These days, it’s hard not to feel that the world is going crazy. In the past two weeks alone, we’ve seen the worst mass shooting in American history, the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, and heartbreaking failures within our government.
When we joke about it, it’s pretty much to avoid crying about it.
In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, I grieved. I was deeply sad, confused, and heartbroken for several days. Isn’t this a perfectly reasonable reaction to have? These episodes of violence, punctuating our lives more and more frequently, are deeply disturbing on a human level. Although we may have been desensitized to the gravity of these events through repeated exposure, our hearts still know that it’s just not okay. The aftershocks keep coming in our hearts and minds.
Lately, my discussions with close friends keep moving toward the same question: What can we do about any of this? What power do we have to keep our world from spinning off its axis completely?
My personal answer to this question feels surprisingly clear. I must continue the work of healing and understanding within myself, while simultaneously doing all I can to support healing and understanding for others.
It's not about "mental health" as a problem that other people have. It's about our mental health, our ability to care for ourselves and each other. We can’t advocate for the most vulnerable in our society if we’re barely hanging on ourselves. We can’t notice that our co-worker is acting strange if we’ve never learned to pay attention. We can’t truly ask our neighbor how they’re doing if we’re emotionally unprepared to hear the answer. We can’t engage in difficult political conversations if we don’t know how to listen to our “adversaries” with respect. All of these tasks require us to develop ourselves as thinking, feeling, soulful human beings.
Gun violence in America is complex. The Pulse shooting is even more so, weaving together the fatal threads of homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, toxic masculinity, social alienation, and easy access to weapons of mass murder. The reaction to the Pulse shooting was another crisis in itself, revealing so many of our blind spots, limitations, and fears.
When I envision how we will turn the tide towards peace, in my mind, I imagine all of us together as a kind of army. Together, we can rise up against the tides of hatred and delusion. This could take so many different forms: expressing gratitude more often, going to therapy, training as a social workers and educators, learning to meditate, becoming a better parent, creating art that helps people remember their humanity, or a thousand other things.
At the end of his life, the Buddha said: “Make of yourself a light.” I have come to believe that this is our task. It’s not hippy-dippy, or touchy-feely, or any of those words people use because they’re afraid. It is hard work, wading through this painful territory, facing our fear and our skepticism. But if we don’t do it, who will?
In a world as frighteningly and beautifully interconnected as ours, nothing that you do is irrelevant.