It feels like there’s no escaping the tension swirling in our public and private spheres. Especially when a fresh batch of distrust, anger, fear and hate is served up daily.
We’re all feeling it.
Beyond the conflict on a national and international level, we’re clashing with our spouse, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family over our limiting beliefs. We’re all in pain and we’re reacting.
Honestly, it feels like TOO MUCH.
A recent interview I did to talk about the emotional effects of this yucky political climate (yeah, I said it: “yucky”) inspired a reader to visit my site, fill out the contact form, and fire off a rant filled with ugly racist and xenophobic slurs and bogus alt-right claims. The hate shocked me. What the WHAT!?
It was digital bile and it triggered my inner gurrier (Irish slang for a punk-ass hooligan). Bring it! You wanna tussle? Come at me. I was furious. To be honest, first I panicked, then I got defensive, and then I wanted to brawl.
I was primed to go all John Oliver on their ass.
I dove down the rabbit hole. My response was a work of art that pointed out factual errors and the flaws in her humanity. My bald head throbbed. Everyone sucks!
When the gurrier exhausted himself, I could finally talk myself down and return to how I attend to people when I’m working as a psychotherapist. Even if I disagree, can I empathize with the emotional state she must be living in to see the world in such ways? I deleted my masterpiece without sending and walked away.
Yes, I can empathize.
Being a parent to a toddler has made me more sensitive to negativity, tragedy, and atrocity in our world. I get scared for my little girl’s future. I worry for the world that will hold her after I’m no longer here.
To try to make sense of these scary times, I did what many of us do in the Information Age; I turned on the info. tap in search of answers.
First, I came across an article by Mark Manson, “Is It Just Me Or Is the World Going Crazy,” where Manson lays out evidence that the world is in better shape than it’s ever been. Then, on Manson’s recommendation, I started reading “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” where author Steven Pinker presents a trendline towards less violence in the world, and shows that we humans are safer today than at any time in history.
That’s comforting and grounding, and stops me from spinning out of control with worry. Still, there’s no denying the sense of doom I’m earlobe-deep in.
What’s going on?
The horrors are real, it’s just not unique to this time in our history. What is unique? Cameras and social media. Add to that a 24-hour news cycle where outrage and spectacle are the top priority.
Maybe as a result of being plugged into this outrage machine, we’ve all drifted towards hardline intolerance. We’re digging in our heels, drawing lines, and claiming sides.
Our personal disgust with the other side is palpable. We reject their fears and their nonsensical views, and we’re really letting ’em have it.
We feel threatened. Our reactive monsters surface and we’re quick to shame or blame, triggering the worst in others. We’re unfriending, breaking up, and picking up our toys and stomping home.
We’re so busy attacking, defending, and/or dissociating that we rarely come home to our vulnerable selves; the place where we can empathize and connect with others.
How sad! No wonder we’re steeped in gloom.
What can we do about it?
Instead of turning away from the discomfort, I encourage you to accept and embrace it all, including your knee-jerk defensive or aggressive reaction and the deeper vulnerable part of you that’s triggered by this yuck.
No one is a little gurrier at heart. Deep inside every person who’s in judgement of another is someone who’s afraid and in pain, needing and deserving compassion.
I’m afraid and in pain. My Trump-supporting pen pal is afraid and in pain. We vehemently disagree on the cause and solutions.
The thing is, we share this ball of dust and gas called Earth with humans who hold a variety of beliefs. We don’t need to agree, but we do need to tolerate each other and the occasional discomfort when we don’t get our way. From Manson’s article:
“Freedom is earned through internal sacrifices as well. Freedom can only exist when you are willing to tolerate views that oppose your own, when you’re willing to give up some of your desires for the sake of a safe and healthy community, when you’re willing to compromise and accept that sometimes things don’t go your way and that’s fine. … A free and functioning democracy demands a populace that is able to sustain discomfort, that is able to tolerate dissatisfaction, that is able to be charitable and forgiving of groups whose views stand in contrast to one’s own, and most importantly, that is able to remain unswayed in the face of some violent threat.”
This is true at a community level and, of course, it’s true in our intimate relationships. And obviously, it’s not a concept we’re just grappling with now. Here’s Bertrand Russell’s advice for future generations from a 1959 interview:
“The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say, love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
Everyone wins with love. Everyone loses with hate.
I know it seems too simple. Or trite. But when a man is drowning, is a life preserver too obvious? If I’m drowning, please don’t overthink it; throw me that pool noodle, stat!
We are drowning in the yuck.
The fact is, our lives are better together. Connection is everything. Lincoln was onto something when he appealed to the nation 150 years ago, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” When we are challenged as a society, let’s consider it a call to recognize and respond to “the better angels of our nature” and have empathy for the wee devils suffering inside us all.
The antidote you seek.
If you can’t be on the frontline engaging in peaceful activism, there are still real ways you can counter this tsunami of yuck. I can think of two.
1. Squeeze as many acts of kindness into each day as possible.
Kindness spreads as easily as yuck. And kindness lifts everyone: the giver, the receiver, and anyone who witnessed it.
2. Focus on small and immediate acts of compassion.
I’m gonna offer empathy to everyone I come in contact with. It’s hard to do, but I can’t think of a human being that doesn’t deserve it. I’ll practice patience, be quicker to see my impact on others, and take responsibility regardless of whether the pain I caused was intended or not. I’ll pay attention to the living beings around me and look for ways to help. And when allowed, I’ll even give hugs and encouragement.
Recently on our drive home from the beach, my family was stopped at a red light when an elderly woman crossed in front of us. She wore a leg brace and an arm brace and was hobbling across as fast as she could, but wasn’t going to make it before the light changed. I rolled down my window and told her, “take your time, we aren’t going anywhere.”
Hardly heroic on my part. But when she got to the sidewalk she looked back and waved at us with such gratitude I thought my heart would burst. It felt so good to be able to give such a tiny gesture of acknowledgement and for it to obviously mean so much. I looked at my wife Teale and she had tears in her eyes. Teale was filled with love from witnessing this moment of giving and receiving kindness.
Moments of connection like these are what I find most beautiful. I guess that explains why I do the work I do, helping couples feel more connected in their relationships.
When we feel threatened, we react. It’s wired into our biology. I lash out with anger, and the me that lashes out, the gurrier, is a real and integral part of who I am. When I react with malice and add to the yuck, I’m gonna recognize and accept the gurrier and the vulnerability at his core and return to kindness as quickly as possible. Only when I can surrender to my ever-present vulnerable nature can I meet another with deep kindness.
We’re all feeling the weight of this moment in our history, so let’s give ourselves and each other a break and make some room for connection and love. You deserve it. We all do.
Your kindness matters.
Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this, please ❤ and share it. It would mean a lot to me. :)
Fiachra (Figs) O’Sullivan is a certified emotionally focused couples counselor and the founder of Empathi, an online coaching program for couples. As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, Figs provides in-person couples counseling in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset where he lives with his wife, daughter, son and doodle. If you’re curious about your own relationship, take Figs’ Relationship Quiz and get free, actionable and personalized guidance on how to feel more connected!