I also recently developed a daily practice of sitting and focusing on my breath, which has been enormously helpful in my life. A few days ago, my partner and I had a conversation over breakfast I found difficult, and I trudged up the stairs to my attic aerie for my Be Still Now time feeling upset and discouraged.
Usually when I’m upset I get busy with exercise, a project, online solitaire or a book in order to distract myself. I almost never sit still with my feelings immediately after an upset. However, I’m stubbornly committed to my Be Still Now time, so I got settled comfortably in my chair and began.
It was hard. It was hard to even find my breath in the midst of my discomfort. I remembered the article about helping kids become mentally strong. One of the ways to do that is to allow them to experience being uncomfortable. Remembering that, and struggling with my own discomfort, made me curious. What would happen if I made myself sit for my usual time in spite of my discomfort? What if I viewed the circumstances as an opportunity instead of a reason to give up? What if it didn’t matter if I had even a minute of peace and stillness as long as I sat patiently with my mental and emotional chaos for a few minutes, not distracting, not fixing, not thinking, not compulsively avoiding, not writing or processing, but just feeling?
Curiosity is a great gift. I wish we nurtured it in one another more effectively and consistently.
So I sat, and it was messy. My mind was all over the place, as were my feelings. I cried a few tears. I stayed with my breath as much as I could, but I couldn’t achieve the restful, peaceful place just a few days of consistent practice has given me the ability to reach. The urge to get up and do something was fierce. The urge to be mean to myself was equally compelling. I breathed and tried to let those thoughts go. I didn’t try to get rid of the feelings, but stayed with them. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean and dealing with the surge of waves.
Gradually, I settled down. Both my pulse and breathing slowed and I stopped crying. I consciously relaxed and breathed from my belly rather than my shoulders. I stopped thinking about the time and relaxed in my chair rather than nailing myself to it.
On an intellectual level, I recognized immediately upon reading that article the value of letting our kids be uncomfortable. As a mom, I refrained from saving my sons from the consequences of their choices or trying to fix everything they struggled with. In my own private life I’m stoic and don’t dramatize my emotional pain to others. Part of that comes from being an introvert, part from my difficulty in trusting others, and part from the harsh feeling I probably deserve whatever distress I’m experiencing and thus don’t get to whine about it.
On an emotional level, though, I realized during that Be Still Now time that none of my usual coping mechanisms when faced with emotional distress are as powerful as simply being with it. I can’t even remember what it was all about now. I remember coming downstairs after I finished sitting and apologizing to my partner for being unnecessarily bitchy with him, but after that bit of cleanup the whole thing was over. I went on into the day feeling just fine.
Power and strength from discomfort. Well, not from the discomfort itself but from what I chose to do with it. Interesting.
It’s notable I don’t convert sitting and breathing into compulsivity or hurting myself. I immediately noticed any mean thoughts and let them go. After all, we’re made to have feelings. There’s no shame in them, no unnatural deformity, no weakness. We can choose to be self-destructive, but our feelings won’t stop. I wonder to what degree my previous choices in dealing with upsets have made everything worse rather than better. Perhaps the key all along has been to sit still and let the waves crash over me until the storm passes.
Storms do pass.
If discomfort is an opportunity to build strength, both kids and adults can benefit from it. Life guarantees discomfort of various kinds, after all. I’m in no way condoning rape, bullying, racism, abuse, or a depressingly long list of other deliberate cruelties, by the way. I’m talking about everyday discomforts of frustration, confusion, guilt and embarrassment; the discomfort we experience physically with various aches, pains and bodily functions; and the discomfort and inconvenience of our feelings — the kind of experiences we all share.
Never has our entitlement been clearer to me than during these months of the pandemic. The simple action of wearing a mask has become a politicized gauntlet. Some people find waiting in line to enter a business in order to maintain social distancing or waiting in their cars for a chair to get their hair cut intolerable. I can hardly call it discomfort. It’s not really even that inconvenient. We can do everything but cook dinner in our cars these days, for pity’s sake.
Some folks are loud about their contempt and scorn for recommendations designed to keep us all safe, and for those who follow them. They bluster, honk their car horns, glare, and go into tirades while waiting in line for a cashier. Their attitude is one of being cleverer, better informed, stronger and braver than the rest of us.
It’s a lie. All I can see in this behavior is ignorance, fear, and weakness. Interestingly, many who refuse to mask say they do it because they refuse to live in fear. I wonder if those folks eat potato salad with mayonnaise that’s been on the picnic table all day, decline to stop at red lights, ignore a rattlesnake’s warning and don’t hydrate when they’re working hard in high heat and humidity. They’re obviously much more concerned about what people will think of their courage (a sure sign that they have doubts about it) than they are of protecting themselves or others. You know, the other people in the world to whom they might pass on the virus? Such folks have the emotional development of a toddler. Sadly, they get plenty of modeling, validation and enabling for their behavior. They’d rather die than adapt — and they are dying. Unfortunately, they’re killing others, too.
It’s not just kids who need to learn to deal with discomfort, or inconvenience, or change, or new rules. We all do. If controlling coronavirus means a certain amount of inconvenience and discomfort, it’s worth it. If ending racism means the unfairly privileged become less privileged in order that others may share more equally in resources and opportunities, and corrupt systems and institutions get an overhaul, count me in.
Life is hard enough without being forced to play a rigged game.
Going through discomfort in order to arrive at a stronger, more just and power-with global community is a path of strength and resilience. Denialism, arguing with what is, willful ignorance and support of power-over dynamics is a path of weakness and, ultimately, deselection. If you don’t believe me, observe a child who has been allowed to experience a reasonable amount of discomfort with loving support, and compare that child with one who is continually rescued from the consequences of his or her choices and the full experience of life. It’s not hard to see the difference.
It’s not hard to see the difference in adults, either.
Social change begins at an individual level. This is another chocolate-or-vanilla choice. Are we willing to embrace, or at least tolerate, discomfort, or are we too weak and fearful to consider the truth that we’re no more entitled, immune or privileged than anyone else? Racism is a human construct rooted in greed, hatred and fear. We constructed and supported it, and we can deconstruct and refuse to tolerate it. We must, for everyone’s sake. Make no mistake, if it can happen to whichever currently disenfranchised group you care to name, it can happen to any of us.
Life coaching transformed my experience in several powerful ways. For me, however, there’s one central concept underlying all the new language, ideas, strategies and choice-making that has so reshaped myself and my life.
Every one of us has needs, and we’re driven by trying to get them met.
Duh, right? Written on the page like that, it seems ridiculously obvious. It’s not, though. It’s enormously complex and it affects every single choice we make. Let’s excavate a little.
In my old life, I defined needs as things like oxygen, water, food and shelter. Needs meant to me the necessities of survival. Anything else was wants, or even undeserved privilege. To need more than I have at any given moment is inconceivable to me, even now. To want more than I have is shameful. I’ve spent my life with an internalized voice that informs me I should be damn grateful for my resources, because it’s so much more than many others have, and I’ve done nothing to deserve my good fortune.
Photo by Jan Phoenix on Unsplash
It’s undeniably true that I’ve had advantages because I’m white, I’m educated, I’m able-bodied, employed and have the ability to feed myself. I have access to potable hot and cold running water. I have a roof over my head. I have access to health care.
Are these realities of my life a matter of shame? Does wanting the roof over my head to stop leaking make me a privileged elitist? Does it assist anyone who has less than I to go hungry, or stop trying to earn a few dollars?
Privilege is a hot word right now in social discourse. It’s a word that shows up in discussions around gender and sex, racial issues, economic issues and geopolitical relations. Privilege is an important discussion, but the word has been used so frequently, especially as an insult, it’s losing its meaning. Show me any two people anywhere and I’ll show you several different ways in which each one has resources and experiences not available to the other. Privilege is a word pointing to competition for power, and our definitions of power are distorted into insanity. Privilege is too often used as a meaningless black and white label expressing more about the speaker than it does the target.
Do you have a cell phone? I don’t. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you male? I’m not. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you Caucasian? I am. I’m privileged. I’m literate. Definite privilege from my point of view, but according to some, this makes me elitist (another severely overused word). I had and have access to vaccinations. I think this makes me privileged. An anti-vaxer thinks it makes me wrong and stupid.
And so it goes.
Have you noticed how quickly we’ve gone from the simple idea of human needs to politics — social, sexual, economic and geo?
An Internet search defines a need as a “necessity; a thing that is wanted or required.” As I said above, I disagree with the “wanted” part. How do we decide what’s required? Who gets to define that? Requirements take me back to the my basic list: Oxygen, food, water, shelter. I’m convinced anything else is a want.
The first thing I noticed about the needs inventory is that my needs list occupies only a small fraction of the whole. Secondly, with the exception of food, water, shelter and sex, the inventory transcends anything that can be bought or sold. It’s not about stuff, money, biology, ethnicity, education, religion or “privilege.” In fact, it’s not a list that points out differences at all. It’s about intangible needs we all have in common. All of us. You, me and them.
The first, second, fifth and tenth time I read this list, I cried. I printed it out and stuck it between the pages of my journal. As I worked with it, I felt deeply angry, terribly sad and a kind of furtive relief. Some unknown person or persons had written an inventory expressing the deepest, most secret desires of my heart, desires I wasn’t really even conscious of. I couldn’t afford to be conscious of them.
Was it possible other people wanted what I did? Was it okay to want these things, even normal?
The first time my life coach said to me, “You have a perfect right to get your needs met,” I felt so enraged I nearly hung up on him. It was the biggest, most outrageous lie anyone had ever said right to my face. I told him to never say it to me again.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
If I knew anything, it was that I had no needs, and if I ever did entertain such a criminal, inappropriate, shameful and downright stupid thing as a need, it would never, ever get met. My job in life was not to have needs. My job was to meet the needs of those around me. I was terrible at that job, failed it every day, had no hope of ever doing it well, but that’s what I was for in the world.
The second grenade my coach threw was this: “Your needs are as important and not more important than anyone else’s.”
In the following months and years, right up until this day, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the transfiguration of some of my most deeply-rooted and fundamental beliefs and rules. Understanding needs has hung the formerly invisible elephant in my living room with neon lights. I’ve reframed my history and my past and present relationships. Coming to terms with my needs has enriched my relationship with myself and others is astounding ways.
I realize now my needs have always been present, driving my behavior, just as the people around me have been driven by their needs, but I think few of us have access to that central information and understanding. This is ironic, because I’ve always been well aware of what other people want from me; what they expect. What I now understand is what some people want — compliance, submission, adhering to rules and expectations — is surface behavior masking the simple need for personal power.
As I said earlier, our relationship to power is so diseased and distorted we’re all affected by a kind of cultural insanity. We believe power-over will fill our need. We believe hate, projection, physical brutality and force, name-calling, labeling, gaslighting, dishonesty and manipulation will give us what we need.
Power-with is often sneered upon, or used as a Trojan Horse within which the true desire for power-over hides. Once we understand the needs inherent in all human interaction, it’s not hard to discern the difference between power-over and power-with. If it’s accepted that one party’s needs are as important, but not more important than another’s, that’s power-with. If, on the other hand, one individual, group, political movement or any other social or individual entity demonstrates persistent tactics seeking to take power away from someone else, that’s power-over.
Humans make a lot of noise. We create language, slap on labels, pick up and pass on meaningless bits of jargon and ideology. We deny, distort, and cling grimly to our beliefs. We freely use humiliation, contempt and aggression to shut each other up and try to threaten others into believing/behaving in the way we want them to. We fight fiercely to get our needs met, no matter the expense to others. Our win is based on someone else’s loss. This is the environment of power-over.
Humans are also remarkably flexible and resilient. We can be curious. We can think critically, synthesize information, study things, make observations. We can develop the great strength of learning how to be wrong. We can demonstrate heroism, compassion, kindness and generosity. We can be elegant and meaningful communicators. We can create deeply connected communities including people, animals, plant life and the environment. We can aspire to a world in which the words “privilege” and “elitist” lie down to rest because competition has been discarded in favor of cooperation. Everyone’s needs have equal importance, and no one is allowed to overrun another. Success is demonstrated by win-win. This is the environment of power-with.
I have needs. Trying to get my needs met underlies my choice making, my behavior and my motivation. It even underlies the kind of music I like. It’s a great big elephant in the center of my experience, and it requires food and water, room to roam and attention.
Skim over the needs inventory. Choose one aspect of your life: Job, relationship, what have you.
Now, in the deepest, darkest privacy of your mind, ask yourself, “Are my needs being met?” Don’t think about the answer. Feel it.
I haven’t enjoyed this week much. It reminds me of the week after 09/11, when I thought I would drown in the hate and despair around me.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
I’m not on Facebook, but my partner is and I hear more than I want to about what’s going on there. I’m developing a pathological hatred of the news in any form, even as I obsessively read the Internet. I think about friends, family, acquaintances and a world full of frightening strangers with the power, strength and willingness to hurt others, including me.
I work at home as a medical transcriptionist, a fact I don’t talk about much because I respect the privacy laws in this country around medical information. My book of business is presently in Illinois, but I’ve also worked extensively in New York, Ohio and Alabama. I spend twenty-four hours a week typing dictated stories about strangers, a significant number of them experiencing physical and emotional pain and suffering from the current situation.
Here in central rural Maine, Native Americans in our community are victims of increasing hate crimes. Their people have been in this place for thousands of years.
Photo by Sue Tucker on Unsplash
It seems to me in the last week we’ve put on the table an infinite number of ways in which to divide ourselves from one another; an infinite number of ways to express hate, intolerance and blame; an infinite number of labels to weigh ourselves and others down with. None of it feels useful
I want to find ways to support what I believe in and reach out to other people. I want to do something, no matter how small, to make a difference in this, but I’m noticing something interesting about that. As soon as I communicate about some kind of action I’ve taken, someone cuts me down. I’ve been told wearing a safety pin is patronizing and indicates privilege; I’m not welcome in America; I’m going to burn in hell; and I’ve joined a hate organization (that would be MoveOn.org).
Maybe no one out there needs support, or wants to make a contribution to unity and respect, but I don’t really believe that. At any rate, I need support and I do want to make a contribution, so here are some thoughts about what would help me.
Here’s a graphic to contemplate as we go on:
Enough with the labels. We have to stop this. One thousand labels can’t define the complex creature a human being is. I maintain that what’s happening now is NOT about race, gender, religion, politics, immigration or socioeconomics. What’s happening now is about power — how we define it and understand it, how we use it and what we’ll do to gain it or overthrow it. I think the most important question to ask ourselves is if we support power-over others or power-with others. That’s really the bottom line. It’s at the heart of all the disagreements. The rest is just inflammatory and dangerous distraction.
Enough with the apocalyptic stories and predictions. The fact is nobody knows what’s going to happen now. We’re in uncharted territory politically, economically, socially and environmentally. Many people think that’s a good thing. Sure, it’s scary. The unknown always is. On the other hand, politics as usual wasn’t working very well for most of us in this country and change is an inevitable part of life. Blessing or disaster, the point is none of us know the future and we’ll all have to deal with whatever happens as best we can. Terrifying ourselves and one another with dire predictions, threats and stories won’t help anyone. Fear is terribly contagious and terribly ineffective in decision making, but it’s a useful tool for manipulation.
The best defense against fear and misinformation is to do our own research. All the people in the headlines right now are real people. They have lives, histories, Wiki pages, on-line organizations, quotes and podcasts. We can read about them. We can look at quality news organizations in other countries and what they’re reporting for a contrast to domestic news. Discerning between fact and opinion is important. We need to take responsibility for our opinions and beliefs.
It’s time to stop worrying about everyone else and clean up our own acts. Are our words and actions congruent? What do we believe, and why? What are our priorities? What kind of outcomes do we want for ourselves and our communities, however we define community?
We can’t change other people; attempts at doing so merely divide us more deeply. We must accept that not everyone agrees with us and stop wasting time in destructive argument. We don’t have to shoot one another in the head and throw scorn at those who disagree with us. We can use our energy to work for what we believe in and allow others to do the same.
Photo by tom coe on Unsplash
We don’t have to accept an invitation to fight. We can find communities in which respectful conversation and debate take place if we want to discuss an issue. Many of us don’t feel safe verbalizing, revealing or defending our views, but everyone can vote with their presence. If we’re uncomfortable or scared in a conversation, we can leave it. We can’t stop hatred, but we don’t have to be a part of it.
We can learn to express our thoughts, feelings and opinions in a way that allows others respect and dignity. We can learn to listen. We may disagree with people, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing important to say.
We need to root out sweeping generalizations. All white people are not living a life of economic privilege! All patriots are not Christians! All Muslims are not terrorists! All blacks are not criminals! All Latinos are not undocumented immigrants! All men are not rapists! All gay people are not child molesters! All Christians are not militants! First graders think in these black and white ways, not adults. We shackle each other with these assumptions.
There’s a lot of talk about privilege right now. It’s a slippery term, and I think the perception of privilege is really in the eye of the beholder. Here’s a very interesting self-test you can take. Some of the questions will help you appreciate the difficulties many people face. In case any one wonders, my score was a 44 — NOT privileged, according to this tool. Certainly very privileged in comparison to some people.