It’s been a rough week for those of us here in the United States. Some may even say a rough year, whichever side of the political spectrum you are on. We live in a world that is increasingly violent, where we are faced with everything ranging from and including senseless mass murders to a new norm of incivility as well as lies. These have become the main course in our lives. We cease to be surprised anymore when we hear of incidents such as the Las Vegas massacre. If anything, we only stop at first to ask “How many?” When the number of dead and injured is large enough or the physical location close enough, we take notice.
Other than that, it has become “There’s been another mass shooting today.” I, for one, have come to feel almost assaulted by the number of “bad news events” that I hear about almost daily. If the bad news isn’t here, it’s somewhere else in the world. Some people find it easier to turn off or shut down their thoughts or emotions more than others. In the work that I do, particularly with anxious and/or depressed people, precisely trying not to be affected, can lead to some rather extraordinary behaviors ranging from distraction to trying to ignore or suppress their thoughts and feelings. Another popular method to handle negative thoughts and feelings is to try an “out with the ‘bad,’ in with the ‘good” approach, such as trying to only think happy thoughts.
What do I mean when I say “extraordinary behaviors” that come about through avoidance? In the case of news, for example, it could mean that someone forbids the news to be on at home, even if other family members want to know what’s going in in the world. It could mean leaving the room when others bring up one of the topics that you find upsetting. Relationships could suffer if people don’t understand why you change the topic or leave the room in the middle of a conversation. If it’s a close family member or friend, you may get angry at them for bringing the topic up and damage the relationship, again leaving others baffled. Or, you could change the topic or leave the room to avoid feeling how you feel when you are reminded of the topic.
Our world seems to have more bad news than ever, if one simply counts news like terrorist attacks, mass shootings, floods, fires, or simply the constant bickering within our government’s two parties, or the administration launching assaults and accusations against the media, etc. Wherever you stand politically, it is impossible to escape the seeming disarray and dysfunctionality of those that govern us. It may even remind some of us of the dysfunctionality of homes we grew up in, retraumatizing those of us who didn’t feel very secure in our childhoods, reawakening those traumas and magnifying their effect as our country and society, in general, seems to be spinning out of control.
What can we do to not allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by things we seemingly cannot change, at least in this moment, which is, after all, all we have? I’ve given this a great deal of thought lately, mainly because I, too, have had to struggle with an onslaught of bad news which accentuates the fact that everything is in a constant state of change. Things we thought may never change, are changing. I remember the first time I noticed, as a child, that a store that used to be in a certain location had shut down and was no longer there. It had never occurred to me that just because a store was there today it may not be tomorrow. Nor did I realize, in that vulnerable naivety of my childhood years, that people who were always there would go away, too, or the nature of the relationship could change over time. I never realized that people were changing, too. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were all changing, growing older, responding to changes within themselves or their families which subtly affected me, too.
Remembering what the things are that you really value in your life can become a way of not losing your direction in life, despite all the turbulence and change you may be experiencing in the world around you. Do you know what things make you happy, if even for just a moment? Could it be your children running to greet you when you get home, or your dog? Could it be looking across a room and seeing someone you love, or for some people, seeing all you’ve accomplished? The answers to what make us happy, even for just a moment, are as varied (and similar) as we are.
For some, it may be buying flowers and putting them on your table, or riding your motorcycle or bike. Whatever it is, we cannot lose our perspective about life. It isn’t all bad, nor is it all good. What once was old is, or may be, new again. This could be for good or bad. Research tells us that when we are really stressed, our focus narrows and often to such an extent that we begin to not notice the other things going on around us, making us less effective in our responding. Knowing that, we need to expand our awareness to all that is going on around us, good and bad. I suspect that’s why being in touch with nature helps us put things more into perspective, realizing that for all that worries and frustrates us, there is so much more that is beautiful and good. We take for granted the many good things that even allow us to live, breathe, think, feel.
I don’t want to imply that one should simply focus on good things and ignore that bad things that are happening. Rather, is there anything you can do to change the things that are causing you to feel badly, whether it is scared, angry or sad? If so, one can do what it takes to try to effect a change. And, one can also widen their focus so that they don’t become trapped in a vortex of hopelessness or anger about things that can’t be changed. One can make contact with whatever is there that needs our attention, knowing that there is also a time to withdraw and go back into yourself and not get lost in all the sorrows, fears and disappointments around us. If you know what you really care about or even, what brings you joy, you have the opportunity to turn to that and not stay fixated on what is not within your control at that moment. Being present in the “now” of your life, for good or bad, know that all thoughts and feeling are transient. Watch the thoughts and feelings, your reactions and those of others, as part of the drama of your life. You can respond, fully. You can feel, fully and still come back to yourself and all the other things that life has presented you with.
The “unacceptable” may still be there but you don’t need to stay in a death grip with trying to change what isn’t changeable. As your perspective widens, as you return to this moment with all it brings, you may find another way you hadn’t considered to make a change to what isn’t working. Alternatively, you may simple get back in touch with what is important to you and choose to focus on leading a meaningful life despite living with the “unacceptable.” Acceptance isn’t necessarily liking what is happening in a given moment, it is really simply acknowledging what is and from that place, making decisions and moving forward in a way that moves you closer to the life you want to have.