Since the start of the pandemic, like so many of you, my emotions have been a roller coast ride. But one day earlier this week as I was reading the news on my back porch with my coffee and dog, a wave of sadness washed over me. Bigger than anything I’ve experienced in this chaos, it caught me by surprise as tears rushed to my eyes.
Doctors and nurses are drowning with no lifeboats in sight. Teachers are hanging on a cliff waiting to hear final decisions about schools reopening. Business owners go to work, wondering if today is the day someone walks in and threatens or commits violence because they’re asked to wear a mask.
Every day, I learn more about the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. I imagine just how many people are walking the floor with desperate worry about loved ones they can’t be with. How many are bent over double with grief from the loss of spouses, partners, parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and children?
I’ve been reading book after book on racism, and my thoughts are filled with my African American friends and people of color I don’t know and never will. How do they bear the truth of what happened to their ancestors – the beatings, rape, torture and lynchings? How do they stomach the murders of people like Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, to mention just a few from a long list.
I can’t help but compare my own life experiences to those of others I’m so conscious of right now.
So far, my family and friends have been spared the virus, but not so for over 3 million people in our country which includes over 135,000 deaths. And we know there’s more to come.
None of my ancestors were enslaved. None of my relatives were hung from a tree simply because of the color of their skin. And we know that racism still rages in this country and that more tragedies are likely to happen.
You wouldn’t know it by reading this, but I’m a hopeful person by nature. Down inside, burning low but steady under this heavy blanket of sadness, my hope survives.
This time we’re living in has brought some hard truths our way. To fully wake up means seeing it all, feeling it all, living with it all. As much as it hurts, I choose being awake, knowing what I know, with every bit of this heartbreak and every ounce of this sorrow.
Having come of age in the 1960s, I must say that the events of the last week took me right back to that turbulent and shocking time of the Civil Rights movement – protests, marches, police brutality, terror and the unthinkable suffering of our Black citizens.
There I sat in our living room, staring at the TV as my parents tried their best to offer an explanation which would make sense to a fourteen year old white southern girl. Nothing they said worked.
I have not lived the fifty years since then under the illusion that our nation’s issues of race have been resolved, not even as I’ve seen people of color advance in every field and be elected to positions of power. Not even as I’ve seen a Black man be elected president.
The last few years have stripped away any veneer of racial equality which we may have wanted to believe we’ve achieved. The systemic racism which has existed for hundreds of years in this country is alive and well, and it continues to terrorize, enrage, breed despair and break hearts.
Have we come no further than this? As James Baldwin wrote, “There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.” But something IS different this time. Maybe at last, we are willing to know some things about ourselves, painful as they may be, and to do things differently.
White people have taken to the streets in droves to protest alongside their black friends, most of them young. They too carry signs proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.” They too are angry and willing to risk their safety to stand with people of color in their communities.
In Louisville, Kentucky, a line of white women, arms locked, stood between the police and black protesters. This is how they decided to turn their privilege into protectiveness.
In Michigan, a sheriff took off his helmet and walked with protesters. In other places, police officers have knelt with demonstrators. I saw a photo on Facebook of an officer giving a bottle of water to a young black man.
Here in Greensboro, the CEO of one of our largest employers issued a corporate memo with the subject line, “Taking a Stand for Racial Justice.” Groups are being formed by white people on Facebook to inspire activism, and white ministers are calling for their congregations to take a stand.
All of this gives me hope.
What heartens me the most however, because I believe it is the basis of the systemic change needed to really turn the tide, is this: White people, myself included, are finally willing to look in the mirror and see the subtle prejudice and racist thinking which exists in the recesses of our unconscious minds.
We are willing to admit that we don’t really know much about the black experience in America and that we have not challenged ourselves to learn. Not really.
We white folks, it seems to me, are willing now to fully take up the mantle of responsibility of ending racism and are coming to realize it starts within through uncomfortable inner examination and the commitment to grow in new and uncertain ways.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that I don’t know much of anything about what black people really and truly have endured, what I call “the inside of the experience” because I’ve only witnessed it from the outside – maybe with a heart of compassion, but still on the outside of their experience, and also on the outside of my own.
Inner transformation is the foundation for any real change to come about in every area of life. It all starts as an inside job.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said. There is a universe out there, and there is a universe inside each of us. My hope lies in the fact that as we white people awaken more fully to our inner moral universe, we will ride its arc in permanent solidarity with our black brothers and sisters toward that long-awaited place of justice, equality, freedom and peace.
This virus is here, and if you’re anything like me, you may be getting a little tired of people telling you to stop living in fear. Well, here’s my self-righteous response to that:
I am fully capable of living WITH fear while not living IN fear.
It’s okay if we’re afraid. It’s a perfectly normal human response to a scary situation over which we have no power.
Fear, if denied, can wreak havoc on our emotional, physical and spiritual selves. Pushing it down doesn’t serve us. Just like a burp, it’s going to come out whether we want it to or not. I promise you, it’s going to find a way.
Sufi mystic and poet Rumi tells us that “this being human is a guest house.” He says to welcome all our feelings even if they “violently sweep” our houses clean of its furniture.
Well, I’m not nearly as clever with the written word at my dear friend Rumi, but here is a little something I’ve thought up which maybe you’ll find useful when fear comes to your door for a visit.
F – Feel it. We all hate to hear that, but I think it’s important. Feel your heart beating faster than usual, your stomach tightening up… and breathe. Slowly. Consciously. Use a prayer or mantra or not. Count or don’t. Just breathe. In…out…in…out. Slowly, now. You’ve got it!
E – Expect to be afraid. Why wouldn’t you be? This is pretty damn frightening. So don’t be surprised that you are and, for heaven’s sake, don’t be disappointed with yourself. Here’s another E – Everyone is afraid, at least from time to time. If they say they’re not, then they are either made of ice or not telling the truth. Just my opinion.
A – Ask for some help if you need it. Call, email, use Facebook, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype. Lord, there are no excuses for not being able to reach someone these days. Staying connected really matters right now. Call someone up and tell them you’re afraid. If they say you shouldn’t live in fear, tell them your dog needs to go to the bathroom and hang up.
R – Redirect your attention. Find something to do. I don’t care if it’s meditation, taking a walk, baking a cake, learning a new language, or painting your overgrown toenails. Just do it. Turn your mind towards something else. If the news is on, turn it off. At least for a little while. Go find something to do.
Rumi says to “welcome and entertain” our feelings, to “be grateful for whoever comes.” I can’t tell you I’m grateful for my fear. I’m just not that evolved, I guess.
So, dear Rumi, I’m not entertaining my fear, as you suggest. I’m not snuggling up with it or even fixing it a cup of coffee in the mornings. I’m not going to let it take over my household, but it does look like it’s going to be here a while.
What I am doing is buckling down, and with hope by my side, learning to live with this visitor named Fear. It’s my home, after all, and Fear is just going to have to learn to live with me!
It is a grit-filled grace that enables us to make difficult decisions in the face of a sometimes desperate reality, choices that either spring us forward in the evolutionary process or threaten to do us in as a species.
–Judy Cannato, Radical Amazement, p. 64
Cannato’s use of the term “grit-filled” to describe grace captured me. It’s not just the blessing of grace that is holding us up in this desperate time but also determination and firmness of mind and spirit. This grit is embedded in the grace we’re receiving right now just like affection and warmth is embedded in those hugs and handshakes we can’t receive.
No one knows for sure how long this virus will last. We’re all making difficult choices about how to keep ourselves and others safe. Our most critical far reaching choice, however, may be how we are going to respond as a collective when this is over.
This virus is creating the most global suffering of any kind I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. You too, perhaps. Not that I believe the virus was “sent to” us by whatever might do that kind of sending, but I do wonder what it means for us whose future, some would argue, hangs in the balance.
Great suffering seems to be the catalyst that creates a path of transformation within individuals and for societies as a whole. All civilizations undergo major shifts that move them along in their evolutionary process. Surely this virus is not for naught. Surely, there is a huge shift underway for us.
We will eventually get through this. Exhausted and traumatized, no doubt, but we will come through this darkness and out the other side.
It is said that the Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two characters, meaning danger and opportunity. I believe that new opportunities for us to live differently in every way will present themselves when this danger has passed.
I pray that these opportunities are so profound and obvious that we can’t possibly miss them. I pray that we are so awakened to the “grit-filled grace” that got us through this experience, that the only response we can give when these opportunities arrive is a “Yes” so powerful that it will be heard around the world and into the heavens.