Healing: agency, accountability and action

 

Two weeks ago I wrote about how the US election had galvanized me to think about the power of acceptance, openness and curiosity in the process of healing. This week I want to continue that discussion because I believe that this power is only available to us with three additional components: agency, accountability and action.

Acceptance is not resignation. Acceptance involves seeing reality as it is, starting where we actually are, not where we would like to be. To accept reality does not require us to assent or accede to the rightness of being in that place. In other words, acceptance requires recognizing and claiming agency. Resignation is the abdication of our agency. It looks at the world from a stance of fear and paralysis. Acceptance, on the other hand, operates from a stance of hope and creativity; it tells others that we are ready to investigate where our values can help us alter our reality for the better.

Openness is not “anything goes.” When we are open, we seek to understand what might be driving people’s behavior, rather than dismissing them out of hand as crazy, stupid or incompetent. This is not the easy stance of rubber-stamping all points of view or all types of behavior, however. Instead, openness is accompanied by accountability. We hold ourselves and others to the standard that words and actions have consequences. Nor, moreover, does being open mean we take the pressure off those acting in ways that cause pain or harm or violate the principles and ethics we believe govern a fair and just society.

Curiosity is not passive voyeurism. To be curious means to fight apathy, boredom and indifference. Curiosity is more than that the blind consumption of whatever information is offered to us. It is the active search for truth and ability to face that truth honestly. Being curious obliges us to examine our beliefs and assumptions and seek data sources with regard to their accuracy, authority, timeliness, objectivity and completeness, as opposed to whether they support our personal position or the received wisdom. Curiosity also means that when we take action based on the best available data, we reflect on the outcomes we get and adjust our actions accordingly to improve performance the next time.

Acceptance, openness and curiosity involve work. Let’s do that work together and find out where agency, accountability and action, and our diverse approaches to healing, can take us.


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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Healing: agency, accountability and action

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

Encountering a situation where diversity is not respected, where we feel excluded or shamed or stigmatized simply for being who we are, or for striving to be who we want to become, is typically accompanied by painful emotions. Being made to feel less than due to membership in a particular class of people, possession of, or a failure to possess, a particular characteristic or trait, or identifying with a cause, creed or group, results in feelings of grief, fear and despair. According to Miriam Greenspan, “…we are schooled to endure, deny, bypass [or transcend], avenge, and escape painful emotions. These five common ways of coping have their strengths and weaknesses, but for the most part they aren’t conducive to healing and transformation” (pp. 58-59, Healing Through the Dark Emotions). Understanding how utilizing any of these five coping strategies can block our growth and well-being, will help us to create ways to work with and through our painful emotions instead.

Endurance is the ability to withstand suffering without collapsing” (p. 59). Endurance can be a valuable skill in the short term, allowing us to survive long enough to reappraise our situation and regain our strength. However the longer we simply put up with things that cause us suffering, the more we give up our power and our agency, our ability to be the authors of our own lives. In addition, if we don’t question the system or individuals whose actions we are enduring, we may never learn that there is the possibility for change.

Denial is the unconscious detachment from emotion and the truth that emotion holds” (p. 60). Judicious use of denial can help us to accomplish tasks that might otherwise appear to be beyond our capabilities due to fear of failure or concerns about our performance. However when we push our suffering away, we are unable to hear the messages that our painful emotions hold, messages that let us know that we are being harmed. When we can process these messages, we can ask for the help we need.

[Spiritual bypass] denies the evils of earthly existence and declares that only love and light are ‘real’…” (p. 60). Privileging the good things in our lives can lead to an increased sense of gratitude and stop us from limiting our dreams and desires. However when we restrict our focus to what is positive, we may mortgage our present for some ideal future that will never arrive because we have not properly assessed the challenges and obstacles before us.

In vengeance, we neither bury nor rise above our suffering; we get mad and we get even” (p. 61). When we avenge a wrong by concentrating on how we can make the world a better place, we can build a stronger community that is able to learn from the suffering of its members. However by turning our attention outward, to the other, we can miss the impact our painful experience had on our souls, we may fail to see how we were diminished and that we need time and space to heal and rejuvenate.

Buying, owning, using gadgets, consuming experiences — these are the hallmarks of a culture of escape; so is the inability to tolerate silence. The most extreme forms of escape with the most devastating consequences are addictions” (p. 62). Distraction can be a powerful tool when we use it to give our minds and souls space to work through difficult and troubling experiences outside our conscious awareness. However, unlike all of the other coping mechanisms that begin with some acknowledgement, no matter how fleeting, that something bad is happening, distraction is an escape from the recognition that we are hurting. When we mask our pain with action and make no time for quiet reflection, we may be undermining our ability to recognize when we are suffering and immerse ourselves in distractions even when life is good.

When things are tough and grief, fear and despair threaten to overwhelm us, we can turn to one of the five coping strategies above. We can also decide to look at our experience and sit with the feelings it arouses. By allowing ourselves to process the dark emotions rather than endure, deny, bypass, avenge or escape them, we have the opportunity for learning. To help us achieve wisdom and transformation, Greenspan (p. 268) suggests asking ourselves:

  • “Out of knowing and being with my (fear, grief, despair), my task is to…
  • When I view my dark emotions as teachers I learn…
  • Instead of avoiding dark emotions, I can use them creatively by…

Respecting rather than replacing our fear, despair and grief can repay us in dividends of self-compassion, joy and healing.


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

 

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

The landscape of healing

This week I want to introduce to my next Inspiration Shout-Out — Healing through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan. The book’s message is one of hope and wholeness, for the individual as well as for the wider world. It focuses on the alchemy that is possible when we embrace our emotions in all their diversity and all their fullness.

“Dark emotions don’t go away. They simply come to us in whatever form we can bear.”
p. 27

In 2007, I was very afraid. After a number of inconclusive tests, I was due to have surgery. No one could tell me what the surgery would entail, but one possible outcome was that cancer would be discovered and I’d require extensive surgery and a long recovery period, likely to be followed by some sort of additional treatment. Luckily, no cancer was found and the operation was very positive in physical terms.

The emotional landscape had been changed, however. While both grief and despair surfaced, it was the fear that remained most acute. Not having cancer was indeed a relief, and yet I wasn’t relieved of the fear that I was not really in control. From the fear that my body would betray me (again), blossomed a fear of failure and incompetence. Being unable to think my way out of my medical issues scared me into believing that I might also be unable to think my way out of other challenging life situations.

“You don’t surrender by moving away from what hurts. You surrender by moving into what hurts, with awareness as your protection. This is not ‘detachment’ in the conventional sense; it’s a connected detachment: staying connected to emotional energy mindfully. The detachment comes from being mindful, not from disconnecting.”
p. 78

To heal I had to come to grips with a new understanding of the world, namely that sometimes the only “rational” explanation is that there is no explanation. There is no thought process or logic that can save you. Even coming as it did after years of managing chronic health issues, years of needing to ask for and gratefully accept help, this was and remains a hard lesson to integrate.

As with feelings so with other aspects of our inner lives: we need to surrender to their existence, we need to make them personal without taking them personally. The fear, the pain, the suffering were mine, yes, but seeing them as an affront or as an attack on me personally would have moved me away from, rather than toward, greater awareness and connection. When we can stop attempting to “handle” our dark emotions and instead try to listen to them with an open heart, when we can embrace them as a message about our health and wholeness, we have new energy to channel into becoming our true selves.

 


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The landscape of healing