I recently finished reading The Secret Life of Bees, a novel published 15 years ago and made into a movie in 2008. (I’m quite behind on my fiction reading.) One of the characters in the book, May, was described as having a “condition” that made her feel everyone’s pain as if it was her own. She was an empath, in other words.
This character learned to manage her pain by building a sort of wailing wall. When she felt overwhelmed by painful events, she would write it down on a piece of paper and leave it in the wall.
May’s character reminded me of two things:
- We are all affected by the pain of others.
I believe we all have a little bit of May in us. When we hear of tragedies or violence on the news, it affects us. Photos of children fleeing Syria moved us. Hearing stories of how other women were harassed sickened us. Learning about yet another police shooting angered us. It’s not a condition. We are still connected to the pain of others, no matter how far away they are.
- We need a way to deal with that pain.
Sometimes we react by tuning out and shutting down. It’s too much to bear. We close our hearts, become filled with fear, and maybe push people outside our circle away. We can start to deny or ignore our connection with our fellow human beings in order to limit the pain we’re exposed to.
We need to find a balance between maintaining our compassion and connection to the human condition without being overwhelmed.
I’ve written before about dealing with personal pain here, here, and here, but how do we handle other people’s pain? Events we can’t control?
Here are some thoughts:
- Develop your own personal ritual. Write it down and burn or rip the paper up. Carry a stone on a walk and throw or drop it somewhere. Light a candle. Say a prayer. Give the pain a place to be.
- Take action. Take whatever action you can, whether it’s donating money or getting involved with a cause – even if it’s unrelated to the event.
- Connect with others. Develop a ritual with others. Talk about what happened. Take a walk together. Connect.
- Spend time in nature. It is grounding. It helps put things into perspective.
- Practice a loving kindness meditation. Find a guided meditation here: https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness-2/, on yogaglo.com, or elsewhere online. I’ve recommended this before. It is the meditation equivalent of a cure-all.
Do you have a ritual for dealing with other people’s pain? What works for you?
A little over a year ago, I had my first real experience with losing someone I was close to. My cousin, who I grew up with, died unexpectedly a few weeks before her wedding. After a year, I still think about her every day. So, when the anniversary of her death came, I knew it wasn’t going to be just another day.
Here are some ways to remember loved ones:
- Write them a letter / talk to them – Just because they’re not physically present anymore doesn’t mean that your relationship with them ends. Ask them for guidance. Tell them how you feel. If there were things left unsaid – say them.
- Call your friends/family – You’re probably not the only one struggling with memories and emotions. Reach out to each other. Tell each other funny stories about your loved one.
- Have a memorial service / scatter ashes – If the funeral for your loved one left something to be desired, hold another one! It is never too late. Even if the funeral was the healing ceremony it should be, that doesn’t mean there’s not more healing to be done. Gathering friends and family together for a short remembrance ceremony can be deeply comforting.
- Have a personal remembrance ritual – The options are unlimited here. What reminds you of them? My cousin was an amazing baker. For Thanksgiving, in what will probably become an annual tradition, my sister attempted to make my cousin’s famous pumpkin pie recipe. It was a small way to honor her memory at a time when we would be missing her the most. This article says that personal rituals can be a great salve for grief.
I called my sister and spent some quality time with my journal. I reflected on how my life has changed since she left, partly because of her, and how I wish I could share it with her.
It is hard to know what to do when a tragedy like Orlando happens. Even if you do not know anyone who was affected, we are all touched by it. You may feel a mix of empathy, anger, outrage, and hopelessness. You may wonder where we can be safe, what will be next, what can I do, what will it take before things change?
As we begin the process of mourning as a country, as individuals, I would like to offer a suggestion for a small thing we can each do. I think one of the best ways we can honor those who have died is to contribute to creating peace.
I once heard the Dalai Lama speak about peace on the national mall, in front of the Capitol Building. He said that peace in the world begins with your own peace of mind. When we are at peace with ourselves, we spread that peace to those around us.
When our actions and words are aligned with this place of inner peace, others will respond in kind. And then they spread that peace to others around them. Creating change in the world begins with changing yourself.
How do you find inner peace? It is a continuous process of cultivating mindfulness and self-compassion. Yoga and meditation are tools that can help, especially restorative yoga.
Try this simple meditation:
- Close your eyes and take several deep breaths
- With your eyes still closed, look down and imagine that you can turn your eyes inward
- Turn your internal gaze to your heart. Sense your heartbeat, feel it in your chest
- Then, listen. What does your heart need? Does it have a message for you?
- When you’re ready, return your gaze forward and take several deep breaths.
- Open your eyes.
Whatever approach you take to finding inner peace, the key is really in prioritizing your own mental and spiritual health. It may seem frivolous or unproductive to spend time doing “nothing,” but to put it into perspective – the world depends on it.
I was recently listening to a Ted Talks podcast titled “To Endure,” when I came across an idea that I just loved and had to share!
The show included an interview with Monica Lewinsky, who gave a Ted Talk about her experience of the Clinton scandal. She did something stupid at a young and impressionable age that turned her life so upside-down that she had a hard time finding work or even volunteering. But she eventually was able to get her life back and was stronger for it.
We all face difficulties in our lives. Often, we’ll look back on those experiences as turning points in our life – a point after which you were never the same. And while that experience may have been the most difficult time of your life, you can be thankful for it. You’re a better, stronger person now because of it.
Every year, Monica and her family celebrate the anniversary of what she thought of as the worst day of her life. They call it Survivor’s Day!
As soon as I heard that, I immediately knew I had to incorporate it into my life. After I returned home from over a year and a half in Afghanistan, I was not the same person. That was the most difficult period of my life. I didn’t think I was going to make it. But today, I know that experience made me more resilient, stronger in some ways, and softer in other ways (where I needed it!).
What did you survive? How can you honor the experience(s) that made you who you are today? Maybe you survived losing your job. A divorce. An illness. It can be anything! This is one thing that unites us as human beings – we’ve all overcome something. And we should celebrate it!
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