Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Keep Calm and Carry On

The Electoral College just approved the terrorist attack on the moral arc of the universe, the one endorsed by 64 million Americans, and the New Ager in us tells us to keep calm. I want to punch him in his face. I’m fuckin’ furious and you’re telling me to calm down? Is that what you would say to the Jews as the Nazis were rounding them up? To the slaves being shoved down in the ship’s hold? To the Cherokees walking the Trail of Tears? Anything that trains citizens to be compliant and complacent and calm and casual amidst the next transgression against justice, all that encourages us to relax and go shopping and have a nice day, all that allows us to shrug our shoulders with an accepting “oh well” is another weapon put in the hands of those who use their power to harm and hurt.  

We should all be out on the street grabbing people by the collar and shaking them until they wake up! If we have to use a bumper sticker platitude, let’s go with “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!” Wake up, people! The wild dogs are roaming the streets and you’re making reservations for your next overpriced dinner out. Kindness is forever, but a wimpy niceness does no one any good. You don’t want to rock the boat, but the Titanic is sinking and maybe rocking the lifeboat is the only way to get it loose and out into safer waters. If you have the luxury to keep calm, it means you’re hiding under the protection of your straight male white-skinned privilege and perpetuating the very thing that got us into this mess. Don’t tell me to keep calm!

And yet. Everything I know about brain science and effective resistance reveals a deeper truth to this cliché. When we are in danger, we hunker down to our brain stem and its reliable instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Our system is flooded with the necessary hormones, chemicals, oxygen to meet the danger with one or more of these survival strategies. We act from impulse, as there’s no time to think things through. It’s a short-term emergency situation until such time as we can make it to safe ground. Then it’s time to calm down, take a few deep breaths and let our system re-regulate itself, come back into balance. Then we can also access the higher neo-cortical thinking and consider all the things we should have said or done.

Though this arrangement was originally made for life out in the dangerous wild (or these days, a dangerous neighborhood, impending freeway collision or a vicious barking dog), it also can come into play with less immediately life-threatening things— like a high-stakes school test, a job interview, a music performance and such. When we feel stressed or anxious, we need techniques and tools to calm us down and raise us from the brain stem into the higher regions of the brain.  If we don’t have the tools or techniques or encouragement to do that, we can live our life in the basement of our potential, constantly reacting to situations with anger or freezing into depression or fleeing into alcohol, drugs, video games or other escapist addictions.

Note: the above are three of the five stages of grief: denial (flee), anger (fight), depression (freeze). So here we are, at least half of the American population plus three million, pedaling furiously through all these stages of grief, pushing each up the hill like Sisyphus and watching it roll down again. If we live in that place, if we act from that place, it does exactly nobody any good. We indeed will have to keep calm to get to some higher moral ground and clearer thinking about how to survive this. But it can’t be casual. It is a ferocious, hard-won calmness that lives on the other side of the landscape of grief and despair. It can’t be reached without trudging through that mud and muck.

And as for carrying on, what other choice do we have? The sun rises, the oatmeal waits to be cooked, the children are showing up in your class. But we can choose more carefully what exactly we’re carrying on with. Can we make our work more meaningful or choose more meaningful work? Can we be less frivolous, more serious without losing our humor? Can we be more engaged, can we drive conversations deeper than the TV sitcom level? Can we walk deeper into profound art and step around the avalanche of casual, numbing entertainment? Can we double our vows to speak more truth, to tell the untold stories, to speak on behalf of the voiceless? Can we use the tools of mindfulness and breathe deeply not to just make ourselves feel better, but to align ourselves with the millions pushing the moral arc back towards justice?

The clawed hand of despair will certainly rise from the swamp of our current national tragedy to try to bring us down and some days, we’ll wake up face-down in the mud. But if the next four years mean anything, it is to intensify our outrage, our calmness, our refusal to accept some things and our wisdom to accept others.

And above all, let’s do it together. 

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