Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at the pool, I went to a coffee shop to try to get some writing done. Unable to focus, though, I gave in to the distraction of social media, and when I did, I found myself getting more and more angry. I was angry at the terrorists who’ve torn apart so many people’s lives and instilled fear in so many more. And I was angry at the closed-minded people who are responding to the terrorism by becoming protectionist and prejudiced and not offering safe homes for the millions of refugees running away from the terrorists.
Because I was angry anyway, I started extending that anger to people closer to home – people in the coffee shop and people in my family whose actions were disappointing me at the time. Anger needs to feed itself, so it looks for more victims and more people to blame.
When I get angry (or fearful, or sad, or any of those intense emotions that sometimes feel scary and overwhelming), I’m tempted to shut down, to guard my heart and protect myself from further wounding. I’m tempted to pull away from people and become even more self-sufficient. And I’m tempted to find reasons to hate people and blame them for all of the ills of the world.
Last night, I checked out for awhile (Netflix is good for that), but this morning, I knew I needed to do something that would help me resist the temptation to shut down.
The only antidote I know for this kind of reaction in me is to dare to live with an open heart. It’s the hardest choice to make when I’m angry, but the more open my heart is, the less likely I am to let the anger and fear fester and get bigger.
The poet Mark Nepo tells us to be more like fish. “As fish must keep their gills open in order to survive moving through the water, humans must keep their hearts open in order to move through the difficult and wondrous river of experience. Letting life move through an open heart is how we make medicine out of our suffering.”
This morning I decided to be more like a fish.
I posted this on Facebook: “My heart’s been heavy this week, witnessing so much fear, hatred and closed-mindedness. So… let’s do something different. Tell me how you’ve seen love and openheartedness appear this week.”
The responses were simple and breathtaking. One shared about the friend who showed up to help her welcome her new dog. Another applauded her daughter who’d raised $1500 for a rescue mission that helps women get out of the sex trade. Another had seen an elderly white man help a young black boy tie his tie. Still others shared about kindhearted daycare workers, free clinics, supportive husbands, gracious sign-holders, and smiling grand-babies.
My heart started feeling a little bigger and the fresh air moved through my gills as I let the angry air out. I brought that feeling into my work, and was soon coaching clients who shared their vulnerable and brave stories of healing from past abuse and daring to step into their artist calling later in life. My heart grew healthier and stronger with each story that passed through me.
We build resilience when we respond to fear and anger with an open heart. We have to dare to be open to people’s stories and dare to be vulnerable with our own.
But there’s a harder part to this openhearted living that goes beyond being vulnerable with those people who feel safe, and that’s what I had to challenge myself with once the anger had subsided.
Living with an open heart also means daring to be compassionate with those who think differently from me and those who respond to their own fear and anger differently from me.
It wasn’t hard for me to extend compassion to my Facebook friends or coaching clients or even to the innocent Islamic people who are now facing prejudice and hatred because they are associated with the terrorists. Those people are safe and don’t require me to stretch too much. What I find to be much harder is to extend compassion to the terrorists themselves and to the people who are meeting hatred with hatred, spouting racist rhetoric and closing their doors to the Syrian people.
I had to dig deep to remember that these people are all responding to their own fears in the way that makes the most sense for them. Extending compassion does not mean that I need to agree with them or justify their actions, but it means that I have to dare to open my heart enough to see the hurt that turned them into the people they are.
Fear changes us. It makes us fierce in ways that sometimes surprise and even scare us.
When I was sexually assaulted a number of years ago, I went home to the farm to be with my parents. My pacifist, Mennonite dad, who would never allow a gun in the house and who never physically hurt anyone, admitted later that he was shocked by the realization that he was capable of killing another man. He’d never had that temptation before.
When people hurt or threaten people you love, or even if you simply perceive them to do so, it causes fear to rise up and you are suddenly not the rational, peace-loving person you always thought you were. Suddenly, you can think of only one thing – to keep your family safe at all costs. I get that, and I see it happening on a global scale in response to the terrorism we’ve witnessed. I also assume (though I can’t pretend to understand it) that it must be happening in the hearts of the terrorists. Something has made them so fearful and angry that the only response that makes sense to them is to destroy the people and the culture that pose the greatest threat.
There are so many players in this unfolding drama that I don’t understand, but when I remember how my dad was changed in that moment when he realized that someone had raped and tried to murder his daughter, it allows me to open my heart with some compassion to those who are responding out of their own deep wounds. Instead of opening their hearts and living like fish, they chose to close them and to allow the blackness to grow and consume them.
I wish those terrorists and those who are responding with hatred had all had fathers like mine. Perhaps they would have learned to make other choices.
My dad’s surprising rage was not the most memorable lesson of the day. The wisdom that I received from my dad came in the actions he chose just after learning that I’d been raped and nearly killed. After giving me a hug, and then leaving me to my mom’s nurturing arms, he went outside to feed the pigs. I wasn’t there when he fed them, so I don’t know whether he was crying or screaming or throwing things while he fed the pigs, I only know that he fed them. And, because I know my Dad, I expect he was also praying.
He fed the pigs because he needed some physical activity to dispel some of the rage. And he did it because he needed to do something useful and mundane in that moment when his world had been turned upside down. And he prayed because he knew he could only dispel the darkness in his own heart with the help of a Higher Power.
Once he was done, he came back inside with a calmer mind and a heart that dared to remain open. His God and his pigs helped him with that.
When the fear and rage and pain wash over you, it might feel impossible to remember what Mark Nepo said about living with your heart open to the world. Those are the times when you first need to feed the pigs. Or feed the children. Or go for a long walk in the woods. Or make art or music. Or dance. Or swing a hammer.
Do something to alchemize the pain, and then reach for a Higher Power who can help you change your heart. Once you’ve done those things, come back with a calmer mind and a heart that dares to remain open.
Lashing out in your pain will only create more pain and will never solve the problem. Only living with an open heart will allow you to move on without wounding anyone.
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There are many reasons to be silent.
Violence (or the threat of violence) is one reason for silence. When cartoonists are murdered for satire and young school girls are kidnapped or murdered for daring to go to school, the risk of speaking up becomes too great for many people.
Sometimes the violence backfires and the voices become stronger – as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, now publishing three million copies when their normal print run was 60,000. Why? Because those with power and influence stepped in to show support for those whose voices were temporarily silenced. If the world had ignored that violence and millions of people – including many world leaders – hadn’t marched in the streets, would there have been the same outcome? If these twelve dead worked for a small publication in Somalia or Myanmar would we have paid as much attention? I doubt it.
Far too many times (especially when the world mostly ignores their plight, as in Nigeria) violence succeeds and fewer people speak up, fewer people are educated, and the perpetrators of the violence have control.
Violence has long been a tool for the silencing of the dissenting voice. Slaves were tortured or murdered for daring to speak up against their owners. Women were burned at the stake for daring to challenge the dominant culture. Even my own ancestors – the Mennonites – were tortured and murdered for their faith and pacifism.
Most likely every single one of us could look back through our lineage and find at least one period in time when our ancestors were subjected to violence. Some of us still live with that reality day to day.
There is no question that the fear of violence is a powerful force for keeping people silent. It still happens in families where there is abuse and in countries where they flog bloggers for speaking out.
Few of the people who read this article will be subjected to flogging or torture for what we say or write online, and yet… there are many of us who remain silent even when we feel strongly that we should speak out.
Why? Why do we remain silent when we see injustice in our workplaces? Why do we turn the other way when we see someone being bullied? Why do we hesitate to speak when we know there’s a better way to do things?
- Because we have a memory of violence in our bones. The more I learn about trauma the more I realize that it affects us in much more subtle and insidious ways than we understand. Some of us have experienced trauma and are easily triggered, but even if we never experienced trauma in our own lifetimes, it can be passed down to us through our DNA. Your ancestors’ trauma may still be causing fear in your own life. Witnessing the trauma of other people subjected to violence may be triggering ancient fear in all of us, causing us to remain silent.
- Because our brains don’t understand fear. The most ancient part of our brains – the “reptilian brain”, which hasn’t evolved since we were living in caves and discovering fire – is adapted for fight or flight. That part of our brain sees all threats as predators, and so it triggers our instinct to survive. Our lives are much different from our ancestors, and yet there’s a part of our brains that still seeks to protect us from woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. When our fear of being rejected by a family member for speaking out feels the same as the fear of a sabre-toothed tiger, our reaction is often much stronger than it needs to be.
- Because those who want to keep us silent have learned more subtle ways to do so. In most of the countries where we live, it is no longer acceptable to flog bloggers, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being silenced. Women have been silenced, for example, by being taught that their ideas are silly and irrelevant. Marginalized people have been silenced by being given less access to education. Those with unconventional ideas have been “gaslighted” – gradually convinced that they are crazy for what they believe.
- Because we have created an “every man for himself” culture where those who speak out are often not supported for their courage. We’re all trying to thrive in this competitive environment, and so we feel threatened by other people’s success or courage. When I asked on Facebook what keeps people silent, one of the responses (from a blogger) was about the kinds of haters that show up even in what should be supportive environments. In motherhood forums, for example, people get so caught in internal battles (like whether it is better to be a working-away-from-home parent or a stay-at-home parent) that they forget that they would be much stronger in advocating for positive change in the world if they found a way to work together and support each other. It is much more difficult to speak out when we know we’ll be standing alone.
- Because we don’t understand power and privilege. Those who have access to both power and privilege are often surprised when others remain silent. “Why wouldn’t they just speak up?” they say, as though that were the simplest thing in the world to do. It may be a simple thing, if you have never been oppressed or silenced, but if you’ve been taught that your voice has no value because you are “a woman, an Indian, a person of colour, a lesbian, a Muslim, etc.”, then the courage it takes to speak is exponentially greater. Years and years of conditioning that convinces a person of their inherent lack of value cannot be easily undone.
Several years ago, I visited a village in the poorest part of India. Though I’d traveled in several poor regions in Bangladesh, India, and a few African countries before that, this was the most depressing place I’d ever visited. This was a makeshift village populated by the Musahar people who lived at the edges of fields where they sometimes were hired by the landowners as day labourers but otherwise had to scrounge for their food (sometimes stealing grain from rats – which was why they’d come to be known as “rat eaters”).
There was a look of deadness in the eyes of the people there – a hopelessness and sense of fatalism. Our local hosts told us that these were the most marginalized people in the whole country. They were the lowest tribe of the lowest caste and so everyone in the village had been raised to believe that they had no more value than the rats that ran through their village.
There was a school not far from the village, but we could find only one boy who attended that school. Though everyone had access to the school, none of the parents were convinced their children were worthy of it.
It was a powerful lesson in what oppression and marginalization can do to people. In other equally poor villages (in Ethiopia, for example) I’d still noticed a sense of pride in the people. The Musahar people showed no sense of pride or self-worth. Essentially, they had been “gaslighted” to believe they were worthless and could ask for no more than what they had.
The next day, my traveling companions and I took a rest day instead of visiting another village. We had enough footage for the documentary we were working on and we needed a break from what was an emotionally exhausting trip.
My colleague, however, opted to visit the second village. He came back to the hotel with a fascinating story. In the second village, a local NGO had been working with the people to educate them about their rights as citizens of India. It hadn’t taken long and these people had a very different outlook on their lives and their values. They were beginning to rally, challenging their local government representatives to give them access to the welfare programs that should have been everyone’s rights (but that people in the first village had never been told about by the corrupt politicians who took what should have been given to the villagers). On the way back to the hotel, in fact, he’d been stopped by a demonstration where the body of a man who’d died of starvation had been laid out on the street to block traffic and call attention to the plight of the Musahar people.
The people in the second village were slowly beginning to understand that they were human and had a right to dignity and survival.
In the coaching and personal growth world that I now find myself in, there is much said about “finding our voices”, “stepping into our power”, and “claiming our sovereignty”. Those are all important ideas, and I speak of them in my work, but I believe that there is work that we need to do before any of those things are possible. Like the Musahar people, those who have been silenced need to be taught of their own value and their own capacity for change before they can be expected to impact positive change.
First we need to take a close look at the root causes of the fear that keeps us silent before we’ll be able to change the future.
When we begin to understand power and privilege, when we find practices that help us heal our ancient trauma, when we retrain our brains so that they don’t revert to their most primal conditioning, and when we find supportive communities that will encourage us in our attempts at courage, then we are ready to step into our power and speak with our strongest voices.
Like the Musahar, we need to work on understanding our own value and then we need to work together to have our voices heard.
These are some of the thoughts on my mind as I consider offering another coaching circle based on Pathfinder and/or Lead with Your Wild Heart. If you are interested in joining such a circle, please contact me.
Also, if you are longing to understand your own fear so that you can step forward with courage, consider joining me and Desiree Adaway at Engage!