“I can’t even watch the news,” she said. “It’s too upsetting. I have to protect myself.” The voice was one of a woman with chronic illness. She was concerned that the upset she felt at the state of the world might affect her health.
I understand her concern. Those of us who live with health challenges also live with a sense of caution. Choices we make in this moment might cause our health to decline. Things go better when we line up on the side of life. The news, these days, is full of death and destruction. “If I weren’t the kind of person who processes things in my body,” my thinking goes, “I wouldn’t be sick in the first place!”
Paying attention to current events is filling many of us with a sense of helplessness. Racism, terrorism, policing, refugees…The issues are huge and we each feel so small. Illness may make us feel even smaller, as we can’t get out and take action.
Looking away is not the answer.
We can find ways to contribute.
First, understand that not looking away IS part of the solution. 12-steppers among us will realize that the first step is admitting we have a problem. I can bear witness to the chaos. I can listen to people’s stories without judgment. We humans are learning that part of healing unjust systems is taking time to listen to the victims. Regardless of my health, I can bear witness and listen with compassion.
While I am doing that, I can tend to my own internal landscape. The definition of compassion is to feel with another. I may feel Big Emotions – the severest varieties of anger, fear and sadness. Learning how to handle emotion has been the biggest task of my adult life. I want to open space for them, feel them and understand that they are a sign of life and a mark of humanness. I want to drop the stories I am constructing around them (especially the ones about worsening illness) and instead surround them with tenderness.
One way to do that is through meditation and prayer. In Buddhist tonglen meditation I breathe in the sticky weight of helplessness, rage, terror and grief and breathe out the clean lightness of sanity and love. Recently, my meditation teacher led us masterfully through tonglen. Kristi Atkinson of The High Calling blog describes the Christian tradition of “praying the news.” Through this process, we notice and release our own judgments and sorrow, see the world through God’s eyes, and return to love and perhaps loving action. In a world of brokenness and hatred, we can become healers and peacemakers.
Faced with global violence and personal confusion, we may feel that only huge solutions will make a difference. In an interview with Krista Tippett, Cheri Maples, former Madison Wisconsin police officer and cofounder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice says we can ask ourselves, “how can this pain and suffering be transformed here right in the moment?” Bringing our intention into the moment is a way beyond hopelessness. She goes on, “to change the world or to love everybody is too big an ambition for any of us. But to be able to respond to this moment with some engagement and presence and compassion is possible for all of us.”
By bearing witness, noticing the stories and emotions that arise and learning to surround them with tenderness, rather than judgment, we move beyond helplessness and find peace. By entering the present moment with engagement and compassion, we transform pain and suffering into love.