An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
It is a crazy time in this country. We are in the midst of a seemingly endless pandemic that may surge again. Yet our leaders seem unwilling to set out clear tactics and expectations of behavior to help mitigate the threats to keep us and our loved ones safe.
The pandemic seems, also, to have finally laid bare for many the ways in which our society is crumbling. We are being forced to reckon with all the ways that we do not, and have never, lived up to the promise upon which this country was theoretically founded.
How do you find grounding and faith in the midst of this external chaos?
I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit, and admit that I chose your question to answer this week because the world is overwhelming right now. Between the pandemic, the election, the explosion of unashamed white supremacy, and the GOP’s brazen ramming through of a third Supreme Court justice just so they can continue to control a country that is quickly leaving them behind, it is so tempting to curl up in the corner of my couch and say, “NOPE. It’s just too much. Count me OUT.”
I needed to sit with your question in order to find my own grounding in this moment, which really brings me to the first answer to your question.
One of the most effective tools I have in my toolbox for grounding right now is stepping away from the maelstrom of media to take time to contemplate open-ended questions. Open-ended questions aren’t arithmetic. They aren’t 2+2=4.
Open-ended questions invite our minds to ramble in order to find the answer for today. Habituating ourselves to focusing on today brings us into presence with what is, grounding us in reality. In the face of an administration that lies constantly in the hopes of creating their preferred reality, this matters. It also orients us towards learning and growth as a mindset. Every day presents an opportunity to reflect and deepen our understanding, to find new and better answers to our biggest questions.
Our lizard brain’s desire for safety and comfort is fed by simplistic answers and tribalism. Our media in the United States, and our current political discourse, is largely built upon feeding our lizard brains.
Getting grounded in this moment is greatly aided by resisting the pull of your lizard brain, taking regular time away from media to climb back inside your own skin and ask open-ended questions like, “Who am I, again? What do I believe about the world? What sort of world do I want to live in?”
If, however, your anxiety is so pervasive right now that open-ended questions just cause you to spin endlessly, then spend some time in the “climbing into your own skin” step. I walk to ground myself. Steady, repetitive physical movement helps me discharge my habitually anxious energy. When I’m not anxious (or angry, or indignant, or vengeful, or resentful. It’s a whirling dervish party of emotional spin up in here), then I have the capacity to act from a deep sense of connection to other people. I can find compassion and grace.
I also cook, clean, balance my budget, and pay bills to ground myself in this deep, calm place. Anything that focuses on concrete reality and gives me the opportunity to bring a little bit of order to the chaos of my life.
Paying down my credit cards on time may not fix the current state of our political institutions, but it does give me a sense of efficacy. I can’t fix everything, but I can fix some things. Now that I’ve balanced my budget and paid all the necessary things, is there any left over to send to a political campaign or offer to my local mutual aid organization? If there’s none left over, can I make some phone calls to my reps or take some extra canned goods to the local food cabinet?
Every little thing you do to manifest the world you want to live in and the person you want to be matters. Sometimes change is like a tsunami. More often it is steady, persistent drops on a stone, eroding away what once seemed forever.
Back before the onset of this plague, my kids used to go to summer camp every year, up in the mountains on the edge of the Shenandoah National Forest. At the end of each two-week session there would be a final graduation and candle ceremony. Some random group of kids and counselors wandered around camp collecting trashed equipment and bits of wood, then took their collection up to the bonfire circle in the woods to assemble it into a crazy, wonky, misshapen “candle sculpture”.
After dinner on that last night everyone would gather to sit around the candle sculpture. The kids who were having their last night at camp got big, white taper candles, which they lit and then held while spreading out around the outside of the circle. Everyone else got tea lights. When they felt ready, everyone with tea lights went to a kid with a taper candle, got their tiny candle lit, and then placed it on the candle sculpture. Eventually all the tea lights were placed and the “graduating” kids got to place their tapers on the sculpture.
Slowly but surely, as night fell around us, our lights accumulated and pushed back the darkness.
One year I was sitting there, contemplating this brilliant, wonky thing that we had all built together, and the voice of a ten-year old boy emerged from the silence:
One of the reasons that I love camp is because we all get a chance to bring our light. My light is small. It’s just one light. But everybody else’s light adds to it, and then it’s as bright as a bonfire. Together we light up this whole corner of the forest.
Out of the mouths of babes, am I right?
As a person of faith, I language the meaning of my “light” in a particular way. My light is that of God within me, which connects to that of God within every other person. But it isn’t necessary to believe that to understand the truth that young boy spoke. The truth is the connection, the ways in which our fate is tied up in everyone else’s fate. We are in this, inescapably, together. How you language that truth doesn’t matter. Finding ground in that truth to move from matters.
Your light never goes out, but discharging anxiety and stress from your body and bringing small bits of order to your own messy life clears away the accumulated burdens that smother it. The next step to find grounding and faith, whatever that means to you, is to add your light to other people’s light. It is to connect, person-to-person, to help each other and pursue a common goal.
Collective action is the best antidote I know to push back the darkness.
You might think that in the midst of a pandemic connecting person to person, or acting collectively isn’t really possible, but that’s not true. Most of us can do something to help somebody in some kind of way, even in these times. If you really don’t want to leave your house, can you make phone calls or texts for a candidate you support? Can you write a letter to someone in an elder care facility, or someone who is incarcerated? Can you help make home cooked meals for local families that have lost jobs or housing due to COVID-19?
If you’re willing to leave your house and have a car, can you help do food delivery for folks who are homebound? Can you work with a local organization to give folks rides to the polls on election day?
This week I volunteered for a couple of hours with an ad-hoc, local group of parents to support folks waiting on line for early voting. While wearing my mask and maintaining proper distance, I greeted people and thanked them for voting. I offered to hold their space in line if they had to go to the bathroom or take their kid to their car. I helped an elderly voter with a walker connect with the poll workers so he could get in the entrance that was accessible. Most importantly, I looked people in the eye and connected with them. I got them talking to each other. I helped turn an impersonal waiting experience, outside on a rainy morning, into a friendly community experience.
I brought my light, and added it to other people’s light, and for a couple of hours we all pushed back the darkness.
If we want to fight for the “promise upon which this country was theoretically founded” then we have to, I believe, work to build communities in which everyone can not just survive, but thrive. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, yes? Basic needs for food, housing, education, and healthcare should be covered for everyone. Reparations and reconciliation must be prioritized. Service leadership must become the norm, not the exception.
Some people might say that is overly idealistic. To that cynicism I would reply, “How do you think we got this country in the first place?” A bunch of people got together and imagined a country that was better than they themselves were. How is now any different?
Today I woke up to news of the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States. Despair tempted me, but then I read these words by Elena Rose Vera, as shared by Rebecca Solnit:
I see a lot of people out there tonight who are new at unfair fights, long odds, and stacked decks.
Nothing is over. Take a breath, take a minute, feel your feelings. Then get back in the fight. The fight is harder, but the fight is the same, and it needs you, and it needs me, and it needs us. The stakes could not be higher, and the world we hope for doesn’t happen if we don’t make it.
We fight the fights that need fighting, not just the fights we’re sure we can win. We do what needs doing, and we make a way out of no way. We get miracles by being each other’s miracles. We get chances by making chances. We get hope by doing the work of hope.
Take a breath. Feel your feelings. Then get to work.
The world we hope for doesn’t happen if we don’t make it.
The world we hope for doesn’t happen if we don’t make it.
The world we hope for DOES. NOT. HAPPEN. IF. WE. DON’T. MAKE. IT.
You want to find grounding and hope in this chaos? Step away from the headlines and find your light. Blow on it, gentle, steady, and unceasingly, until it burns strong. Then get out there and share it.
Sharing light only ever makes it grow brighter. So, let’s make a bonfire of ourselves, shall we? That is our work.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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