We each have an important decision right now, one that many of us may not even recognize we face: Do I Amplify or Mitigate?
2020, a year that defies all description and categorization, is leaving tremendous damage in its wake. There is a light on the distant horizon, and right now each of us can choose how we want to show up in the months ahead.
Every one of us has the terrible power – even if only by default – to amplify the pain. Or we can commit to becoming mitigators of the pain that so many are experiencing by deploying a simple methodology:
Listen to people when they tell you the truth of their lives. Resist the impulse to fix or advise or compare or respond. Just LISTEN deeply and with compassion.
Protect others when you can, in all the ways you can. Know and respect the difference between protection and paternalism.
Connect with others, for their sake AND yours. Choosing to make time and space to really connect with one another is more important now than it has ever been.
And, of course, Hydrate.
Maybe it’s me and crowds I run with (metaphorically of course. Like you, I haven’t been in a real crowd for so long that when all my kids piled into the kitchen this morning I started feeling a little panicked by the number of bodies… six feet, my people!) but lately I feel like I’m repeatedly bumping up against the appearance of grief. Even people who pride themselves on being really, really, REALLY resilient – teachers, nurses, doctors, spiritual leaders, business leaders – all have a tightness around their eyes. There’s always an obligatory smile and attempt at a cheerful greeting, but I’ve learned that truth has a unique timbre when spoken, and it isn’t difficult to hear the difference if you’re willing to tune in.
This year has been filled with multi-layered trauma, but there seems to be widespread misunderstanding about what that means and how we name it. Trauma exists on a spectrum: Yes, trauma can be a singular event that sears itself into our minds and bodies, AND trauma can be the cumulative impact of unrelenting toxic stress (the “frog in the pot” phenomenon). For all of us, 2020 has without question been an exercise in the latter. For too many of us, it has been both. The losses of this year, both individual and collective, are incalculable.
The good news? The very best thing for a human in pain can be another human.
The bad news? The very worst thing for a human in pain ALSO can be another human.
It all depends on how we choose to show up for one another.
We can be powerful mitigators of pain and trauma, or devastating amplifiers. It all depends on our willingness to set “self” aside, lean in and truly listen without judgement as someone tells us the truth of their life as they experience it. Being truly, deeply heard in this way is so powerful it can feel like being healed.
As we begin metabolizing trauma – and that is the stage in which many currently find themselves – it isn’t at all unusual for grief to make an appearance. Like trauma, grief encompasses a large spectrum and it, too, is often highly misunderstood. We tend to believe grief shows up only after enormous, devastating personal loss. In truth, grief is far more intricate and layered.
Grief can show up as overwhelming emotion, but it also can make a smaller appearance, almost like a low-grade fever; we feel “off” but struggle to put our finger on the emotion. And once we do identify it, our habit is to either act as if we have no right to the feeling because “others have it so much worse!” (Pro-tip: this isn’t the pain Olympics. It is ok hurt and still hold space for those who are worse off) or dismiss it as inconsequential: I’m just tired. Just a little worn out. Just a little blue. Just…Just…Just…
Sometimes we get caught in the misguided fear that naming grief will give it more power – as if we are pulling grief out of darkness into reality and offering it a seat at the table. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Naming feelings correctly is one of the most powerful tools we have. Emotions demand proper identification; only then can we move into choice and make decisions about how we will dance with it.
The losses this year have been real, cumulative and incalculable. Loss of normalcy and the illusion of safety. Of civility. Of control. Of income. Of business. Of school. Of interaction. Of career trajectory. Of health. Of life. To deny the impact of these losses – even the vicarious impact – dishonors and diminishes us all.
Grief follows trauma as surely as night follows day.
I’ve finally learned to slow down and honor grief when it makes an appearance.
Grief has been my greatest, hardest teacher, the one who demanded expansion of my compassion, my empathy, and my drive to serve. Grief taught me the extraordinary power of sacred wounds; that acknowledging and honoring pain is what ultimately allows for the conversion of suffering into wisdom that can be useful, both for me and others.
So, here is a Sunday morning piece of that hard-earned wisdom: Do not *screw* with grief.
(yes. I had another word there)
There is a price for the casual dismissal of grief, and eventually the universe will demand payment. Grief will not tolerate being ignored for long before it begins making appearances in ugly, destructive ways.
Another lesson from nearly five decades of life lived: there is no “handling” grief. There is only acknowledging, honoring, experiencing, and trusting that it will recede. Resisting grief is as futile as attempting to hold back the tides. Better to submit and wait, recognizing that grief charts its own course. It cannot be controlled or predicted. It doesn't follow a schedule. It doesn't bend to my will. It refuses to be handled.
If we don’t allow the pain of trauma and grief to put us on our faces when it hits, we only delay the inevitable. It is necessary to grieve what was lost this year, big and small. 2020 has been one long, hard slog pockmarked by loss. As we move through the holidays – this season typically celebrated with joyous gatherings, increased giving of self, and reflection on accomplishment coupled with planning for the year to come – it is normal, even expected, that we may feel the slog and loss more acutely.
Listen. Protect. Connect.
Bearing witness to each other’s grief is one of the greatest privileges we can ever be granted.
Too often we allow ourselves to be distracted - or derailed - by the overwhelming need to “do” something for our fellow sufferers. But pain and sorrow and anger are not pathology.
Grief is not pathology. It is a part of the path.
May all of us choose wisely and kindly in the months ahead. Start today! Pick up the phone and call someone. Really connect with them, and when you hear the tightness in their voice as they say, “I’m fine,” lean a little closer. Ask curious questions. Allow space for them to answer fully.
May we all remember to treat people as they want to be treated.
Don’t forget: Hydrate. Breathe. Rest. Play. Laugh.