Medicine for Difficult Times
“Violence strips naked the body of a society, the better to place the stethoscope and hear the life beneath the skin.”
Leslie Manigat, former president of Haiti
There has been tremendous change in America and the world over the last several decades: economically, demographically, technologically and politically. Change heightens uncertainty and allows latent vulnerabilities to rise. We are all vulnerable as human beings. This is part of our common humanity. But we don’t always know what to do with our vulnerability, uncertainty and insecurity. Our survival brains hijack our better angels. We freeze: we might become numb, shut down and withdraw. We flee: we might narrow our concerns, and avoid, push away, and wall off what we feel we can’t deal with emotionally, cognitively and relationally. Or we fight.
For some – the small fringe group of White Nationalists around the globe, for example – existential fears have become fears of annihilation. Underneath their rage and fear are unmet needs: for safety and belonging at best, perhaps, but also, pathologically, a need for power and dominance. Instead of recognizing common humanity in their own vulnerability, and seeing people of different ethnicities as essentially similar to them, they have chosen a dark path of tribalism, separateness, isolation, and toxic, sociopathic “power.”
I imagine these individuals have had a deeply frustrated relational world to begin with. If they were more connected and related to real people in the real world, they might be able to generate self-compassion and compassion for others.
Instead, they have become further removed from relatedness by cultivating hateful, narcissistic and nihilistic ideologies in dark corners of the internet, where they “gamify” the idea of killing others. Tragically, this small fringe is now amplified by seemingly uncaring political leaders and philosophers who stoke their fears. They represent the most toxic ideas that civilizations have carried for millennia. That might makes right, and that it’s better to be feared than loved. That society evolves through reward and punishment, rather than nurturance and caregiving. That love, kindness and compassion are soft and weak emotions, unable to deal with the hard realities of life.
What life do we hear now beneath the skin of our society, and what medicines can we offer for what ails us?
Facing isolation and despair with mindfulness, yin and yang compassion, and relationship
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Society, through abuse of power and lack of compassion for its citizens, has left many feeling downtrodden and in despair. Those who may have felt powerful in the past are now faced with the challenge of change.
Sadly, all too many of us are not skilled in the remedies for constructively coping with change, trauma and difficult emotions.
Mindfulness, compassion, and connection are those remedies.
Mindful Self-Compassion workshops teach that there are gentle and fierce components of compassion, the yin and yang of compassion for self and other. With mindful self-compassion, we can learn to understand and not judge our emotions. Social Psychologist Dacher Keltner writes, in his essential book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, “emotions are signs of our commitment to others; emotions are encoded into our bodies and brains; emotions are our moral gut, the source of our most important moral intuitions.” We can see how anger is an attempt to protect ourselves and those we love, and also an attempt to defend our deeply held principles. MSC helps us deepen awareness beyond reactivity to the active responses of fierce compassion, and also helps us avoid burnout and hostility. We can learn to nurture ourselves and others with gentle compassion, even as we work together on the issues facing us. In doing so, we can cultivate jen, the subtle Confucian feeling of kindness, reverence and humanity that transpires between people, and improve what Keltner calls the jen ratio, and with it, our personal and societal well-being.
Fierce compassion takes an active stance towards suffering and injustice. It might lie in supporting policies to minimize mass shootings, homicide and suicide in society, and supporting leaders and organizations who have sensible plans. This is also the path of relatedness and civic engagement. There is widespread support for sensible gun regulation. For example, 80% of both Democrats and Republicans support universal background checks. And while Congress has, for political reasons, limited scientific investigation into gun issues, there is significant research correlating lower suicide and homicide rates with stricter gun regulations, and other research supporting common-sense public health measures. (See my long-form essay for details on these and what I call the “gun identity” in America, as well as historian Roxane Dunbar Ortiz’s excellent book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.)
Gaining wisdom through reading, reflection and relatedness is vital in combating ideologically based opinion wars that neglect or dismiss the human cost of those ideologies.
Gentle self-compassion begins with being able to name the emotions one feels in difficult situations, such as the hard emotions of anger, rage or hatred, or underneath them, the soft feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, or fear. These often relate to relational experiences such as being devalued, dismissed, subjugated or oppressed. The Soften-Soothe-Allow practice (available on Christopher Germer’s website) is enormously helpful at cultivating the space of mindfulness around a difficult emotion, and also warmth to help us find ease in the midst of distress.
After naming and soothing our difficult emotions, we can go deeper, and look for the unmet need that is pressing our buttons. Is it to be seen or heard? Is it to be validated? Be more safe, secure or connected? Or is it our deepest need, as social beings: to be loved and cared about?
Being related, mindful and compassionate is not an easy path, especially at first. Frequently, as we touch our wounds, they erupt in pain. But when we increase our caring capacity, we find ourselves in tune with our best selves, and indeed, in tune with the patience, acceptance, and life-giving sustenance of Mother Earth herself.
These are deeply disturbing times, especially for Americans.
There has been more than one mass shooting per day in the United States so far in 2019. But almost 40,000 people in the U.S. died from gun violence in 2017, 1,000 more than 2016. While the murder rate has fallen overall, the percentage of homicides by gun has increased. 60% of gun deaths in 2017 were victims of suicide. Suicide has increased 30% since 1999, and an increasingly larger percentage of suicides are committed by guns; in 2017, almost half. 70% of suicide victims are white men, and the highest rate of suicide occurs in middle aged white men. Men commit suicide at over 3.5 times the rate of women, because more of them attempt suicide with lethal means, such as guns.
American society is suffering deeply. Many more people are feeling desperate and wounded. The life expectancy of middle aged white Americans without a college degree has fallen, even as life expectancy of whites in other developed countries has risen. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton called these “deaths of despair: suicide, overdoses from alcohol and drugs, and alcohol-related liver disease.” America has become increasingly individualistic and narcissistic over the last 50 years. Individualism has a proud history in America, but a dark downside when out of balance with relatedness. Civic engagement has fallen overall (though this trend may be shifting). We have smaller discussion networks than in past decades. Some researchers say loneliness is an epidemic, and loneliness and social isolation have clear health impacts.
You may also be interested in:
- Svoboda E. (August 7, 2019) How to Renew Your Compassion in the Face of Suffering. Greater Good Science Center.
- Chandra R. (August 4, 2019) The El Paso Massacre: Nihilism, Narcissism and White Nationalism. The Pacific Heart Blog, Psychology Today.
- Chandra R. (July 30, 2019) Narcissism, Needs for Certainty and Closure, and Relatedness. The Pacific Heart Blog, Psychology Today.
About Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and author in San Francisco, and a Mindful Self-Compassion teacher. Find out more about his work at www.ravichandramd.com, where you can sign up for an occasional newsletter.