Like most things, resilience isn’t something you’re born with, but it’s something you can develop. Continue reading
If you haven’t learned a few things from Donald Trump, you haven’t been paying attention this election season. If nothing else, this man has been a stellar example of how not to relate to others and how not to behave.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has been reckless, over-reactive, and quick-tempered. In my opinion, he has exhibited an impressive lack of forethought, good judgment, and calmness – qualities most people admire and strive to have.
So, it’s the honest truth when I say that I have learned a lot from Donald Trump. Donald Trump has taught me 4 crucial lessons on how to be a better human.
- An immediate reaction is not always warranted. Sometimes the best response is no response at all. We all feel slighted or wronged from time to time. When this happens, it’s hard not to tap out a quick email and tell that jerk who offended you what an a**hole he is. But, in the end, what purpose does that hot tempered reaction serve? Sure, it might make you feel better in the moment, but does it actually change the situation for you? Does it bring you a sense of peace, a feeling of happiness, or resolution to a sticky situation? Unlikely.
- Pause and think before you say or do something. Sometimes a little time out from whatever is making you crazy is all you need in order to regroup. Rather than immediately reacting to something when you feel aggrieved (see point 1 above), create some time and space between the stimulus and your response. Pause. Breathe. Walk around the block. Write that email (but do not put anyone’s name in the “To” line for god’s sake!), then hit delete. The desire to react will subside. You won’t have reacted, and you’ll feel better for it.
- Listen deeply to others. People you know, respect, and trust can have good advice to give. Often, that advice is coming from a point of view that may be more objective than yours. So, listen to what other people have to say. Don’t be so committed to your own way of thinking, and your own ideas about how things ought to be, that you can’t consider the counsel of others. Also, don’t close yourself off because you’ve been offended by what someone has said. Consider where that person is coming from. They may be speaking from their own wounds.
- Put your big girl panties on and say you’re sorry. We all screw up. We all say and do things we wish we could take back. But, we can’t take these things back (hence the importance of points 1 and 2 above). We can’t undo the wrongheaded things we’ve done, but we can recognize the error of our ways and be adult about it. Yes, it’s hard to get past our ego (admitting we were wrong) and our embarrassment (because we did something stupid), and admit our mistakes, but that’s what you have to do when you screw up. Apologize and make things right.
You all know that I’m all about learning from whatever experience in which you find yourself – good or bad. So, instead of rolling my eyes when I witness atrocious behavior from others, I’m turning the tables and getting something out of it. I’m letting Trump teach me. And he’s teaching me a lot.
Last week I wrote about how in the era of what seems to be a total loss of civil discourse and an alarming rise of xenophobia in the world, I will practice love. While this is a great idea in principle, the practicalities of actually doing it are a bit murky. I mean, how do I respond to things I don’t like? When faced with stuff that totally pisses me off, what am I supposed to do?
Part of me feels like I shouldn’t bother spending my limited emotional and intellectual resources on people and situations that don’t support my truth (awareness, compassion, connection, forgiveness, personal growth). But, at the same time, if I don’t speak up and act on my values, am I supporting my own truth?
I think we can all agree that you don’t have to love every person or every situation. War sucks. People who abuse women or children or animals suck. Hate-filled rhetoric sucks. These are things that I don’t like. In fact, I find these things abhorrent. But, if I am faced with that kind of shit, which I believe to be not just wrong but immoral, I have to do something. I can’t just pretend it’s not happening and look away. No, I have to respond to things I don’t like.
So, here’s my plan for how to practice love and respond to the things I don’t like.
I allow myself to feel what I’m feeling. You all know I am a big (and new) convert to the “don’t repress and don’t ignore” school of thought on how to deal with uncomfortable feelings. Just because I get my zen on now does not mean I feel only bliss. I still get angry. I still get indignant. The difference is that I allow myself to feel those emotions but try not to act on them in the moment I’m having the emotion. Like everything (the weather, being “in love,” Downton Abbey), feelings change. They wax then wane. So, I allow myself to feel what I’m feeling. “Okay, anger, here you are, a knot in my stomach, a pain in my head.” Repeat until feeling has lost its momentum, which will happen eventually.
I remember our common humanity. Am I perfect? Hell to the no. I’m so far from it that it’s not even funny. Have I ever lied? Have I ever stolen something? Have I ever said or done things that hurt someone? Uh, YES. I’ve done all that and surely some cardinal sins, too. (Truth be told, I enjoy being a sloth.) So when I see or hear or read about someone else screwing up, someone else who is also not perfect, I remember that person is a human being just like me. That person is speaking and acting out of his or her life experience and conditioning. (And if that person is a day over 30, I also think that person lacks awareness; but that doesn’t make him or her any less human. He or she probably still wants the same things in life as me – to be happy and loved.)
I accept the situation. I go through the first 4 stages of grief dealing with the shit (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) and then I get to acceptance. The key is to know what acceptance means. It doesn’t mean giving in, as in, “Okay, I will lie down and take this.” Hell, no! It means acknowledgment, as in “Okay, this is my reality, so now what do I do about it?” I accept that this shit is real – bad stuff is happening. And I know that I must manifest my values, because that’s how I choose to live. The response depends on the situation. It may be turning away from a person or situation. It may be speaking up. It may be doing something that I’m afraid to do. Whatever the response, it comes from honoring my truth, and it comes from a space of equanimity.
This is not easy. It takes effort and practice. But, if I want to be part of a better world, it’s going to take work. I’m ready, ready and able, to respond to things I don’t like.
Core Value #3 Compassion
It’s so timely that (in my alphabetical, Virgo way of organizing my values – Awareness, Community…) compassion is up next, because I had this interaction with myself just yesterday and it reinforced how much I (still) need to work on cultivating this value.
Here’s what happened.
Walking out of the grocery, I passed a woman who was about my age (not a spring chicken). She wore a crop top that bared her entire stomach, and she obviously hadn’t been doing 100 crunches a day or starving herself.
My first thought was, ‘Wow, I would never wear that in public.’ And, had I been with a friend at the time, I’m sure I would have actually said those words out loud, rolled my eyes, and laughed.
Two seconds later, I thought, ‘You know what? You go girl, with tummy hanging out. Yay you for accepting your body as it is and just putting it out there….although, I would never do that if that were my stomach.’
Truth be told, my stomach doesn’t look much different, and that’s being generous to myself.
Then, less than a minute later I thought, ‘Wait, what am I thinking? I am part of the problem. I’m the one with the attitude that the only people who should be allowed to bare their midriffs are 20 somethings with 6 pack abs. I’m the one feeding the stereotype that only a certain body type can be exposed in public. I’m tearing down a woman I don’t even know because of a stupid T-shirt?! What is wrong with me?!’
This, my friends, is a perfect example of me not practicing compassion. It’s me being judgmental, critical, and unkind. Oh, I have my work cut out for me.
And what happens when I’m not compassionate? I suffer. Whether it’s not being compassionate with others or not being compassionate with myself, the end result is the same. I end up unhappy, because I create distance and separation.
Compassion is an unqualified and all encompassing kindness that diminishes differences. It recognizes the interconnectedness and inherent self-worth of everyone (Namaste, y’all!). So when I’m acting compassionately, I accept people as they are rather than how I want them to be, which is always a recipe for disappointment. I accept people who believe differently than me, look differently than me, and act differently than me. In essence, I stop resisting others, which is tiresome and futile. I stop being ego-centric, forcing people to fit my admittedly small view of the world. And, I start opening up and embracing others. In essence, I soften, rather than sharpen, my hard edges and allow myself to connect to others. When I do this, I am my best self, and what’s better than that?
Dr. Emma Seppälä (Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) made this cool infographic on the Scientific Benefits of Compassion.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I spend my emotional energy. When I’m walking down the street and a person bumps into me and doesn’t apologize (which is a daily occurrence here). Or I’m parking my daughter’s bike and someone yells at me because of the way I parked the bike (sigh, true story). Or when I’m wearing my Birkenstocks and it starts pouring rain and my shoes are ruined (this has happened to two pairs of Birks since I’ve lived here).
At times like these, I want to say, “What the fuck?” or “How dare you?” Those are my automatic thoughts, and they are indicative of the kind of behavior that usually follows. Yep, I can be a real bitch. And, it’s precisely at times like this that I need to be cognizant of my emotional energy and how I’m spending it.
I know that I’m not the worst person out there. Not by far. I’m rarely angry or cynical, and I’m not a diva, expecting people to cater to me. Still, I have my moments. Who doesn’t?
When I start to feel shame or anger or pride or condemnation, unconditioned responses kick in. I start thinking, “I screwed up” (shame) or “You screwed up” (anger) or “I’m better than you” (pride) or “You’re worse than me” (condemnation). I generate this negative energy and then I put it out there in the world.
This is the energy I’m growing. This is how I am choosing to spend my energy. Whoa. Wait. Stop and let me get off this crazy train right now!
I want to start spending my emotional energy wisely and mindfully. I want to do this, because one of my values/goals is to develop resilience so that I won’t get emotionally upended by external events, going hot and cold depending on what’s happening in my world.
Life is unpredictable, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay safe and for things to be okay, but the reality is that we have no guarantees. Illness, death, accidents, rude behavior – this stuff happens all the time. Shit happens. The boat gets rocked. On a daily if not hourly basis.
So when life throws me something unexpected (and possibly unwanted), I am working on taking a moment to recognize my automatic thoughts – @#$&! – and trying to change them to something less selfish and more compassionate – just keep smiling and let it go.
I also want to be aware of what kind of energy I’m expending. I want to feed and grow positive, not negative, energy. I believe in karma, that our actions have real effects, right now.
We don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist in relationship to ourselves, to others, to the world. So when we do something, it has an impact on someone or something else. This is why being aware of your thoughts and actions is so important.
Karma is a bitch, but only if you are. So put out the energy, the attitude and actions, that you want to get back.
My father is dying. Literally. Several years ago he was diagnosed with hepatitis and diabetes, and the latter is killing him. He has lost sight in one eye and his vision in the other eye is worsening. He gets dialysis treatment several times a week. He is dying, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was first getting married, my dad was offended by my marriage for two reasons. One, I was pregnant (meaning I’d had sex outside of marriage) and two, I’d asked my brother, and not my father, to walk me down the aisle. It didn’t matter that I was in love and marrying the father of my baby. It didn’t matter that I was in college, and going to finish on time. All that mattered was that I had screwed up and had hurt him
When his dissatisfaction with my life choices was made known, by my stepmother as my dad has never been one to communicate feelings, I decided to say what I needed to say to my father. I wanted to enter the next stage of my life without the baggage of our relationship weighing on me, without any of his added guilt, which I felt was entirely misplaced and unfair.
I wrote him a letter in which I pointed out the nature of our relationship as I saw it. Here was a man who had been verbally and psychologically abusive to me, to my brother, and to our mother (in the few years they were together). Here was a man who was an angry, mean alcoholic throughout my youth. Here was a man who refused to pay child support, despite being taken to court, in an effort to get back at my mother for leaving him (and taking his children with her). Here was a man who had two biological sons, one divorced himself of the father-son relationship by choice, and the other was abandoned by my father a year after being born. I wrote all this to my father and asked him why.
But, my father never responded to my letter. It didn’t encourage him to ask for forgiveness or explain himself or do whatever one might do in this kind of situation. He didn’t even acknowledge it. Of course, by then he had found Jesus, so maybe my dad confessed his sins to God and didn’t feel the need to justify himself to his flesh and blood daughter. The one who had called his attention to her pain and sorrow, the direct results of his behavior. The one who had her own emotional baggage and shit to deal with because of his bad parenting.
Since that time, my father and I have had a distant relationship, which is fine by me. I don’t feel angry toward him although sometimes I feel a twinge of pity.
We are in contact via email and letters (although it is my stepmother who writes me actually) discussing things in generalities. The boys are fine. We went to Rome for vacation. Every 2 years or so we have a meal together. Ninety minutes of physical proximity and then I don’t see him again until the year after next, if I decide to contact him and make it happen.
I decided when I sent the letter, back in 1989, that I was done trying to make the relationship more than what it was or ever would be. Without his participation in fixing it there was only so much I could do or was even willing to do. I was done. I accepted that we would never have a relationship beyond that of acquaintances, but I was an adult and it was time to stop letting his shitty parenting be an excuse for my own shortcomings and flaws.
Easier said than done. Like everything with family and dysfunction and emotions, releasing this kind of past, filled with torment, is easier said than done.
So, my father is dying. And instead of feeling nothing or feeling relief, I feel a pit in my stomach. It makes me a bit anxious and sick. I keep wondering, ‘Why couldn’t he be human enough, especially after 45 years, to own up to his mistakes?’ I don’t know, and I doubt I ever will. All I know is that soon he will be dead and I will still have unanswered questions haunting me, this parenting legacy to deal with.
When something happens that threatens our safety, we respond automatically. This is a survival mechanism driven by evolution to defend us from danger. Lashing out, getting angry, screaming, whatever the behavior might be, it’s designed to protect us from harm.
But over the course of our existence, our egos have evolved such that certain ideas, words, and external events – none of which would actually cause us physical or psychological harm – now have the same effect, putting us on the defensive. We get angry or impatient or frustrated, or some other state of dis-ease, and respond by directing our ill will (lashing out) toward the individual or group who had the idea, spoke the words, or did whatever it was that pissed us off.
Fucking insurance companies! (I’ve said that more than once.)
My boss is such a dick! (That, too.)
Republicans – @#$%#!!! (Well, you get the picture.)
I allow myself to get outraged, which strokes my own ego. Someone did me wrong or hurt my feelings or disagreed with me on something, and I exact judgment. I’ll show them!
Oh my goddess. I need to stop this insanity right now. We all do. Who of us hasn’t been guilty of being over-reactive and channeling our inner Judgy McJudgers at some point in time?
Why can’t I kick and scream and rant (or sometimes break down and cry – yep I’ve done that) when someone says or does something I don’t like? I mean, am I just supposed to lie down and take their bullshit? (The answer to the latter is a resounding NO if the bullshit is actually inflicting physical or psychological damage, but I’m talking about the other stuff.)
I need to take a chill pill, because my behavior is likely based on a few misguided assumptions. The first is that I know exactly what’s going on with that person, the motivation behind their behavior. But, do I really know why that guy cut me off in traffic? Of course not. I assume it’s because he’s a dipshit but it’s equally likely, maybe more so, that his girlfriend just broke up with him, and he’s upset and distracted. If I knew the latter were the case, would I still react the same way, getting myself worked up, flipping him off and yelling in my car (which he can’t hear so it’s just for me, isn’t it)?
The second assumption is that the actions of others are all about me. As much as I’d like to believe it, my husband insists that the world does not, in fact, revolve around me. So, why do I take the things that others say and do so personally? Because, on some level, I feel my pride wounded, my ego bruised, by their actions. And when that happens it makes me want to do something that says, “Looky here. You are wrong, and I am right,” which is pretty childish when you think about it for 2 seconds.
Finally, there’s the assumption that my reaction will somehow change how the other person acts. This is laughable, because I know (KNOW – in all caps) that I can’t change how other people behave. In any situation, I can only control my own response, my own actions. Yet, here I go saying, “If you did this, then I wouldn’t act like that.” or “When you say/do this, it makes me say/do that.”
When I lash out, it’s like stepping on the gas pedal, pouring gasoline on a fire. My own behaviour intensifies the situation and generates more negativity. But if I don’t lash out, the feeling I’m having will undoubtedly peter out on its own, just like if I chose to coast rather than put my foot on the pedal. Or if I chose to sit and let the fire slowly burn itself out rather than stoking it.
So what am I supposed to do when I feel affronted. Should I be a doormat, accepting whatever comes my way, even if I don’t like it? Hell no (see note above about when actual physical or psychological damage is happening). But I can choose to respond in a way that diffuses the situation rather than exacerbating it. If I respond by being hostile then everyone involved suffers, especially me. And, if I respond by acting with kindness and compassion then everyone involved benefits, especially me. Word. That’s the truth.
Old habits die hard. I wish I could say that now that I’ve got this insight, I will never get angry again. I will never have feelings of hostility or dis-ease again. But, hey, those feelings are part of life (and directly related to interacting with other, imperfect humans who have their own issues). I can’t ignore or will those feelings away. All I can do is recognize them in the moment I’m experiencing them and sit with them. I can ask myself, “Is this worth me upsetting my own peace of mind over?” If not, then I just stay put until the feelings are gone. If yes, then I need to carefully choose my response so that I don’t practice ill will. If I can do this, then eventually I will break the old, unskillful habit and start a new, more wholesome one. That’s the plan anyway.
May I be more compassionate toward and less judgmental of others and myself.
A few years ago, my sister told me that she had stopped watching the news. She said she would turn on the TV, watch 30 minutes of reporting on violence and despair, and get paralyzed. How can one person make any difference? How can anyone effect change on the other side of the world, for people we may never see or talk to or know?
I’ve found myself recently going through something similar with respect to living ethically.
Okay, it’s easy for me not to kill anyone, but the day-to-day details of living ethically are, honestly, quite challenging. Is there anything I can drink or eat or wear or buy that doesn’t kill animals, produce more plastics, or exploit workers?
I already do so much. I don’t own/drive a car. I use my own grocery bags. I recycle everything. I eat mostly vegetarian and often vegan. Blah, blah, blah. But it doesn’t seem like enough.
And I read in the New York Times last week that I can’t even get a pedicure in good conscience anymore. Salon workers are underpaid. They work daily with toxic chemicals, which are unregulated in their work, and, as a result, have higher incidences of cancer.
So the other night, this is all spiraling out of control in my head, and I told my husband, “What are we supposed to do – eat only fallen fruit and wear leaves that are still attached to the vine?”
How do we live in today’s world and do it as ethically as possible without going completely nuts trying to figure out everything we need to do in order to live ethically?
After a few deep breaths, a good night’s sleep, and some Internet research, I found the answer I sought. It came from Carroll Muffett, deputy director of campaigns for Greenpeace. He wisely said, “Even for the best-intentioned person, it is impossible to make ethical choices about everything.”
We simply cannot do everything right all the time and exist in our 21st century lives. It’s just not possible. I can’t do my job, take my daughter to school or even survive a winter in Bavaria subsisting on fruit that might fall from nearby trees while cloaked in leaves.
So what can we do? The following are my top three things to make living ethically somewhat manageable.
- Prioritize what’s important. There is no instruction manual for how to live ethically, and sometimes 2 things will be in conflict and you have to choose one. Like let’s say you’re committed to buying local, organic produce. But one day you’re at the market and, for whatever reason, you have to make a choice. Either you can buy local or you can buy organic. Which do you choose? Something has to come first. So decide what comes first for you, where your priorities are.
- Put 1 or 2 things into practice. If you’re overly ambitious or set your goals too high then you’ll be likely to get frustrated easily and give up. What are a couple of things you can do today and actually achieve? Just for today, can you not eat meat? And if you can do it today, can you do it on a regular basis (once a week, three times a week, whatever seems doable)? If you can commit to that (or walking to work or whatever it is you can commit to) then put it into practice.
- Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes. Life is messy and complicated and things aren’t always black and white. You’re not always going to be able to make the best decision, because you’re not always going to have the information or resources you need to make the best decision. If my 6 year old is screaming because she’s thirsty and our only option is to buy something in a plastic bottle, then that’s what we’re going to do. So don’t get worked up about what you could have or should have done. Just do the best you can with what you’ve got to work with.
The bottom line is this. The next time you watch a documentary or read some investigative journalism or hear about some exploited land/person/animal, don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t get your liberal guilt all out of whack. Just breathe and keep moving in incremental steps in the direction of your goals.