Like so many of us, I’ve felt emotionally exhausted and destabilized by the political turmoil of the last few weeks. Despite sound self-care practices and decades of practice keeping my spiritual balance, I have not been handling the stress well, as my body keeps telling me with insomnia, headaches and one late-night back spasm that scared me silly. I’ve been doing okay with activism—making daily calls, writing postcards and letters, marching with my peeps in Washington DC and boosting the signal of relevant news and thought as much as I can on social media. But my soul is hurting, I ain’t gonna lie, and if this is what the next four years are going to be like, I need to find a shortcut to some peace.
At the suggestion of several women whose judgment I respect, I recently read The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. Although the book itself is couched in an allegorical format that doesn’t suit my taste, its core premises resonated deeply with my own convictions about conflict, pain and connection. Although there is much of value in this little book, what struck me most deeply was its insistence on the fact that the fundamental choice we have in each of our interactions with others (including those that are carried out only in thought, as in when we see people on TV or read about them online) is whether to see them as objects or as people. When we see them as objects, the authors argue, our hearts are in a state of war, seeing them as obstacles or accomplices to our will rather than human beings with desires, needs and sufferings of their own. When we see people as people, however, our hearts are in a state of peace, grounded in the recognition that they are, in their essential humanity, no different from ourselves. No matter what the outside factors may be, whether interpersonal or international, the authors tell us, when we greet each other from this place of peace and agree to solve our common problems together, healing and progress are possible. From a place of war, where we ignore the essential humanity of our opponents and see them only as additional obstacles to us getting our own way (or as potential allies to be manipulated into helping us achieve our ends), no lasting peace is possible.
I’m not going to dig deeper into The Anatomy of Peace today, although I highly recommend it as a road map to understanding how transforming oneself can contribute to both inward and outward peace. Its main gift to me is the idea that I can make a choice about how I see the people whose actions cause me pain, and that the choice I make is not only relevant to my inner landscape but to the outer one I want to change.
Another idea that bears fruit in tumultuous times for me is that of moral injury, namely the damage I inflict on myself by acting badly toward another. When I am exhausted, confused and afraid, it’s terrifyingly easy to be cruel and unkind to other people, especially the ones I am holding responsible for my discomfort. The idea of moral injury reminds me that the last thing I need if I’m already off my game is to damage myself further. Being kind to others—seeing them as people whose need to be heard and understood is identical to mine—morphs from a form of sacrifice to a form of self-protection. If I can teach myself to recognize other people as people rather than objects, I can recognize and avoid opportunities for committing moral injury upon myself. I can even use this task as a way to ground myself in the midst of political cacophony that is designed specifically to thwart it. The media, including our self-generated social media conversations, is not trying to help us recognize each other’s humanity; there’s no commodity to be gained by emphasizing that we all have the same needs and the same core desire for connectedness. Most public narratives frame events in terms of war; groups of people strategizing to defeat each other, snarled with their opponents in a web of policy and tactical disputes where every action is met by an outcry of “injustice!” and a call to see the perpetrator as evil.
There’s a very real possibility in today’s political crisis that the perpetrators of many of these acts are, in fact, evil. Pondering this fact doesn’t make me feel peaceful, though. It fills me with sorrow and despair and makes me question whether anything I do has any purpose or potency. This is not how I want to live. It deprives me of creative energy, makes me closed and unwelcoming to the people who love me, saps my ability to experience the very real joy the world continues to offer, and wears me out. To untangle myself from the apparent paradox here—I must fully and truthfully acknowledge how bad things are if I am to function in reality BUT the pain of facing such toxic, execrable horror makes life unlivable—I have to go back to the core question. Am I seeing people as people or as things?
Turns out that I hurt less when I make the choice to see people as people, even if it also requires a mighty cognitive effort. When I look at the faces of the men and women who actively want to destroy the lives of their fellow citizens to secure their own wealth and power, it isn’t easy to separate their humanity from the egregious, monumental arrogance and hate of their opinions. But it helps. Make no mistake, the opinions lose none of their toxicity. The actions remain as unthinkably bigoted and ignorant as they did before. But the person no longer remains an object of loathing or of hatred—or an object at all—and the part of my brain that is hard-wired to desire the destruction of my enemies is switched off. With no desire to inflict personal harm, I am spared the possibility of moral injury and with it the nauseating, grinding pain of impotent anger. The work before me isn’t to hurt the people who are trying to hurt me and my fellow citizens, no matter how much inflammatory language is thrown around. The work is to defeat their efforts. It helps me to think of my own energy being spent to protect the vulnerable rather than to obstruct the powerful, although my actions will be the same.
Peace is hard to come by in our world of 24/7 invective on all sides of every argument. I think this is part of the plan, to be honest. Anything that seduces us away from our own selves makes us vulnerable to manipulation. The interests that stand to benefit from that fact surround us and bombard us constantly with things to get upset about. And if we surrender our peace in response, we become pawns, responding automatically to messages about what to think, what to say, and what to buy. The purest, hardest diamond of resistance in this brave new world is to stand firm in the face of the shitstorm. Remember that every single person in today’s political maelstrom is a human being. Focus on making that counterintuitive choice to see them that way; feel the urge to correct or discipline them shift to an urge to stop the damage they are doing. Feel yourself gather focus and calm energy as you start looking for solutions instead of weapons. Feel your creativity light up as you seek ways to help those in harm’s way instead of ways to lash out at those who are eager to harm. Your actions may look the same from the outside, but you’ll be coming at it from a place of peace instead of a place of war. You will be sparing yourself the moral injury that comes with seeing people as dispensable, as Other. Your self-care practices will become a sanctuary for deepening your ability to make that all-important choice: to see people as people instead of things. And your energy to stand up for justice will be amplified by your freedom to focus on fixing what is broken. We are all fighting for freedom; the battle will be to those who know it cannot be born of hatred. As we feel buffeted by the winds of panic and despair, we can take comfort in working to reverse and prevent actions we know to be harmful; we do not need to squander ourselves in internal violence against our better natures or external violence against our enemies. We must wage peace even as we raise our hands and voices to struggle against injustice; our work must endure.
©Mary Braden 2017