john a. powell, professor of Law, African American and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, made the astute observation that in times of stress, societies either break apart or build bridges. In addition to the stress from accelerating changes in globalization, technology, environment, and demographics, we now add a global pandemic and an economic free fall. All of this is hard for the human brain to process. Because the brain evolved to keep us safe, it craves certainty and predictability. We certainly don’t have an abundance of these right now.
Anxiety is a natural reaction to these tumultuous circumstances. For many, anxiety quickly becomes anger expressed as blame. We’d rather have the certainty of who’s at fault than the discomfort of simply being aware of our own anxiety.
While these reactions are understandable from the point of view of the brain and body, they are certainly not helpful. It is important to remember that we have choices. We could choose to get lost in anxiety and react to the uncertain environment as a threat. Or we could choose to stay present to what is occurring inside, so we have the possibility of responding to it as an opportunity. We do not need to be prisoners of our biology.
And the choices we make have consequences. When we ignore our fears and compulsively jump to anger and blame, we are breaking society into an “us” and a “them”. If this pandemic shows us anything, it’s that there’s only an us. Unfortunately, when we allow ourselves to be driven by a chain of fear-anger-blame, we strengthen the pathways in the brain to continue along this track. As the saying goes, “What gets fired gets wired.” And, if we continue blaming others for our anxiety and discomfort, where does this lead us?
It leads to more anger, prejudice, bias, isolation, separation, and even violence. These break us apart. It leads away from connecting, relating, finding solutions, and working together to respond effectively to this crisis and preparing ourselves for the next one. These build bridges among us.
The most promising pathway forward is to foster intentional responses that allow us to plant seeds today for a desirable future tomorrow. Enhancing this ability also develops or strengthens pathways in the brain that prepare us to better handle other crises (e.g., climate change) in ways that build bridges.
This ability includes at least two difficult but effective steps.
First, pause and become present to yourself. Notice your internal reactions and hang out with them for a while, without judgment, so you can understand the source. Include body sensations in your overall awareness. Pausing and becoming aware of what is going on inside you is key to learning and consciously choosing how you want to respond.
For example, “My heart is beating fast and my shoulders and tummy are tight. I feel angry. I want to blame someone for…(What’s on your list? Losing your job? Not being able to get a haircut? Having to educate your kids at home while working full time?). I want to blame the Democrats (or the Republicans or the Chinese or Blacks or Latinx or …). I want to picket city hall and demand action. (Pause.) What’s under my anger? I’m scared of getting sick and dying. I’m scared I’ll never find another job and I won’t be able to feed my family. Hanging out with this fear is tough. I want it all to go away. I will stay with this for a few moments so I can figure out what I really want and how best to proceed.”
A week ago, I realized that I was getting a bit overwhelmed by grief and rage. Grief at the numbers who are dying, particularly among black and brown people; rage at the racist attacks on people of color; and rage verging on hatred for elected politicians who appear to care more about themselves and their political futures than they do about the residents of this country.
This was a hard one for me. I don’t think of myself as someone who hates anyone. So, after pausing and being with these difficult emotions, I asked myself, how does this grief and rage differ from the anger of those storming the Capitol steps in Lansing, Michigan? The object differs but the reaction does not. I moved to the second step.
Second, make a conscious choice about what you really want: to break or bridge? Do you want to vent your anger at someone else’s expense, maybe yelling at (or shooting) a clerk in a store who asks you to put on a mask? Holding a picket sign or wielding a gun on the steps of a state capitol and hurling epithets at whomever you think is to blame? These are breaking actions.
If you really want to make the situation better perhaps you could consider checking in on a neighbor, purchasing and delivering food to your grandparents, or calling friends and telling them you have been thinking about them. You could also learn how this virus spreads so quickly despite people’s best efforts to stay safe, mourn for all those we have lost, as well as wearing a mask and washing your hands. These are bridging actions.
I have the immense privilege of working with clients, colleagues, and students online. I also get to spend time throughout my week writing, reading, walking, and connecting with friends. I decided to use these activities for bridging with others, even for example in writing this post.
Even if you are working full time, homeschooling, or trying to survive on unemployment, how much time and emotional coin do you spend on fear, anger, and blame? Are there moments when you could choose bridging instead of breaking apart from people in your family, neighborhood, workplace, or the people serving you at the grocery store or delivering the mail?
The only way to arrive at a conscious choice is to become present to yourself and investigate what is going on inside. This opens opportunities for other ways to respond. Although current circumstances still might seem threatening, you can choose to see this time as an opportunity to help others and have more meaningful conversations with family, friends, and colleagues.
Professor powell suggests that times such as these invite us, perhaps require us, to consider what this current crisis is telling us about who we are AND who we are becoming. I know that choosing to bridge is an essential part of who I hope we are becoming.
With admiration and appreciation for the contributions each of you is making or will make to build bridges among us in your own big and small ways,
P.S. Organizations in my region that are doing critical bridging work during this pandemic are Cooperation Humboldt that is hosting the Humboldt COVID19 Response Coalition and the Humboldt Area Foundation that is seeking out and responding to needs in our communities. Please check their websites and contribute what you can to support their work.