Alive, Awake & Making It Through

Here we are, humans on the earth during and after a global pandemic. It's not like there wasn't a bunch to cope with already. But we're alive and awake and, with a lot of help, making it through the best we can. I'm waxing psychological about all that.


This week, I’m asking my White readers to listen to author Kimberly Jones.

Once again, I ask you to listen like you’re listening to someone very dear to you. Someone you care about, who is imploring you to understand what her life is like.

She does a lot of work in this video, work she shouldn’t have to do, to get us White people to see how her world is constructed. To see how broken the social contract* is for Black people in this country.

When she asks you to “imagine…,” I ask you to put yourself there. Meet her work with your own internal work. As you listen, really imagine how you’d feel if you were experiencing what she describes.

Notice, too, the difference between her America and yours. In the vast monopoly game she speaks to, where are you located in relation to where she’s located? How does your Whiteness help you fair better, obscure the true nature of the game, and blind you to how the game is rigged against Black people?

Let’s keep listening.

*The candid reflection on the social contract from Trevor Noah of the Daily Show that Kimberly references is here.

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Now, as always, it is critical that White people with platforms use them to amplify Black voices. My voice is not the voice that needs to be heard right now.

So for this week’s blog post, I ask my White readers to listen to Tamika Mallory (video below).

I ask you to listen to her as you would a cherished loved one. Think of someone you love, someone specific. Imagine they are coming to you in pain, anguish, outrage, desperation, needing to be heard. How would you listen to them?

That is how I ask you to listen to Tamika. Listen to the human experience she is describing in her speech at the Minneapolis protest against police brutality.

As you listen, notice any parts of you that get in the way of hearing her. Any parts of you that try to not feel the experience she is describing. Any parts of you that try to discredit what she is expressing or how she is expressing it. Any parts of you that feel implicated and rush to defend. Any parts of you that argue with facts or language or semantics or circumstances instead of connecting as you would to that cherished loved one in pain.

And when you feel that interference, that defensiveness, that argument, when you notice yourself delegitimize or distance or deflect, when you diminish or flatten her any amount in your heart, I ask you to notice. Notice what those parts of you have done to this cherished loved one in pain. Notice the lengths they will go to not feel. And gently, but with conviction, I ask you to bring yourself back to empathy.

Our Black siblings are crying out for basic humanity in a system that dehumanizes them every day. A system we uphold and participate in.

Let’s hear them. Let’s do what it takes to feel the full extent of what they’re saying, even and most especially when we are implicated. And then, and actually before then, as soon as we possibly can, let’s do something.

The needs are urgent.

They already were. But between the pandemic, the abuses of capitalism, and daily warfare against us by our government, conditions have become evermore inhumane. The options for hanging on have dwindled. People are out of time. They need relief now.

In trying to help, it can feel like we’re set up to fail. The needs are endless. No amount of money donated feels sufficient. No amount of masks sewn feels like enough. More help to one place means not enough help to another. And what if we give away too much, of money, time, energy, resources? How do we know how much we need, or will need down the line? No matter what we do, it feels wrong.

Because it is.

This is a nation of astronomical wealth. On the whole, we have enough resources to take care of everyone’s basic needs. But instead, these resources are accumulated as profit by some, while the rest are left to furiously plug holes. What little remains is not nearly enough to save everyone.

Living in a society that manufactures scarcity takes an emotional toll. Some people blame themselves for the suffering they experience and witness. Some burn out trying to help more than they reasonably can. Some detach, becoming numb to their pain and that of their fellow humans. Still others feel paralyzed in despair, trapped between their values of caring and simultaneously, not having the bandwidth to care.

This is moral injury.

Often used to describe experiences in the military, the term moral injury refers to the psychological impact of committing, or failing to prevent, acts that go against one’s moral code. When we do something we don’t believe in, or witness but don’t stop it, our psyche takes a hit. Guilt, shame, rage, betrayal, grief, can all compound and leave us unable to make sense of what we did or didn’t do, and who we are as a result.

Living in a society that increasingly renders people desperate, we have all, to varying degrees, contributed to, witnessed, or failed to intervene in the suffering of others. We have all, to varying degrees, taken this psychic hit. And we all, to varying degrees, have the job of making sense of the gap between our beliefs and our behavior.

Right now, some of our loved ones in the healthcare field are grappling with this. Without the resources they need, they are forced to triage. To make rationing decisions they don’t believe in. To take from one to give to another. To betray their identities as helpers by not helping someone they know how to help. To make impossible choices that will haunt them. And then, to witness the suffering and loss that results.

This is moral injury on the front lines of the pandemic.

The gap between what we believe in doing, and what we actually do, can be a bewildering place. A place of confusion about who we are. Are we our ideals, or our actions? What do we make of the fact that these do not always align? Enter stage left the individualism we are taught: that what we do or don’t do is a sole referendum on our value. We are pre-programmed to indict ourselves for our behavior, irrespective of the context.

But the context is critical.

In any given situation, we might have the options we need, and we might not. This is a bitter pill to swallow. Humans don’t like to feel that they didn’t have a choice. This can be so distasteful to us that we would rather feel guilty. We would rather feel we have the power and are simply failing to use it, than experience that we don’t have it. We would rather be bad than helpless.

So we over-assign responsibility to ourselves, no matter the context, and fall into self-blame. The rage, betrayal, grief, all collapse into guilt and shame. We lose track of the forces acting upon us, and instead locate the failing exclusively in ourselves, as we have been taught to do. And in so doing, we lose the parts of ourselves that wish we could have done something different.

But what we wish matters.

What we wish was available to us, what we wish we knew, the control or knowledge we wish we had, are all important. These are our values. And while it’s impossible to live up to them in every circumstance, we wish we could. No matter how uncontrollable the situation or how confused we feel, what we wish was possible speaks to who we are.

As does what we ultimately do. When we acknowledge the power we don’t have alone, when we protect ourselves from self-blame, burnout, detachment, paralysis, or despair, we can more fully inhabit the power we do have: compassion. That in confronting our inability to heal the world, we meet the fullness of our own hearts. And if we don’t look away, the power of our caring will lead us towards clarity, towards figuring out within ourselves and our communities what useful things are ours to do, individually and collectively.

If you find yourself feeling morally injured, consider the following:

1. Identify your values. If you had everything you needed to do what you most believe in, what would you do then, individually and collectively? From an imagination of abundance, we can envision who we would want to be if we knew we would have the capacity. This is our most resourced, most generous self, and an important part of who we are.

2. Accept limitations. We are taught that we can do whatever we put our mind to. But this is misleading. While we can do a lot, we might not have everything we need to do everything we believe in doing. Acknowledging limits – to your capacity, to your resources – helps keep expectations of yourself realistic.

3. Remember when you could. Sometimes we can’t live up to our ideals. But sometimes you can. Identify some things you’ve done that are aligned with your values. What were you able to do? What enabled those moments? What might enable you to act on your values in similar ways again?

4. Resist individualism. You do not act in isolation. There is always a context. Recognizing this context for what it is protects against the kind of self-blame that makes it harder to see ourselves clearly. When we are less busy feeling solely to blame, we are better equipped to do what we can, to receive feedback, and to alter our behavior as we learn over time.

5. Focus on the lessons. In thinking of times when your actions have fallen short of your ideals, focus on what you can learn. What were you unable to do then? What might be possible now? What options are available for making that gap between beliefs and behavior a little smaller?

6. Do it together. Some are plagued by the feeling that no matter how much they do, they can always be doing more. Others struggle to begin, knowing it will never be enough. Both of these states are made easier by joining forces with others. Chances are, there are efforts underway in your area or on topics that matter to you, efforts informed by wisdom beyond yourself. Find out what others are doing, what they've learned, and how you can contribute.

If you had everything you needed to do what you most believe in, what would you do?


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