Lately, I’ve been thinking of that poster that hangs in a lot of elementary classrooms: “Before you speak: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” This election touched a big nerve with me, as it did for a lot of people regardless of political beliefs, and I’ve been doing a lot of breathing and sitting on my hands the past few months. When I spend more than two minutes on social media, I get the strong desire to educate the masses. Yet, I also feel complete helplessness. When I reflect on the times I want to go on internet lectures its usually because I am angry and want to vent, or I want to gain approval from like-minded people. Chances are if your Facebook post includes the words “douche canoe” what you wanted to say isn’t true, necessary, or kind.
I think that “Is it kind?” question is where a lot of us get mixed up. We can delude ourselves into being passive and non-interfering because we don’t think it would be kind. If I saw a person juggling three puppies on the edge of the Grand Canyon, I wouldn’t say, “Oh, gosh, they all could die, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” It’s definitely kind to prevent this from happening. If you see someone doing something harmful to themselves or others, it might be the kindest thing to interfere or at the very least bring their attention to the dangers of their actions.
Puppy juggling is a pretty clear-cut (and albeit extreme) scenario. The thing about online interactions is that we are just reading someone’s ill-informed opinion, but it FEELS like we are seeing something as dangerous as puppies near a cliff. The discomfort we feel inside is becoming confused with reality itself. If there isn’t enough space put between stimulus and response, we can go from reading the news to visualizing the eventual demise of the government. Since governmental failure is a stressful concept, we choose to cope by completely disengaging with the political process and current events OR unloading our discomfort onto others via lectures, anger, or insults.
What is the solution? Can we find some middle-ground between spewing vitriol and complete resignation? (just two different ways of expressing the same feelings of helplessness, by the way.)
- We are more alike than we are different. We all want to survive and thrive. We just have differences of opinion on the “how.” Even *insert name of most hated politician here* wants to be free of suffering. Sometimes holding this in my mind can immediately soften my perspective towards others. I’m not talking with an enemy, just someone with a different strategy for solving our problems. This is also a good barometer for if the conversation can bear any fruit. If the other party wants to watch the world burn or is thoroughly convinced that YOU are the enemy, then our time might be constructively spent elsewhere.
- When possible, have emotionally-charged conversations in person. Social media is the worst place to communicate. We can’t determine tone or body language. Psychologists and sociologists also say that our online personas often don’t match up to offline behavior. We often say things online that we wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face.
- Turn helplessness into action. Unwinnable arguments leave us feeling helpless, but even small positive actions can make us happier. It increases endorphins, lowers your blood pressure, and increases your own tendency and willingness to help others. Donate some money to cause you believe in. Pick up some trash at the local park. Buy someone’s coffee at the drive-thru. Give someone a hug. We train our brains how to respond to the world, and engaging in repeated conflict without resolution teaches us to respond with helplessness.
- Create space without putting your head in the sand. Sometimes we need to disengage for our own self-preservation. The key is to be aware enough of your own actions and reactions to engage in some self-care before you completely have to retreat. If you feel yourself becoming angry or overwhelmed, take your attention away from what you are reading and connect to your body. Feel your feet on the floor. Take some deep breaths. You aren’t trying to push emotion down or away, you are actually learning to connect into your present moment experience. Avoid judging yourself for any one reaction, and see if you can remain curious about them.
I’m not immune to feelings of helplessness. Over the few days it took to write this piece I found myself experiencing severe back pain. It’s as if talking about helplessness was making my spine freeze up. In my experience with my body if I’m feeling physical pain without knowing the source, I try to sit with it. I bring all of my attention to that area of pain, and I breathe and wait. Sometimes, nothing happens. Other times I’m hit with an avalanche of emotion. In this case, I was submerged into my own feelings of complete helplessness, fear, and profound sadness. It wasn’t until I sat and focused on that pain and felt it and the emotions behind it that I found any relief. Maybe my biggest takeaway from this experience is that the cure for helplessness is to allow yourself to feel it. We fear that our strong emotions are so bottomless that we will be sucked in and never return. Yet, time and time again, I see that we empower ourselves by facing that abyss and learning that it isn’t never ending. We can feel scared, hurt, and powerless, and come out the other side more resilient, powerful, and able to change.