People, norms, and longstanding systems are cracking open and breaking down right now, one after another.
Most recently, the brutal murders of multiple black men and women have underscored the fact that racism is alive and well and continuing to cause immeasurable suffering.
My heart breaks for all the people of color who fear for their lives, or the lives of loved ones, because of how society sees them (or how it really doesn’t); those whose forebears were forced to overcome hundreds of years of genocide and enslavement that has never been fully recognized or repaired, and who carry the impact of this horrific trauma inside them without recognition or support; those who start out with less, are offered less, helped less, trusted less, rewarded with less, recognized less, and made to believe they are less; in short, those who have to live in a system designed to benefit others, often at their own expense, but who are told that everyone is treated equally, or if it not, that they are the ones to blame.
So What Can I Do?
First, I want to offer an apology for all of the things I did or said, didn’t do or didn’t say, out of ignorance or inattention, that contributed to suffering.
I care deeply about equality and justice and try to align my actions with my intentions, but I make mistakes and at times have not given adequate attention to the urgency of the issue.
I recognize that many of our societal structures are based on racism, fear, an attempt to dominate and control, and a false sense of separateness. I have a genuine desire to change them, for the health and well-being of everyone, and I know that if that’s going to happen, we’re all going to have to get involved and do our part.
But how do I know what’s mine to do? And how do I do it without becoming overwhelmed, giving in to despair, or burning out?
First of all, if you’re prone to depression, psychotherapist Marty Cooper has some wise tips in his latest newsletter.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my years of dealing with depression and anxiety, along with nearly a decade of helping clients stay engaged in a process that can feel paralyzing:
1. Find Your Smallest Meaningful Action.
My own inaction has often come because what I wanted—ending racism or transforming society—felt so big and intractable, so complicated and entrenched, that I got overwhelmed.
I either believed I didn’t know what to do or convinced myself that only a Herculean effort would be enough to make a difference.
I was wrong on both counts. As a result, there were times that instead of doing something meaningful, I didn’t do anything at all.
We’re all falling apart right now, in ways big and small.
In addition to feeling the fear and sadness caused by Coronavirus and the grief and rage of racist patterns coming to the surface, I’m watching my father struggle with Alzheimer’s and experiencing its widening ripples of pain and loss.
As a result, I—like everyone else—am stretched thin at the moment. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, to give up.
If we want to stay engaged, we need to ignore all the things we think we should be doing and find the smallest meaningful action we feel called to take that gives us something to build on. Then we do it again and again.
For me right now, that means learning more about antiracism, even if it’s only for ten minutes at a time. (One resource list breaks down what you can do in 10, 25, or 45-minute increments.)
It also means addressing the topic directly and publicly in this post, knowing that it will be imperfect. It means looking for antiracist organizations to contribute to. And it means committing to taking action for the long haul, and going at a pace that allows me to do that.
2. Feel Everything.
One way of looking at emotions is as the way in which the world transforms us.
It’s easy, when we’re overwhelmed or overloaded, to push off difficult emotions, like those triggered by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, or the thousands (millions?) of stories of racism that are emerging in their wake.
I should know. I spent years avoiding so many of my emotions that I began having panic attacks. Even now, when I feel much more easily, I can resist difficult feelings for days or even weeks at a time.
But these days, feeling our emotions isn’t just important; it’s revolutionary.
When we’re willing to feel deeply, to give time and space to be with the intensity, messiness, and at times excruciating pain of emotions, we’re reconnected to our big, beautiful hearts; our infinite compassion and empathy; and our inner wisdom and guidance. Emotional interference is cleared away, and the energy that was bound up in resistance, avoidance, or denial is freed. We once again hear what the world is calling for from us and have the energy to say yes to it.
In other words, we’re transformed.
I find that anger, resentment, and rage are often an invitation to find my voice, to rediscover my power to value and stay loyal to who I am as well as my unique truth, guidance, and gifts. Sadness and grief remind me that I’m connected to others and the larger web of life; they call on me treat others as the exquisite souls they are, extensions of myself no matter how different we may seem. Fear helps me see when I’m forgetting how big I really am and reminds me again of my connection to others, my inherent need to ask for help.
The world is working on all of us right now in big and unknown ways, stirring up large emotions so their energy can transform us. If we can stay open to them, be with them, and feel them, they’ll help us become the people we need to be so we can respond to pain and suffering with neverending love.
3. Remember Who You Are (Who You Really Are).
In an interview on Brene Brown’s podcast, Ibram X. Kendi used a brilliant metaphor to describe how we all learn racism.
In our society, he says, racism is always raining down on us, and so we’re all getting wet. When someone points out that we’re covered in water, we can get defensive and deny it, or we can accept it and thank them for their honesty.
I love this metaphor because it removes the judgment that gets in the way of acceptance and ultimately action.
When we’re identifying with our small selves—our personalities and egos—our worthiness is always under threat. We judge everything, including ourselves, as good or bad, right or wrong. We hate to admit to any flaw, foible, or limitation because if we do something bad, we must be bad, and bad people are unacceptable, unlovable, and unworthy.
We all do it, and I’m no exception; it’s why I still get caught up in patterns of perfectionism and defensiveness.
But we aren’t our small selves. Our true nature is larger than our personality or ego and isn’t good or bad; it’s beautiful, loving, and infinite, and nothing we do can change that. When identifying with this larger self, we understand the truth that we can be flawed—in fact, as humans, we will be flawed—and still be worthy.
When we remember how big and beautiful we are by nature, we can work against our racism without working against ourselves.
We can listen to voices that are raw from pain, hard as they may be to hear.
We can let go of the need to be certain, to be blameless, to get it all right.
And we can do it all out of compassion, to care for others and, by extension, ourselves, so that we may fully express the love that we are.
Additional Racial Justice Resources
- Tara Brach’s Anti-Racism page
- Antiracism Resources for White People
- “What Is Racism?” (another resource for white people)
- Resmaa Menakem (resources for healing racialized trauma)