We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence as quiet is the absence of noise, but is it more? Perhaps peace is active. It exists in the kind word offered, the refusal to meet hate with hate, the comfort of following higher principles, the strength of the outstretched hand. It is so easy to lose, to slip into mirroring the hate and violence we see around us, to sit silent in front of a bully, to trade barbs, to slide down. Peace is active. We maintain it in our hearts and mind. We breathe deeply to draw us back to that peaceful place. We remember truth, honor, decency, compassion. We breathe in all that is good, we exhale the bad.
Author Shauna Niequist talks about the anxiety we are all experiencing now and suggests breath prayer:
“Christians have been practicing breath prayer since at least the sixth century & there are lots of ways to do it. One way that’s been helping me lately: choose one word to pray as you inhale–what you’re asking God to bring into your life/body/spirit/world, and one word to exhale–what you’re asking God to carry for you, so that you can release it as you breathe out.
Inhale healing/exhale fear.
Inhale peace/exhale anxiety.
Inhale hope/exhale despair.
Inhale hope/exhale chaos.”
As you move forward into your day, remember to take deep breaths, center yourself, and carry on.
Do you like to read the end of a novel first? Maybe especially when it’s a particularly stressful novel, and you want to make sure your favorite characters come out ok? It’s comforting, isn’t it? To know how the story ends, that no matter how deep the characters are in trouble, they will find a way out. And then you can read the book without being so nervous.
In this world, though, we don’t get to peek at the end of the book. We soldier on hoping and working toward better tomorrows. And we don’t know what will happen to our favorite people. Or even ourselves, for that matter.
But we do know, when we look back at the story of our own life, or at the greater story of the world, that great things have often come out of very trying times. Great art, certainly. But more than that, great advancement–inventions, cures, technology. Maybe even peace.
As we go through these challenging times, let us keep our hopes on the possibility that tomorrow will be a better day, even if that tomorrow is still a ways away.
We all hurt right now. Our whole world grieves the loss of what once was. The present turmoil and divisiveness weigh us down. Each of us is struggling.
But what of the children? How are they doing? How will they remember this time?
They look to us to keep them safe, to care for them, to put their needs first. They don’t understand the greater turmoil. They see, keenly, what is right in front of them. What is that?
While we may not have a ton of control over world events, we do have control over how we treat the littlest among us. Consider the profound effect your words and actions have on children just starting to be introduced to the world. Temper your anger, your frustration, your dismay. There is no harm in having a full range of emotions, and teaching children that they, too, will be subject to sadness and disappointment, frustration and anger, bewilderment and helplessness as they age. But never let them forget that you love them and are with them and that you will stay in their corners come what may.
In this increasingly polarized world, how do we come together to solve the very real challenges we are facing? If conversations with those who disagree lead to broken relationships rather than common ground, how will we work together?
In this insightful article, Kern Beare offers some insights:
Prioritize the relationship over being right. Research shows that our fight/flee/freeze survival drive is often triggered when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. Research also shows that when that happens, we lose a host of cognitive capacities that are at the heart of being human, including empathy, moral reasoning and even intuition. Bereft of these capacities, the conversation — and sometimes the relationship itself — typically comes to an unsatisfying and even ugly end.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Evidence abounds that differences in values, attitudes, and beliefs become far less significant when a deeper basis of relationship is formed — especially when it’s rooted in our common humanity. [It’s important to] learn strategies for building such relationships, in turn strengthening the critical capacities you need for creative engagement.
See beyond your story. Most of us have the (often unconscious) assumption that our “story” — the particular set of life experiences from which we derive our sense of self — is the totality of who we are. This merging of “self” and “story” explains one of the most surprising findings of neurobiology: threats to our story-self — to our values, attitudes and beliefs — activate the same parts of our brain as threats to our physical self, triggering our fight, flee, or freeze reactions. When this happens, simmering disagreements can quickly become combustible.
At the same time, we’re learning that our identity encompasses far more than our story. Studies show that a more expanded sense of self emerges when we “switch off” our story-self, unleashing a host of positive emotions and attributes. These include joy, compassion, gratitude, flexibility, creativity and receptivity to new ideas — all of which counteract our survival drive instinct. [Learning] more about this “expanded self” [can help us] to access its capacities.
Transform resistance into response. Resistance is our early-warning system that our survival drive is beginning to kick into gear. When we’re in resistance, our attention narrows, our heart rate increases, and our stress levels rise — all signals of an emerging fight, flee, or freeze reaction. The neuropsychology of resistance [helps inform] why transforming our resistance into response strengthens our cognitive capacities, and how the brain has evolved to actually help us undergo this transformative process.
Preface to the book: Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together by Kern Beare
Perhaps these strategies can change the thermostat in our conversations and help us reach a place where we can work together to solve the problems ahead.
Sometimes joy is a matter of perspective. It’s reaching down and being grateful for it all, the mess, the euphoria, the triumphs, and the tragedies. Grateful to be here, to have a voice, to have people to care about, to have a chance to make a difference. Joy in it all is a choice.
In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen unpacks this further:
Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently from the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it. What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.
What is the promise behind the circumstances that threaten to steal your joy? Is there something hopeful there? Seeing that promise may just be the key you are looking for.
We humans are an inventive bunch. When confronted with limitations, we’ve always found a way to persevere. Communication was once limited to face to face, but then we thought up written alphabets, mail, books, telephone and telegraph, radio, TV, internet, and now Zoom.
We’ve adopted new virtual ways to hold meetings, teach class, and stay connected. We persevere, and most important, we always look for ways to help, using the gifts we have and perhaps stretching them to fit the limitations of our new normal.
As we make our way through this new normal, rather than mourn the lost way we used to connect, perhaps now is the time to adapt and stretch to fit our present reality. How can we be present for each other, particularly for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, in a way that works right now today?
From Shari: what are some new ways of doing things that you’ve found helpful in our current world?
For me, Zoom has been a godsend. I’ve been able to attend a virtual reunion, participate in book clubs, stay connected with friends, and make author visits to schools all while maintaining appropriate social distance. I’ve also found I’m writing more snail mail.
Are pleasantries a thing of the past? Asking after someone’s health and family? Really listening to their answer? Showing concern? Waiting your turn to talk? Making sure your words don’t wound?
For most of us, we can identify moments in our past where we were lifted up or shoved down, and often both of those extremes were a result of someone’s words. What we say has power, and we would do well to wield that power wisely.
From Shari: what are some words you’ve heard recently that lifted you up?
Listening, truly listening, is rare. Most people are just waiting for their turn to reply. Or maybe not even waiting, but interrupting to say what is on their mind. Two people both talking, but neither listening, and no one, consequently, heard. Too often, we want to avoid the discomfort of listening, particularly if someone is hurting, and so we turn the conversation back to something safe, ourselves.
Celeste Headlee recounts a time when she tried to support her grieving friend, but failed:
A good friend of mine lost her dad some years back. I found her sitting alone on a bench outside our workplace, not moving, just staring at the horizon. She was absolutely distraught and I didn’t know what to say to her. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable. So, I started talking about how I grew up without a father. I told her that my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was only 9 months old and I’d always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I just wanted her to realize that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and could understand how she felt.
But after I related this story, my friend looked at me and snapped, “Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad, and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.”
I was stunned and mortified. My immediate reaction was to plead my case. “No, no, no,” I said, “that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just meant that I know how you feel.” And she answered, “No, Celeste, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.”
She walked away and I stood there helplessly, watching her go and feeling like a jerk. I had totally failed my friend. I had wanted to comfort her, and instead, I’d made her feel worse. At that point, I still felt she misunderstood me. I thought she was in a fragile state and had lashed out at me unfairly when I was only trying to help.
But the truth is, she didn’t misunderstand me at all. She understood what was happening perhaps better than I did. When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself.
I may have been trying to empathize, at least on a conscious level, but what I really did was draw focus away from her anguish and turn the attention to me. She wanted to talk to me about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was, so I could fully appreciate the magnitude of her loss. Instead, I asked her to stop for a moment and listen to my story about my dad’s tragic death.
How often do we do this in our conversations? We listen to the story, only to remember a time when we experienced something similar and then quickly switch focus to our story. Do we sit with a person in their grief, their discomfort, their loneliness? Or do we try to change the topic to something more pleasant?
From that day forward, I started to notice how often I responded to stories of loss and struggle with stories of my own experiences. My son would tell me about clashing with a kid in Boy Scouts, and I would talk about a girl I fell out with in college. When a co-worker got laid off, I told her about how much I struggled to find a job after I had been laid off years earlier. But when I began to pay a little more attention to how people responded to my attempts to empathize, I realized the effect of sharing my experiences was never as I intended. What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me and acknowledge me.
Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious. Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and co-workers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.” Derber describes two kinds of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment. Here is a simple illustration:
Shift Response Mary: I’m so busy right now. Tim: Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed.
Support Response Mary: I’m so busy right now. Tim: Why? What do you have to get done?
Here’s another example:
Shift Response Karen: I need new shoes. Mark: Me too. These things are falling apart.
Support Response Karen: I need new shoes. Mark: Oh yeah? What kind are you thinking about?
Shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism. They help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself. But a support response encourages the other person to continue their story. These days, I try to be more aware of my instinct to share stories and talk about myself. I try to ask questions that encourage the other person to continue. I’ve also made a conscious effort to listen more and talk less.
Today, pay attention to your conversations. Think about the difference between shift responses and support responses, and focus on listening.
I’ve never learned something I didn’t know from talking. It’s in listening that we grow.
While our leaders model interrupting, our children are watching. What are they learning? If constant interruptions become the norm, how will this effect public discourse and civility? How will we work together without listening to each other’s points of view?
Today, perhaps we can model listening. Allowing people to feel heard is a gift we can freely give.
In this world of instant ‘news’ and polarized camps, it is difficult to siphon off the untrue, inflammatory, and malicious from the true, helpful, and conciliatory.
This is particularly true when we learn that one of the goals of social media is to monetize our attention. In the stunning must-see documentary, The Social Dilemma on Netflix, creators of popular social media sites like Facebook and Pinterest discuss how they have monetized their apps to drive profit. The apps are free to use. What is for sale is…you. Your attention. Your time. Your behavior.
What you click on, how long you look at it, and how you react is all measured. Complex algorithms calculate what data to show you based on what you are most likely to click. If you click on articles on empathy, you’ll be shown more stories on empathy. And if you click on dark or divisive articles, you will get more of same. Meanwhile, each of those clicks is a pay out from those seeking to put their messages into your head. The algorithms aren’t based on whether the content is good for you to view; they are based on what you are most likely to click. It is not hard to see how someone can become radicalized if they follow one of the darker holes further and further down.
So what to do? First, maybe affirm a universal truth. We want to make our decisions based on reality, not lies. We want to conform our understanding to facts, not alter the facts to fit our understanding. It’s as if there is a map to our destination. When we realize we are off course to a place we want to be, we change course, we don’t rewrite the map.
Second, consider your sources. Are they reputable? Rather than feeding the narrative you may want to hear, do they present the issues fairly and with minimal bias? If you are constantly being fed information that doesn’t square with what you see and hear happening around you, change up your sources.
Finally, read broadly. Don’t rely on a single person or news source. With respect to social media, seek out reliable sources directly and go to their sites to read the articles rather than clicking on a tempting link. We can be better informed than ever before, but we need to be intentional about it rather than passively wait for ‘news’ articles to pop up on your Facebook feed.
Social media is a powerful tool, but, like any tool, it can be a force for both good and bad. We need to be wary consumers and protect ourselves from being manipulated solely by advertisers trying to make a dime without regard to whether what they are showing us is true or decent. We need to guard our hearts, not to shelter ourselves from bad news or hurt in the world, but to keep ourselves from falling victim to fraud and deceit and unwittingly perpetuating false narratives ourselves.
Have you fallen for fake news lately? What steps have you taken to make sure you are reading and passing on reliable information?
I recently clicked on an article purporting to be a response from someone who had been silent on a current political issue. I fell for the ‘Check the Date’ problem above. The article was from about four years ago. That person was still being silent on the current issue, so I didn’t get any new information, but that duplicitous advertiser made some money off my click.
Who are your heroes? It is really an enlightening exercise to sit for a minute and ponder this question. Are your heroes, perhaps, people who fought against injustice, spoke out when they could have remained silent, ran into danger to save others, had a vision for the world that transcended the accepted theories?
It tells us something of ourselves to consider our heroes and perhaps points a way to where we might use our voices or actions to better the world.
No matter who our heroes are, though, it is unlikely they acted fearlessly. It is far more likely that they understood the dangers, were afraid, but did it anyway because it was important.
We can, too.
Who are your heroes right now today? The ones making a difference for us as we negotiate all the current challenges? What qualities do you admire in them?