ways I can contribute to the world being a less cruel, more possibility-filled place.
I’m not ashamed of the traumas I’ve endured, or how they mean I have a narrower window within which to work. I am, instead, grateful that I am learning to see
when trauma has enveloped me; to learn to gently, lovingly pull myself out of it by bringing my head back to the same physical location as my feet;
to be compassionate with myself even when I take actions in direct opposition to those I aspire to take, understanding that
compassion for myself is an absolute prerequisite to my having anything left to give: to living my in-bone knowledge that
“redeemable” is a category into which every single human being may fall.