Sunday, November 27, 2016

A little self care ...

We managed to get away to the beach for a few days over Thanksgiving. A much needed respite to recharge, reflect and to give thanks. Having no childhood traditions of Thanksgiving, we have created our own during our years in the USA. For us, it's about getting away on retreat, and reflecting about hope, as Thanksgiving coincides with the beginning of Advent. The winter has begun to draw in, the days are short and we wonder about light in darkness, and falling snow, "snow on snow, snow on snow." Jane and I are teaching a ten-week course for foster carers on nonviolent re-parenting. The course has proved beneficiall, and as well as the participants Jane and I have learned a lot. In our final session this week we will discuss the subject of self-care. Caring for kids who have been victims of violence takes a lot out of you. In the last class we will be talking about Secondary Stress Syndrome. It's what happens to folk who care for those who suffer traumas of various kinds. In very simply terms, the trauma of others  "rubs of on you." It's a cumulative thing, creeps up on you unawares, and before you know it you suffer definite symptoms that can include any or all of: hardened response/emotional numbness, physical changes, self-doubt, sleeplessness or nightmares, hypersensitivity, fear, and feelings of isolation. It's not a pretty list and this week Jane and I will be helping other carers learn how to recognize the symptoms and do something about it. Part of the syndrome is "vicarious trauma." When you hear the stories of others who have suffered trauma, if you are compassionate or empathic to any degree, you will feel with those who were traumatized. You suffer vicariously, and it builds up. Counselors, first responders, and anyone who deals with trauma suffer in this way, though it has only recently been recognized. The sobering thing is that with 24/7 media images of trauma the chances are that as a society we all experience vicarious trauma to some degree. It's certainly true of students who are seeking counseling services currently at unprecedented rates with just the kind of symptoms I mentioned above. It can weigh you down, if not crush your spirit, and spoil your relationships as you react badly to those you love. From observation, given the grueling and bitterly harsh election cycle we have just passed though, many folk seem to be suffering the same type of trauma and symptoms of stress. So what to do? Here's what helps me: 1. Recognize the symptoms and don't live in denial. All of us can only take so much! Do something about it before you reach your limit. 2. Take yourself out the direct path of the trauma if at all possible, for at least a while. That's why Jane and I take little breaks to the beach. For both of us the sea and sand are restorative and healing. If social media is causing you stress, turn it off for a while! If the news sends you into the depths, stop reading! (I'm talking to myself here.) 3. Develop a life practice that nourishes and restores you on a daily basis. It will likely include some kind of spiritual practice (whether you are religious or not) to feed you at the deepest level of who you are. It will likely be physical as well as mental/emotional. Just as emotional stress effects your physical well being, so being physically well helps reduce emotional stress.  If you follow the Christian calendar, Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is the perfect time to slow down, take a breather or two, reaccess and refocus. Be well, all. +Ab. Andy

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Love overcomes fear ... Lest we forget

Since late Tuesday evening I have felt utterly wretched. Over the last several days, when folk have asked how I am,  my response has been without any of the usual niceties and trivialities. I have simply responded, "I'm depressed." But truth be told it feels more like grief. I have felt denial, anger, fear, inability to focus, thinking too much—going over and over again the details—blame, listlessness ... I have felt this before, and it has felt very much like someone dear to me has died. Many have shared similar feelings. The mood on my campus Wednesday was very like September 12, 2001—less eye contact in the corridors, students weeping in class, blank looks on faces, students wanting answers when there were no answers to give. It seems to sum up much of the national mood, so far as I can tell. Some commentators have said effectively, "Get over it!" But the last thing people who grieve need is to be told that. Grief take time, and goes through many stages before some kind of relative acceptance happens.
I have hesitated to say anything publicly post-election, mostly because I am as much in the dark as anyone else. I felt badly for students who looked to me to provide some solace when all I could do was listen to, and empathize with, their despair, confusion, and anger.
Nonetheless, in the last few days it is becoming apparent that much of President-Elect Trump's platform will prove impossible to implement. The United States government is a complex behemoth of House and Senate, courts and legal system, a massive home and overseas bureaucracy, with many multifaceted interests and alignments. It's likely that the swamp will get bigger rather than be drained. To switch metaphors, like a massive oil tanker it is both difficult to turn and almost impossible to stop. President Trump in power is likely to be different that Mr. Trump the candidate, at least as far as the implementation of policy. At least I hope so. Time will tell.
I have been wearing my poppy all week in remembrance of those who have died in humanity's seemingly endless wars. One hundred years ago, November 1916, saw the end of the Battle of the Somme. The battle had been raging since July of that year. Best estimates are that in those four months over a million French, German and British lost their lives in the most senseless of all wars. During the the whole war some 39 million were killed, wounded, or missing in action. The aftermath of the war fueled fascism and  paved the way for the Second World War, when a further 73 million military personnel and civilians were killed. In those thirty years the world tore it's own heart out.
We are not there now. Perhaps we ought to count your blessings. For most of us life is better than it was then.
Quit whining then? Weirdly that's the point. Since the madness of the world wars, humanity has been making steady, if halting, progress. It is not to minimize the suffering of all too many since World War Two, but it is to say that we have managed to avoid destruction on the sheer scale of the world wars. It is to say that colonialism ended, and freedom increased for millions of people. Human Rights are high on the agenda of most nations. We have numerous and important international agreements, cooperation, and trade between nations unheard of in human history. Here in the USA we have seen progress in civil rights undreamt of before 1960—a largely popular Black President, and gay marriage equality, to name but two.
Why then the mourning? What has died for me is that I had hoped we were farther along the path toward a just, open, kind and pluralistic society where everyone counts; what Martin Luther King Jr. characterized as the Beloved Community. For the last several years it seemed that we were making progress. But the sad fact is that just about half of those who voted, voted for Mr. Trump and did so because of, or for some despite, the racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric that fueled Mr. Trump's base. That suggests to me that we are a long way from the Beloved Community. Already around the United States those emboldened by the campaign rhetoric have begun a campaign of hate against muslims, Jews, Latinos and Latinas, women, gays and trans folk. In a local school, not far from here, White boys attacked minority students "for Mr. Trump." More people are afraid, and for good reason, than I can remember.
In office, President Trump may not turn out as bad as many feared. But his campaign rhetoric has given legitimacy to hate speech and actions, and it is likely that many will suffer at the hands of those he has emboldened (witness the glee of the KKK and its plans to hold celebratory marches.)
Where does it leave me? I still grieve. Yet, I am resolved to continue to stand with and to support all women, and my Black, Latino and Latina, gay, trans, Muslim, and Jewish family, friends, colleagues and students. I am resolved to continue teaching and writing about love and nonviolence. I am resolved not to give in to bullying and hatred wherever I see it. Love overcomes fear.
+Ab. Andy
Poppy image from