My emotional reaction to the shooting last weekend in Wisconsin of Jacob Blake, seven times in the back in front of his small children, could best be described as confounded. Like everyone else, I don’t know what transpired before the shooting, I don’t know if Jacob Blake is a law-abiding citizen or not, and I don’t know the situation the police were trying to contain. But I am perplexed as to how this can happen, especially now, with everyone on high-alert, a clear understanding that these events are being recorded, and with an entire nation, including citizens, politicians and police officers, focused on how we can address systemic racism and stop police brutality.
My heart goes out to this family as well as all of the families who have lost loved ones in these situations. My heart also goes out to every family of color that have to prepare for and live with the possibility that they could be in this situation. This issue is so mired in fear from every side, it causes me great sadness to think of how difficult it may be to overcome.
Since I watched the Democratic national convention last week, I thought I should watch at least part of the Republican convention this week in an attempt to understand both sides. The first two nights I heard that Democrats were coming for them, for their guns, for their property, to abolish the suburbs and even to take away their freedom of speech. The Democrats painted an equally fearful picture last week of how much worse things can still get under the current administration. Richard Nixon once said that “people react to fear, not love.” Unfortunately, there’s some truth to that, due to the way our brains are wired, but it’s not a very encouraging thought.
Whipping up a climate of fear may get more people to vote, but doesn’t seem to be a very effective strategy for uniting a country, reducing racism or getting a pandemic under control. I’m not an expert by any means, but when we’re in fear, our fight or flight response is activated and that makes us pretty stupid. We can’t think clearly because our brain doesn’t think we need to think in such moments. We need to act, immediately, to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, mindless reaction rarely leads to anything positive or productive.
Then we have this little problem with facts and “alternative” facts. Who do we believe? Who can we trust? At a time in history when we need clear direction and strong leadership, we have what seems to be less of that than at any time in our history. I know the U.S. isn’t alone in this and many countries around the globe are struggling with the same or at least similar challenges.
How in the world do we cope with this situation - this situation being a global pandemic, systemic racism, divisive leadership, political corruption, rising unemployment, a major economic calamity on the horizon, and massive misinformation? As we discussed last week, grit is one component. I found mine, by the way, and persevering through a difficult project not only made me feel proud of myself, it gave me a sense of control which is of course greatly lacking in our lives these days, so I definitely encourage you to work on strengthening your grit. Another way to cope is to take an objective, mindful look at our own behaviors and motivations. And finally, I realized this week that I have to accept that people just don’t behave the way I think they “should.” I’m looking for rational behavior based on facts or scientific evidence or common sense and I keep getting disappointed.
One of the most interesting facts about the human mind is that we can be presented with a fact and if it is not in alignment with our existing beliefs, we are fine with completely ignoring it.
How can that be? For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes and becoming separated from the tribe or being cast out could be a death sentence. So, while understanding the truth of a situation is important, remaining part of a tribe may be more important. To the oldest part of our brain, it may mean the difference between life and death.
This could help answer the question that many people have asked regarding lies that are told by some politicians or why some people refuse to wear masks. The opposition can cite the facts that prove the words are a lie or the scientific evidence that masks prevent the spread of the virus, but no one seems to care. That’s because, according to author James Clear, “in many circumstances, social connection is actually more helpful to your daily life than understanding the truth of a particular fact or idea. We don't always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about.”
Leo Tolstoy said: “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”
Seems it might be a struggle to get “the other side” to listen to anything, regardless of which side you’re on. Public arguments or demonstrations bring attention to an issue, without a doubt. But at some point, if we want to get the pandemic under control, lessen violence, reduce poverty, and eradicate racism, we need to find a way to move forward and actually progress as a species. According to Clear, if you ranked your beliefs on a spectrum from 1 to 10, you can only influence someone close to you on that scale. If true, a left wing liberal and a right wing conservative are simply not going to hear each other. But if you’re at a 6 on the spectrum on an issue, you could influence someone who is at a 5 or a 7, for example. We are more open-minded toward people who we know and who we mostly agree with, so under those conditions, we could introduce a radical idea and not fear being ostracized by our tribe.
How can we apply any of this in our own lives? I think first, we each need to be clear about what we value and why. If we value something because we’ve been told to or scared into it, it doesn’t mean we have to throw it out. It simply means that might be a belief worth taking a closer look at. How does it serve you? How does it serve others?
We cannot change other people and it turns out, we may not even be able to influence very many people to change their own minds. But we can be accountable for our own behaviors and actions. We can identify our values which influence our beliefs and live by those values as we make decisions and interact with others. We can choose to be more open-minded to differing opinions, which does not mean agreeing with them, but perhaps just being less hostile toward those persons. It means we might be able to influence someone close to us on a belief spectrum, which in turn means they might be able to influence someone else close to them on that spectrum. Perhaps becoming a more compassionate people is the biggest grassroots effort of all time.
I think most importantly, we need to be mindful now more than ever before. Mindfulness is present and non-judgmental awareness of what is happening within us and around us. I’m going to be factual and admit that I have struggled with judgment a lot since the pandemic started. That doesn’t make me mindless, however, as long as I’m aware when I slip into judgment. That awareness actually strengthens mindfulness. Being mindful doesn’t mean we don’t disagree with others, that we won’t react instead of respond in every circumstance or that we will always feel love and compassion for those we disagree with. It means we’re aware of what we’re thinking and feeling and that we’re aware that our thoughts, feelings and resulting actions have an impact on others.
So, back to the question of how we cope with all of this. Coping means to deal with a difficult situation effectively. We can begin by recognizing that we can’t change other people and certainly not the whole world on an individual level. Instead of trying to fix racism, we can focus on our sphere of influence. Do we know someone who we have a lot in common with, but perhaps disagree with on racism? That’s an opportunity to have an open dialogue that may contribute to the greater good. Is there someone close to us on that value/belief spectrum that is ignoring facts about the virus or refusing to wear a mask? Another opportunity. Can we look into our own hearts to see if there are areas that provide opportunities to reach out to someone near us on that spectrum to gain a new perspective or broaden our knowledge?
We now know from science that we can change our tribal mentality because the brain’s neuropathy can be changed. It takes concerted effort, I know, but through mindfulness and other contemplative practices, we can unlearn the fear of losing our tribe. We can change our tribe, we can alter tribes or we can break away from tribes altogether thanks to the neuroplasticity of our internal wiring. This can not only help us reduce contentiousness between political parties, but perhaps undo the conditioning that causes police officers to shoot first, motivates people to ignore public health mandates, and causes us to make poor choices based on bad information.
Another thing we can each do, starting right now, is hold ourselves accountable. If you spread misinformation about COVID19 treatments, you are accountable for how that information is used. If you are a police officer and use excessive force against a citizen, you are accountable for the tragedy inflicted on that person and/or their family. If you spread fear in an effort to gain power or control, you are accountable for the resulting violence and hatred that ensues. Maybe if we held ourselves accountable, we would take care to consider what we’re spreading. That’s a mindful act and we always have a choice, but perhaps now is a good time to choose more wisely.
My favorite mindful act of the past week? An elderly woman in Glendale, California tripped outside in her yard, fell down and couldn’t get up. Her yard is on a steep embankment, so she couldn’t be seen from the street below. She heard the sanitation worker rolling her garbage cans up the steep driveway and told her dog to go get him. The dog raced toward the worker, Kirk White, and barked and circled, trying to get his attention. If a dog came charging at you, barking and jumping, what would your response have been? I was amazed that Mr. White was mindful enough to accurately interpret what the dog was trying to do and actually followed the dog to find the woman lying on the lawn. That mindful action saved an elderly woman from what could have been severe harm due to the extreme heat we’re experiencing.
The woman’s Ring camera caught all of this on video, but it makes me wonder how many more stories like this are occurring every day around the globe that aren’t caught on camera. We typically hear and see the worst of people on the news, but I believe there’s a lot more love happening out there than hate. We just have to remember that and do our best to contribute to the good news that may never be seen.
We could just concede and go along with Nixon’s belief that we only respond to fear or we can decide that we will consistently respond more to love. Regardless of our gender, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexuality, or any other differences, we are all people. We all have the same needs, including love, compassion, safety, security, autonomy, self-expression and purpose. We may have different perceptions of reality, but there is no alternative reality when it comes to basic human needs.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be at least a little more open-minded. Be accountable. And be hopeful. Things may feel pretty dark right now, but this period will pass. It’s up to us to decide how things will look once it does. We’re choosing all of this. Fearing people because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs or because of who they love is a choice. Deciding to blindly follow a leader despite harmful decisions and misinformation is a choice. Ignoring facts and truth is a choice. It’s all in our minds. And we can change our minds.