I spent most of my 20’s avoiding the news. I didn’t read or watch anything about politics, and I focused exclusively on healing the wounds in my psyche. I went to workshops, I did a lot of therapy, I attended rituals and read self-help books and made altars and wrote affirmations on my wall.
These all helped me work through my depression and trauma and other wounds I had accumulated from a painful childhood. It was wonderful and good and something I desperately needed. I’m not criticizing it. What I want to tell you about today is what is beyond it. I want to tell you about the shadow that is cast by trying to “live in the light” constantly. I want to tell you about who lives in that shadow, what real change looks like, and what our world desperately needs from you that you are not doing and not seeing.
There are some lies in that world, that I didn’t see at the time. There is a story that permeates the world of woo, that goes like this: all you really need to do to enact change in the world is “work on yourself”. The whole world is an out-picturing of our inner reality, so the only thing we need to do to change it is attain inner peacefulness. Anyone who is suffering is really holding untrue thoughts in their minds, and so all they need to do is change their thinking, and their world will change.
There is some truth to this way of thinking, and I am not saying to throw it out. There is a lot of agency in choosing how you think, and choosing the frame with which you see the world. I gained a lot from learning to choose where I place my attention, and gaining control over the chaos and pain in my mind. I started a business, I built a circle of supportive friends, and I became the happiest person I could figure out how to be.
But every frame you see reality through highlights certain things and leaves others out of the frame. Every time you focus on one aspect of the world, you exclude others. Our thinking has consequences. And the consequence of this frame is that you start discounting the effects of privilege and systematic oppression. You start reducing the complexity of other people’s suffering and develop a simplistic and smug explanation for all the pain in the world. You justify not paying much attention to that suffering and not learning about people who don’t share your experience of the world. You prioritize your inner peace above having a realistic awareness of world events and economic realities. You believe explanations of suffering having to do with psychology and destiny over economics and systems. You stop believing people when they say, “This is unfair” and think to yourself, “They’re just creating an unfair reality for themselves by focusing on unfairness”. This is an incredibly painful and insulting way of treating people who are suffering from systematic oppression. It is myopic, self-serving, and only plausible if you already have a lot of privilege that you don’t realize you have.
Around 2013, I started feeling this pressing sensation that I was living a life that wasn’t real, and basing my life on narratives that I couldn’t be sure were true. Some of the circular reasoning was getting to me and its seemed like I was missing something really important. I decided that somehow, I was going to find out what was true, and test if my theories about how the Universe works held up in that ugly, messy, real world I was avoiding. I decided to volunteer teaching Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in prison.
Those first few months were a shock. I found prison to be emotionally punishing. I felt overwhelmed with grief and despair when I would go there. I felt an immediate camaraderie and connection with the men in our class, and it felt like any other group of people struggling to understand how their inner suffering works and how to find their way through it. That was the oasis, my comfort zone. But walking through the gates and hearing them clang shut behind me was entering a foreign world where the rules did nothing to support health or healing. Hearing the stories of their lives and their crimes, and the slow dawning of how little I understood about crime and poverty and all the causes and conditions that led people to prison was overwhelming. Leaving in the evening knowing that these men would be locked in cages all night, as they were every night, was heartbreaking.
I went to every teacher I had and asked for help. I explained the overwhelm, the confusion, the emotional overload, and asked for advice. The answers were confusing and disappointing. I heard, “This is why I don’t do work like that. This is why I don’t go to places like that. I don’t have an answer. That sounds really hard. Maybe it’s not right for you. You need to take care of yourself. You don’t have to save the world, you know.”
I felt a strange sense of emptiness, and a bit angry. Is this all my woo-woo world could offer? I had worked on healing so much for so long, and yet, here was a situation that was very obviously in dire need of healing, and the responses I got were to leave it behind and save myself? It was plainly obvious to me that the only reason the system was this bad was that nobody has any clue how bad it is, and we all keep ignoring it because it’s too painful to think about. Walking away to protect myself was no answer.
Over the next year, my peaceful world of inner happiness started to crack open. Watching TV crime dramas I used to find entertaining suddenly felt impossible, because the narratives were so starkly untrue. They seemed suddenly like a fantasy told purely to keep up a charade that these people were monsters and animals, and not human beings struggling to learn how to live good lives like all of us are. I looked around and everything that everyone cared about seemed to be shallow and absurd compared to the awareness that was growing in me. I felt this disconnect with most of my friends, in the groups I used to rely on for support, and with my teachers.
Little did I know I was about to dive off a cliff that would irreparably shatter that world into pieces I couldn’t put back together, and wouldn’t want to.
I believe wholeheartedly in my spiritual path. Through everything that has happened, and no matter what, that is always my primary compass. And spirituality is and has always been about truth and love, not about comfort. Peace is not something you find by avoiding painful realities, it’s something you are left with at the core of your being after everything else has been stripped away. I had learned these lessons over and over through my own healing journey, and I had faith in them. So I knew that I had to keep going.
I was seeing behind veils I didn’t know were there. I was learning things I didn’t know I didn’t know. That is why I didn’t walk away, even though I had the privilege to do so. I needed to know. I needed to see. I needed to learn. I needed to connect these dots that I didn’t know existed before. I needed to figure out where wholeness and healing lived in this equation. I needed to understand how humanity could heal from this devastating disconnect.
I was also falling in love, with one of the men in our class.
There is something love can do like nothing else in the world: it can motivate us to embark on the painful struggle to be close to people who are different from us long enough for those differences to start stripping away the layers of ignorance and judgement that accumulate around our hearts. People describe this ego-stripping with metaphors of fire, but I think it’s a much slower process. Fire is fast and clean and cleansing, but love is messy and complex and takes a lot of work. The passion gets you in, but the rest you have to choose. The rest requires a commitment to love itself.
I moved from my lovely Portlandia to Salem, which is small and much less hip, but that’s where he lives, in a maximum security facility in the middle of town. We got married and I visit him three times a week. We spend long hours talking about race and class and love and connection and empathy and healing and crime and violence and the future and the past and hope and despair and everything else. We talk because we love each other and want to understand each other, and because we literally can do nothing else. Sometimes the conversations are hard. We come from very different backgrounds and we are constantly blown away by how many assumptions and stories we have to see through to stay in connection. But we keep going, keep talking, and keep letting the layers fall away. Because love is what we were both searching for, and love is what we found in each other.
The first two years of being a prison wife were brutal. Every emotional struggle I had with teaching in prison, every disconnect with my former world, every overwhelming reality was multiplied and compounded as I steeped myself in learning the truth about how we deal with crime in our country. From children in solitary confinement, to prisoners being killed by guards, to medical neglect, to the system itself and how it perpetuates poverty and destroys families and communities without helping people heal or learn or grow — I felt devastated by the knowledge that we could be doing this to people when we know so much now about what people need to live good and healthy lives.
Almost everything about prison is the exact opposite of what it should be. Nothing makes sense. Study after study shows what would be helpful and useful and yet the system often operates in a way that seems almost guaranteed to make things worse. More contact with families and more education leads to lower recidivism, yet contact is more and more restricted and expensive, and education programs are considered “luxuries” and cut. We know people change, and we know how to help them change, and yet the stereotype of someone in prison is of an unapologetic bully who has no interest in change. We know violence is a learned behavior and yet it is treated as a moral failing. We know that PTSD leads to violence and that trauma is widespread and treatable, yet trauma treatment is very rare in prison. Even “trauma informed care” is rare outside of juvenile and women’s facilities. Prison itself is traumatizing and impedes any kind of therapy or treatment. Men’s prisons (meaning most prisons) are a place we store the people we throw away. And how can we call ourselves compassionate people if we allow any people to be treated like trash?
I started to lose faith in humanity. I wondered how such a brutal system could be allowed to exist here. And I lost faith in the idea of healing. Not because I don’t think it works, but because what I had learned was no longer enough. I couldn’t heal my way out of this. Everything I had learned required a safe space in which the violence was no longer being done to you. It was predicated on the idea that the trauma your brain is reacting to is over, and you need to update your mind to realize you are safe again. That isn’t helpful if the trauma isn’t over and you aren’t safe. And being married to someone in prison means being in a continual state of attachment trauma. Being in prison means being in a constant state of hyper-vigilance due to the threat of violence — you are helpless, powerless, and afraid for your life, the three components of a traumatic experience. I needed something more than healing techniques.
I eventually came across the concept of resilience. Resilience means being able to cope with intense experiences while they are happening. It’s different than healing. Instead of trying to repair the past, you learn to be strong enough to handle the present. Instead of needing to escape to heal from your wounds, you expand your capacity to be with discomfort and pain so it doesn’t hurt so much and doesn’t create so many wounds.
They are both important and one is not better than the other, and ideally they work together. But I have learned some very important things about healing: sometimes focusing exclusively on healing reinforces your sense of yourself as fragile in the face of an overwhelming world. Sometimes constantly seeking safety means you don’t develop your capacity to handle a world which is not safe, not pain-free, not comfortable, and yet very real and in need of your presence.
We all have to understand our capacities and honor our limits. But sometimes that can become a way of avoiding expanding our capacity and growing beyond our limits.
I’m not a fan of pursuing “edgy” experiences just to challenge myself, because I find life pretty challenging already. I have social anxiety and I work hard to make sure that I’m setting myself up for success as much as possible, and that involves a lot of boundaries and discernment about what is good for me. At the same time, I’ve realized that I am actually capable of more than I thought. For a time I lost my faith in people, but it grew back. I was devastated and drowning for awhile, but I eventually was able to keep my head above water again. I used to not be able to handle the news at all, but now I can keep up with it and just monitor my general level of hopelessness and find some inspiration to help balance it out when I need to. We adapt to our circumstances, and part of growing is exposing yourself to stress in the pursuit of more capacity.
This is the wisdom I want to share with you today: the only thing that will heal our world is empathy and the actions that stem from empathy. And you cannot have empathy for people you keep at arms length. The stories you tell yourself about why people suffer are just that: stories. They are stories that are easy and convenient, but they are not true. Until you can listen to people whose lives are vastly different than yours deeply enough to understand their experience, and sit with their pain long enough for your heart to be broken by it, you are sitting in delusion, not truth. Loving humanity in the abstract is self-indulgence. It is denial. It is not helping anyone but yourself. And it’s OK to help yourself and heal yourself. It’s important. But it is not and will never be the only important thing.
You cannot simply “be the change” and expect the world to heal itself. There is no “great shift in consciousness” that is going to happen by itself and let you remain in your comfortable bubble. It is that bubble itself that is the problem. We are the eyes and ears and hands of God, and we have to go out there and see and listen and do the change we want. We have to actively love each other, not in theory but in practice. We have to be willing to be less comfortable in the service of being more loving, more aware, more active, and more involved.
And you can do it. You can handle the world’s pain. Not all at once, but you can take it on a little bit more every day. You can see the world as overwhelmingly painful and depressingly broken, or you can see it as a work in progress that needs your help. You can make a difference, and it has to start by turning toward the pain and difference instead of turning away.
The reason the pain is so big is because it’s not shared and addressed by all of us. Part of “being the change” is being willing to take on the pain of others, and take responsibility for how our society functions. Turning away is actually expecting the people who can’t turn away to handle it by themselves.
Here are my suggestions about some ways you can expand your capacity for empathy and get a better handle on the full reality of our world:
- Search on Google for, “prison reform” and your city or state. See what local organizations are working toward reforming your state and local laws to make them more fair and just. Go to some meetings, or lectures, read their website and donate if you can afford it. Some other searches to try are “poverty” and your city and “racism” and your city. Read, learn, and understand what is going on around you.
- Read some articles about what prisons are actually doing to people. I know it’s hard, painful, heartbreaking, and overwhelming. Please do it anyway. Stop assuming this country is fair or that the world is just what you make of it. Learn about people who have experienced their choices and humanity being brutally taken away from them and the despair that results. Here are some places to start: Kalief Browder, Prison is Where Families Go, Madness. If you want more, The Marshall Project is a great resource.
- Watch Father Greg Boyle’s Thought of the Day. He is a Jesuit who works with formerly gang-involved and incarcerated people and has the purest message I’ve found about what “we are all connected” really means when it comes to violence and community. He’s a great storyteller and will help you have hope for what is possible if we actually can love each other more than we are afraid of each other.
- Vote and make sure your friends vote. I know it’s what everyone says, but it’s obviously not what everyone does. Pay attention to your local elections and state elections — most crime bills pass because “tough on crime” gets votes even though it doesn’t work. The mandatory minimum laws we are struggling with in many states were passed by voters. It takes a very long time to undo a bad law. Please show up to vote against them.
- Read about the alternatives to incarceration and punitive justice. Read about how Germany does prison or Norway. Learn about Restorative Justice, and check out the Houses of Healing program that teaches inmates emotional literacy, mindfulness, and accountability within the context of healing rather than shaming. Learn about how our current system doesn’t help victims any more than offenders, and there are alternatives.
- When you see a TV show or news story about someone who committed a crime, ask yourself what you are not seeing. What led up to that crime? What was the full context? What was the logic behind that decision? What needs were they trying to meet? What world might they be living in that it seemed like the best option at the time? If you are simply baffled and don’t understand, consider that as an element of the human experience that you need to learn about, because you can’t have empathy for someone until you understand their world. And you can’t understand crime very well until you understand poverty, the effects of prolonged hopelessness, masculinity and shame, privilege, systems of oppression, and trauma.
- Ask yourself what you are being led to believe about crime. In news stories and movies, is there a narrative that some people are just “bad apples”, that violence is irrational and unpredictable, that anyone who is violent has no regard for others or capacity for empathy? Do they show the person’s family or friends, or anything else about them besides their crime? In other words, is there a narrative of “othering” or distancing that leaves you with the fearful impression that criminals are not really human like the rest of us, and therefore don’t deserve your empathy? Are you being encouraged to forget about their very existence once they are taken to prison? How do you think their families cope with their incarceration? Or are you led to assume that they just don’t have families? Become critical of narratives about crime and punishment.
- Realize that poverty and incarceration are extremely intertwined. See How Women of Color Pay for the Hidden Costs of Prison, Jail is Sinking Families Into Poverty, and Women Pay the Most, and Prison and the Poverty Trap. Think about how you spend your money and who doesn’t have that money to spend. Think about the resources it takes to go to therapy every week, and realize that healing is often not a personal choice, it’s an economic one. I was able to heal from my childhood with years of private therapy and workshops and a whole community devoted to wellbeing and health. My husband is doing the same work while in a prison cell, with whatever books I can send him, while enduring daily humiliation and shaming, dehumanization, navigating threats to his physical safety, and being surrounded by people full of despair and anger and hopelessness and distrust and the ethos of invulnerability that arises when your survival is on the line every day. That is what doing the work of healing looks like in prison. And yet he reads every book I send him cover to cover because he wants to heal as much as anyone. Imagine what could happen if prisons offered resources and an environment that supported healing instead of making it a monumental task that requires immense commitment. Think of your healing world as a privilege and ask yourself how it could become more accessible to people with fewer resources.
- Make a personal commitment to make social justice and social healing part of your spiritual practice. Seek out teachers whose plan for healing the world includes everyone, not just those with privilege. Stop putting these issues out of your mind because you can. The definition of privilege that I find most useful is the ability to walk away from discomfort rather than being forced to endure it. Consider that your ability to turn away is a luxury others don’t have. Use that privilege to take care of yourself, but don’t stop there. Use it as a respite, but not an escape.
- Recognize that guilt and anger will come up, but don’t stop there. Guilt is a natural human emotion; it’s not something you have to run away from. Sit with it and feel it and over time as you make a deeper commitment to being guided by empathy, it will start to dissipate and be replaced with determination. Anger is also natural, and as you take in more and more of the reality of the pain of the world, it will hurt. You will want to blame someone and be angry. Sit with that too, and work with it until it starts to turn into compassion. Feelings are fuel. Don’t fear them, don’t try to control them, don’t act blindly from them, but rather honor and embrace and transform them. Realize that underneath all of them is the motivation to contribute and to help the world heal, and that is good.
- Talk about what you’ve learned and how you feel with people you know. Bring up uncomfortable topics. Talk about race. Talk about poverty. Share the fullness of your experience and misgivings and confusion and hope and doubt — in short, just be you. There is no perfect way to do any of this. The goal is to be more fully part of the human experience, reach out and connect, and let that connection move you.
You might be wondering why most of my recommendations are about learning and not necessarily about volunteering or activism or specific actions that are concrete. That’s because I believe that we have to first allow ourselves to see and know the truth. It is that truth that will lead to right action. And I can’t tell you what action is right for you. You have to discover it for yourself.
I don’t know where your path leads. I know it led you to read this article. I’m asking you to take the next step, whatever that next step is for you. I’m asking you to let your heart lead you into pain and darkness if that’s where truth can be found. I’m asking you to face the shadows, the pain, the ugly truth of how our society functions, and not turn away. Spiritual life is not meant to protect you from pain; it’s meant to forge you into a vessel of truth and love. That process isn’t easy; it’s not meant to be.
Following my path led me to dive in and almost drown and somehow find my way to resiliency and hope again, and find the love I was always looking for in the process. I can’t tell you what your path is. All I can do is encourage you to open your heart to being uncomfortable and feeling the pain of the human race, listen to the deepest message you can hear that pulls you toward the truth, and commit to it. That is what I did, and that is what I believe we all must do if we truly want to heal the world.