I feel heart heavy right now, despite waking up today with the intention of making it a good day. I got up this morning with the intention of spending the day focusing on things that make me feel good: visualizing better health, a stronger body, and a joyful spirit. Then I saw the news of yet another mass shooting at a school and all of my good intentions shattered around me. I could feel myself deflating while a heaviness started to spread out from my heart, making just sitting upright feel like too much effort. Letting myself feel the weight of the grief that is swelling in that community as family and friends deal with the reality the rest of us can only imagine. I felt myself wanting to shut down, defeated, for a moment unable to feel like it was OK for me to feel OK. How can I justify giving myself a good day, when other people are suffering? How is that OK? How can I let myself laugh at a joke, or celebrate a birthday, or enjoy hearing the birds singing or children laughing?
This blog isn’t about politics, or gun violence, or activism. It is about managing my own microcosm of experience, so that I have the potential to make change in my community by helping other people manage their own experiences of the world. So, how does that happen on a day like today?? I have to make the hard choice to look at my own world and my own reactions to the events around me, instead of getting lost in the tidal wave of emotions and words that something like a mass shooting at a school can generate. So I examine the question of whether I can justify sticking to my original plan, and making a good day for myself, despite tragedy.
One thought habit I’ve noticed in myself over the years is the tendency to feel guilty if I feel good when someone else is having a bad day, or something tragic happens, or the dolphins are being killed off the coast of XYZ country. Let’s face it – something bad is happening every moment of every day in a million different places and lives around the world. My feeling bad doesn’t change any of it for anyone – it serves no purpose other than to perpetuate itself. This doesn’t mean that feeling bad isn’t appropriate, or that I shouldn’t allow myself to have whatever feelings I naturally have. It’s when I catch myself focusing on the bad stuff and literally CHOOSING to escalate bad feelings that I’ve run into a problem. If I’m not careful, I’ll take those bad feelings and blow them up and make them bigger and bigger until I get lost in all of the bad, and feel powerless and crippled by the anxiety and depression that these feelings can bring into my life. I catch myself CHOOSING the bad feelings, and finding a multitude of reasons that I “should” feel bad and that I have “no right” to feel good.
Here are some questions I can ask myself when these types of feelings of defeat and despair and unfairness start to settle around me. I don’t always remember to do this, but it helps me every time when I DO remember. When I’m aware and able enough, I ask myself the following:
Do I have any power in this situation?
This is a very literal and pragmatic question. Is there anything I can actually do about it? Can I bring the dead back to life? Can I participate in catching the bad guy? Do I know any of these people, and can anything I do bring them peace or comfort? The answer to all of these questions in the context of this recent school shooting is “No”. I have no real power here – a well meaning and even heartfelt Facebook post is not going to change anything for the people actually affected by this tragedy. I do not know any of them, I do not live in the community nor work in any field that could possibly impact their well being during this time.
If I had any power in this situation, what would it be?
What can I actually DO??? In the case of school shootings, there is nothing I can do about what has already happened. Maybe, though, I can do something moving forward. I may be able to have an effect on the future with my voice and my vote. There may be a charitable donation I can make to help the community and families of the victims, or I might be able to donate time or money to an organization working to end this type of violence in one way or another – but none of that will directly impact these people in this most recent event – nothing I can do will help them TODAY. I do not have a voice, politically – in other words, I don’t work with any organizations, I don’t have a large public following, etc. I have my personal beliefs about gun ownership and gun violence, and I have some articles I’ve read, but other than voting, I have no real power in the discussion. No way other than value driven voting to effectively impact either this recent event, or the future of the conversation in general.
If I had any power in this situation, what am I willing and able to do?
So, if I really stretch beyond donating money or volunteering time to an organization to create change in the future, and consider the most extreme action I can possibly imagine…what I could actually DO right now about this event? I suppose I could get on a plane, fly to Florida, and volunteer…to do what? What would I do? Pass out food to the families of the victims? Offer a shoulder to cry on to a stranger? There is nothing for me to DO there that is realistically going to make a difference. There is no pay off for those people – they would not benefit from my effort. My ability get on a plane and fly there is also doubtful. I can’t afford it financially, and my own personal health challenges mean that travel and any kind of sustained energy output are extremely difficult. So for the doubtful negligible benefit, no…I am not willing nor able to take any kind of NOW action.
So, I am relatively powerless in this specific situation, and yet I could easily get caught in a self-imposed prison of feeling bad – feeling bad that I can’t do anything, feeling bad that these things happen…just feeling BAD. So this next question is the big one:
Will it help me or the people involved if I feel bad all day?
Will it? Will they even know? If they knew, would it help THEM feel better? Is my sadness, my grief, my sinking into depression or spending my day in a fog of sadness going to do anyone any service at all? Again – the answer is a resounding “NO”. In fact, just the opposite. If I am EVER going to be able to offer any kind of action or help in these types of situations, it would require that I stay able bodied and of strong spirit. So my feeling bad today, staying in sadness and risking sinking into depression and anxiety today…does nothing useful for ANYONE. It serves no purpose, creates no benefit.
So I’m learning to look at these things, and question my thought habits. Every time I hear or read about a tragedy, my heart hurts for the people affected by every bad thing that happens. However, if I allow that to take over my day, my existence starts to fade into black and I become crippled. I can’t afford that cost, and it quite literally takes me out of the game, thus ensuring that not only do I not have power NOW, I won’t have any moving forward, either. So I have to choose to let it go. I can make a note to myself of what I CAN do and what I’m willing to do. I can pay attention and vote appropriately and possibly donate time or money to causes I support. I can offer support to family, friends and my community when possible. I cannot, however, save the world from tragedy, and my spending my day steeped in that suffering does nothing useful for anyone.
There have been a lot of things to feel bad about lately. Politics, the state of the world, healthcare, global and community crises like the school shooting today…and more personally for me, the recent death of someone that I cared about in my past and cancer’s invasion of another friend’s life. I have absolutely no power in any of those situations. For my friends, I can offer support…love…but that’s all. I can’t change anything for them. I can’t bring back the dead or heal the sick. One of these wise friends is very clear about what she does and does not need from her friends, by way of support. One of the things she asks is that we all live and love our lives. That we pay attention to what matters to us, hug our loved ones, and live in as much joy as possible – and that we share that with her. I have to take her at her word on this, and fight my own tendency to want to sink into sadness FOR her.
I realize at a very base level that MY bad day does nothing to make my friend’s day easier or better. So by choosing to continue my efforts to make a good day for myself, I serve her, I serve myself, my family, and my community. I make my body and spirit stronger. So one day, if there IS actually anything I can do – any event in which I DO have some power, I will be ready and able to exercise that power for the benefit of my world. That is all I can do. It simply has to be enough.
NOTE: Added 2/22/2018:
Over the week following the shooting at the school in Florida, I have witnessed the bravery and activism of the young people who were at the school when it was attacked. I have heard their words, and because of them my feelings of powerlessness were short lived. Some people DID get on planes and go down and offer comfort, and the members of the Parkland community were apparently grateful. Ongoing, many people are donating money and time to the the March for Our Lives events being scheduled for March 24th across the country. I have just contacted my local event in hopes that I can help organize and definitely participate in my city’s March on that day. I can only lend my voice and support to this group of activists that are determined to be heard.