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.
If one of your friends were struggling with the problems you are facing right now, what words would you offer in support? Would you call them names, berate them, remind them of all the other times they messed up just like this and how, honestly, can they ever expect to get anything right, ever?
Probably not. Right? But often this is the way we talk to ourselves. We replay all our other mistakes in our minds, call ourselves stupid, sink into our shells scared to face the world.
But why do we do this? If the words we would offer our friend are what we think would help, why are we so reticent to speak kind encouraging words to ourselves? Maybe today is a good day to try a different approach.
Be a kind friend to yourself. Offer yourself words of support and encouragement. Focus on all the many times you got things right. Tell yourself the truth: you are precious and beloved.
From Shari: These are hard times. For many of us, these are the hardest times we’ve been through.
What are some of the things that are helping you deal with the stress? What are some ways you’ve been able to help others?
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.
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 the world; we breathe out heaven.
What steps have you taken toward peace today? Have you seen an example of active peace in the news or in your experience?
One of the side-benefits or hardship is cultivating resilience. Learning new things and new ways of doing old things helps sharpen the saw. It also helps us stay engaged and young. In this excellent article, Kerry Hannon argues that learning something new is a key factor in building the resilience we need to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility, particularly now.
When you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections that you never noticed before. “Resilience is about being adaptable in a variety of different circumstances,” said Dorie Clark, who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of “Reinventing You.” It is a combination of being able to pick yourself up when there are setbacks, but also it is about having the kind of cross-training necessary to be flexible in an uncertain world where we don’t know what is around the corner,” Ms. Clark said.
New York Times, “To Build Emotional Strength, Expand Your Brain,” by Kerry Hannon
Staying curious, intentionally putting yourself in places and situations where you are a beginner, and following passion all contribute to building resilience with a byproduct of satisfaction.
Those who routinely and consciously engage in learning become more confident about their ability to figure things out once a crisis hits, according to Beverly Jones, an executive career coach and author of “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like A CEO.” “Each time they hit a bump, they spend less time lamenting and quickly turn to determining what they must learn in order to climb out of the hole,” she said. Moreover, learners develop a more optimistic mind-set, which helps them jump into action, according to Ms. Jones. “In part, this is because each time you become aware of learning something new it feels like a victory,” Ms. Jones said. “You maintain the positivity that is a key to resilience.”
So, as we continue to adapt to a new normal, now is a good time to seek out new things to learn and new passions to pursue. More than ever, university courses and classes are being offered online, often for free. What is something new for you to pursue? Stay curious; keep your mind young; and follow your passions.
In challenging times, there are always bright moments of light to lift us up. People singing from balconies out onto deserted streets in Italy, others joining together to amplify the voices of the unheard, and, in one of the most delightful examples, an out of work sports color commentator putting his talents to use to give people a glimmer of cheer during dark times. Sidelined by the coronavirus and the consequent shut down of sports, Andrew Cotter has been making videos providing the color commentary for his two dogs’ adventures. Meet Olive and Mabel as you make way for a bit of delight:
All we face now can feel overwhelming. It’s as if everywhere you turn, there is another challenge and another threat. And yet, even if the midst of all that is wrong, there are opportunities to shine the light, to be a voice for good, and to support others. Yes, it looks bleak now, but we are still here to do some good:
“Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say ‘It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.’” — Joanna Macy
John Lewis was an American hero. His whole life was a testament to fighting the good fight and trying to make the world a better, more egalitarian place even in the most dire of circumstances. Today, he is laid to rest, but he left us words, every one ringing with truth, to give us light and help us find our way without him:
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
“That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.
“Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.
“Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
May his words hold true in our hearts, and let us live up to the example he set. Let us go forward in the spirit of peace with everlasting love as our guide. Let this be our solemn vow. Now is the time.
Most of us will not be inventing a vaccine to end this pandemic or donating millions to the research. Most of us will not be heroes in the saving the day sense.
And yet each of us has incredible power to choose how we want to meet each day when life is so stressful. Whether we want to retreat into a cocoon focused only on our own wants and needs or use this as an opportunity to reach out to others. Whether we want to add to someone’s anxiety or be their shelter in the storm. Whether we want to be comforted or to comfort.
And the impetus for any acts of kindness comes from the deep recognition of how important those acts of kindness have been to you when you have despaired. The kind gesture, the comfort of a friend simply abiding with you as you travel a dark path, the reminder that you are precious when you’ve forgotten and can see only your mistakes. These have been your lifeblood. And you can offer that gift to others, particularly now. Take a moment to enjoy this profound poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.