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Unsettling Emotions

We thought the most upsetting thing most of us have experienced in recent history was the pandemic and resulting shutdown for the past 3 months. And then last week, George Floyd was killed on a street in Minneapolis by a police officer, caught on video, and is sparking worldwide protests. So just as we thought we were going to be set free from our homebound state, we shifted our focus to those that are not free, with or without a pandemic.

I live in Los Angeles, so am no stranger to racism or police brutality or injustice towards people of color. I am a white female and therefore privileged in many ways, not by choice but by the rules of society. Enjoying white privilege, I have no right to suppose that I understand how black people feel. I have certainly felt the sting of discrimination, entering the workforce when women had few rights. And I have been frustrated for over 40 years over how slowly things change. For example, we almost make as much money per hour as men now for the same amount of work. Almost. We almost ratified the ERA last year when the 38th state finally ratified it, but a group of mostly men decided that the clock had run out and it therefore didn’t count. So again, almost.

These examples pale in comparison to what black people face in this country. I’ve been waiting 48 years for equality, at least on paper. They’ve been waiting hundreds of years for basic human rights. And of course, there’s no comparison in the types, intensity and multiple systemic levels of discrimination that black people endure.

I thought things would change after the Rodney King event. A different type of video, but captured on film nonetheless, a brutal and senseless beating of a black man by 4 white police officers. And the city erupted in riots when those four police officers were found not guilty. It was terrifying to watch the city burn. Beyond belief to look out of my office window and try to decide if was safer to keep my employees in the building or send them home, with national guardsmen pointing rifles from rooftops all around us, and really disturbing to me now that I didn’t understand at all what the real issue was. It wasn’t just Rodney King. It was a long history of oppression, injustice and inhumanity. The governor of California said yesterday that black people are tired of waiting, and I can relate to that, on a much, much smaller scale.

Mindfulness includes examining our thoughts and feelings without judgment. And of course, observing others without judgment. I have to say, I’m really struggling with that right now on a scale that is upsetting to me. I’m judging myself for not knowing how to help. I’m judging those who are disrupting the peaceful protests and looting, setting fires, attacking police and destroying people’s lives. I’m judging government officials who are fanning the flames and increasing divisiveness and violence. I’m aware that I’m judging, which is in itself a mindful act, but I’m having much more difficulty than usual in processing it and getting re-centered. I feel angry that change is so slow to take place. I feel frustration with people who claim racism doesn’t exist. I feel aggravated that so many of us seem to understand that systemic racism does exist, yet have no idea how to fix it. That in itself is just confusing.

Anger, frustration, aggravation and confusion. Emotions exist to prompt action, but what action to take? I have no idea what to do with it yet. I also wonder how much the intensity of these emotions is a carry-forward from feeling constrained and inactive for weeks due to the shutdown that was already in progress before this occurred.

A client called yesterday to say she felt so sad and to ask what she could do to get rid of that feeling. Of course, we can’t get rid of sadness, nor do I think we would want to in the long run. Sadness means we’re empathetic and compassionate. We’re feeling others’ pain and suffering with them. I realized from that conversation that I feel sad, too.

My heart goes out to all of the small businesses who have managed to hang on through the pandemic shutdown, only to have their businesses destroyed by opportunistic thieves and political instigators. I feel terrible for the many, many honorable peace officers around the country who are lumped in with people that should never have been given the power to harm others behind the shield of law enforcement. I feel sad for all of the people who have suffered under oppression, bias, discrimination and hatred for no other reason than the color of their skin. And I feel sad that we will probably see more violence, more death and more destruction in the coming days.

It is heartening, however, to see how many people are volunteering to clean up each day from the previous night’s mayhem. To see protesters trying to protect businesses from the looters. To see police officers protesting beside and kneeling with those trying to be seen and heard. To see protestors trying to protect police who get separated from their teams. It’s encouraging to see other countries protesting in solidarity with the U.S., including England, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Ireland, France and more. Artists drew an anti-racism mural in a besieged part of Syria. Chilean and Lebanese protestors offered protesters here advice on how to protect themselves from police abuse. It all reminds us that we are all connected, we all face similar issues and we can all be part of the solution. So, mixed into all of the uncomfortable emotions I’m experiencing, there is also gratitude, empathy and even hope.

I’m probably not alone in having a mix of emotions that are difficult to manage. Breathing certainly helps, but I feel I need to do more. I’ve decided to revisit Jane Elliot’s teaching on racism. Maybe I need to get back to basics again, to remind myself of what racism means and feels like, to make sure I’m educated on a topic I can’t personally experience in order to discover how I can help. To start back at a beginning and work my way up, from an elementary school teacher to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., and perhaps revisit civics lessons studied long, long ago, since I’ve discovered I’m not sure what is legal or not in some cases amidst all of the rhetoric.

Jane Elliot’s most profound teaching is a simple one, that there is only one race, the human race, and that’s it. We have so many real challenges facing us, from a global pandemic to climate change to socio-economic crises, to world hunger…can’t we direct our energies towards solving those problems instead of continuing old, or creating new, beliefs that insist on winners and losers? We don’t need to keep some people down in order for others to rise, or remain, on top. We can shift our thinking patterns to accept all people, just as they are. We can actually change the power of our amygdalae to not automatically fear those who are different from us. Mindfulness and meditation can help us accomplish these feats.

So, for now, I will breathe, meditate and reflect. And the action I will take, for now, may be to simply further educate myself so that I may discover how I can help in a meaningful way. I will accept my feelings, judgments and all, with self-compassion, knowing that I can return to a place of non-judgment when I find what action my emotions are pushing me to take. When the time comes, I will take that action in a mindful and responsive way.

Above all, I will remember that we can do better, together.

Enjoy this brief meditation:

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