It is normal for empathic people to feel emotional fatigue when reading the daily news cycle, or seeing video after video in our social media feed displaying global violence and chaos. Even more, for those who are among the populations who’ve consistently been targets of hate and rage, they may experience vicarious trauma and added fear for their safety in moving around the world. This can take a physical and psychological toll.
Even if we are not in a time of unprecedented violence, as some social historians argue, it sure can feel this way because our exposure to trauma occurs more rapidly and constantly.
One piece of this is attending to the care of our souls and knowing when to take a break from technology and cynicism.
The other truth is somewhat paradoxical to the research that shows that today, more than ever before, we live in safer and more peaceful times overall, as a human community. There, at the same time, *is* a breaking point we are reaching. Someone in my Facebook feed posted this morning’s latest headline of Baton Rouge’s police killing with a comment that “this summer is filled with tragedy.” Tragedy, to be sure. But my first reaction was: No, this summer is filled with neglect. This is what happens when we do not respond to tragedy appropriately.
The Langston Hughes poem came to mind:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The first instance of neglect comes from the residual economic inequality left over after the Civil Rights Movement’s many successes in extending voting rights and desegregating public spaces and schools. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw that his aims for true equality would not be realized until economic injustice was addressed–it was a campaign against poverty that Dr. King was devoting his life to when assassinated. We’ve chosen to memorialize his dream without ever achieving it. We’ve let his dream fester and sag even while posting inspirational memes with his face all over social media on January 16th, or as a retort to present-day activists.
Secondly, we have never collectively faced our history as a nation. Just as in spirituality, bypassing over pain to get to bliss does not work. We keep thinking we can skip over acknowledgment, apology, and reparations by telling people to “get over” something that has never truly ended or been redressed. Slavery took on more protean forms in the carceral system and engineered ghettoization in our American cities and endemic poverty in rural areas. We need truth and reconciliation. We have to move through the worst of our legacy to get to our best. We cannot keep trying to preserve an image of ourselves as liberal do-gooders or colorblind soldiers of love without facing the reality of the racist and classist systems of power and knowledge that we inherited.
The third act of neglect is when murder after murder is captured on video and nobody is held accountable–no individual, no system, no society.
The final form of neglect I want to address is that we neglect each other, our most powerless here and abroad, when we over-fund the military and under-fund education, healthcare, and education. When our politicians more vociferously protect gun ownership than they do safety and civil rights of the vulnerable, that is neglect.
Terribly, 3 police officers were killed today. (Did your hearts sink so much when, in one July weekend in Chicago, 60 people were shot?). This violence was not promoted, not sanctioned, not perpetuated by activists like Black Lives Matter, despite what the media wants to insinuate. But you know who does promote, sanction, and perpetrate such violence? We ALL do, all of us who choose separation over love, who want to be right more than we want understanding. We ALL do, who allow the structural violence and the unrelenting brutality of poverty and racism to continue without taking a stand for those living in such conditions, and without taking responsibility for helping to create those conditions.
When we show up, valuing all lives–not just the white or the wealthy or the powerful, but the black and brown and poor and disaffected–home by home, neighborhood by neighborhood, then the culture may change. Let’s take care of ourselves and each other.
Until then, it may not be so surprising that the dream, deferred, will explode.
I want to end this post with 2 pieces you can practice:
1. Tonglen–breathe in the world’s suffering (grief, fear, pain, stress)–on behalf of those hurting, take it on with a deep inhale, breathe out fierce love and compassion and relief to all in pain. Keep going…any positive return you receive from this meditation, breathe it right back out to those who need it, while continuing to breathe in all remaining pain.
2. Show up fully to every interaction with empathy on full-blast, looking out for opportunities to serve and be present for those in need, even in the smallest ways. When things are quiet and you are alone at home–turn that empathy inward, on yourself. Do tears come up? Sadness? Allow life to flow through you while loving all of it, all of you.