Facing Critical Issues

Karen Stewart, MA

MINDSET

Karen Stewart retired in October 2021, after more than 40 years of practicing psychology. She cares deeply about this planet and all of the people on it, especially the marginalized, socially excluded, and disenfranchised. She believes we are al one and we sink or swim together. She still has something to say.

She can be contacted at:

By Karen Stewart, MA

I love writing these columns. I love thinking about you, my readers and want to offer something that might nourish you or be helpful in some way. It is a sacred experience for me and in the best case feels like it comes from beyond me. Something will come into consciousness that crystalizes what I want to say—often in the middle of the night or early morning. A “random” event will spark a focus. This week my friend Joan gave me The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry and reminded me of the poem below which is a favorite of both of us. If you can spare the time, I hope you will read it slowly and pause for a few minutes to let the peace sink in and fill you.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds,

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world and am free.


What do we do in times like these when we may feel overwhelmed? We may want to stick our heads in the sand, and ignore the problems. Where do we find peace? How do we “rest in the grace of the world” where we can release the burdens we carry?

I humbly offer some suggestions that I have found helpful over the years. If these suggestions do not help or you need something more, then I urge you to reach out to friends, clergy, or therapists for more support. The most important step in healing is to reach out for the help you need.

Start Where We Are

We must always start where we are. Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein advises that we tell ourselves “Sweetheart, you are in pain.” No denial or attempts to ignore or minimize what we feel. We just accept the reality of what is going on with us. We offer ourselves space and enormous compassion and treat ourselves with great tenderness. We offer ourselves all the comfort we would give to a small child who came to us in pain. We might imagine ourselves as children being held by another or the Divine, whatever image is comforting and soothing. We might imagine the words they would say, reminding us that no matter what we feel we are loved and cherished. We rest until the feelings begin to subside and we feel safe and loved.

Mindful Breathing

Slow, mindful breathing is always a good idea. Under stress our breath can become restricted and shallow, or rapid and shallow, both of which increase our stress. Simply being aware of how we are breathing is a good first step. Watching our breath and gently trying to slow and deepen it triggers our relaxation response. As we are gradually able to breathe more slowly and deeply, perhaps letting our exhale be longer than our inhale, we might find that our shoulders come down a few inches and our muscles begin to soften and relax. We can do this breathing exercise whenever we think about it throughout the day.

Staying in the Present

Focusing on our breathing calls us to the present moment and for that moment we can release all our cares and worries and just send healing energy and love to ourselves. Taking time to take care of ourselves in this way can make our days go much better. We are always able to be more effective from a place of calm than a place of fear or anxiety.

At 75, I am learning to accept some major limitations that came as a surprise to me. As I was going through the grief and fear about this new state of things, Samuel, my 2-year grandson taught me an important lesson. He broke his leg! When I initially heard this news, I was filled with concern and fear for him as he coped with this – projecting my issues on to him. He came through the process in an amazing way. At 2, he livesin the present. There was no wailing about not being able to walk, he just went back to crawling. He played a lot of ‘doctor’ which allowed him to process the experience, but there was no fear about what the future would bring. He was slightly distressed when his little green cast came off and sad to part with the nurses and doctor who had been so kind to him, but he just went on his way. He walked a little awkwardly as he got used to nothaving the cast, but a month later he is recovered. I decided to the extent I am able to emulate his behavior—staying in the present, accepting my limitations, making the best of my abilities, and trying to give up worrying about what the future will bring.

Gratitude

Coping with my limitations has also made me very grateful for all the things I can do. All day long I am aware of all that I can do—all that I take for granted. If we are pain free, we can recognize what a gift that is. We can be grateful for whatever senses we have—sight, hearing, touch, smell, appreciating the gifts they bring us every moment of the day. We can be grateful for being able to move—walk, run, bike, swim. Do we have housing? Food? Clothing? Education? Friends? Community? Work? Meaningful activities? On any given day most of us have a myriad of things for which to be grateful.

Finding Joy

We have so many sources of joy! Small things can bring us comfort and joy: a cup of coffee/tea in the morning, being in nature, taking a walk, being with friends, children, or grandchildren. Just thinking about my grandchildren fills my heart with love and happiness. They bring to mind a quote from The Story People: “You make me aware of all there is to love in this world.”

Music and dancing are important, they can be great sources of joy and have positive effects on our health and well-being. Hobbies, sports, reading, whatever nurtures and rejuvenates us. Spending time with others is vital as a source of joy and well-being.

Hope

We can have what Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax calls “wise hope.” “Wise hope” is not sentimental, empty hope, or hope based on actions of others—that this time in the face of another tragedy or crises that things will be different. That kind of hope can lead to despair when once again nothing is done. “Wise hope” is based on our deep knowing that as long as we draw breath, we can do small or large things to make a difference. We can act to make the world a better place. We can look at what upsets us and come up with actions that will feel good to us, will be faithful to our values.

Hope is different from faith, which is more about a sense that we are not alone and that we are all connected, which is also helpful. We remember that others are working to make the better, safer place. I often have this image after a tragedy; it first occurred after 9/11. Those who died from that ultimate expression of hatred created a tear in the fabric of the universe, but their deaths ignited a great, unbounded love experienced all over the world. I met factory workers in Thailand who collected money to send to New York. Anytime tragedies occur I have this same image—a rent in the fabric of the universe followed by an explosion of love that somehow heals the tear. Our job becomes doing what we can to prevent those tragedies from occurring.

Courage

We have courage to continue, accepting what is and doing our best to make things better. Courage is the ability to act even when feeling afraid or inadequate. Our best is not perfect. Our best is being faithful to our beliefs. Sometimes we will fall short, sometimes we may fail altogether, but we pick ourselves up and continue to work to make the world a better place for ourselves and our children.

May we have the courage to face and accept the uncertainty of the future as well as whatever is causing us fear or anxiety, grief, anger, or other emotions in the present. May we experience moments of peace, comfort, hope and gratitude for what is. May we reach out to others and hold each other’s hands—in reality or metaphorically. May we remember that we are all in this together.

We are all small pieces of the puzzles we must solve to make our individual lives better and to ensure the survival of this beautiful world for ourselves and especially for our children and grandchildren. In the book of poetry that Joan gave me was a bookmark from the World Wildlife Foundation with this quote: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” American proverb. Those are words to guide our lives.

Reflections

As I turn 75, I painfully recognize that I am part of a generation that did not live by those words. In our search for progress, we continued the behaviors of previous generations by exploiting the environment to fuel our desires for a good life. We made progress in some areas, but we failed miserably in others. We failed to learn from the wisdom of Native Americans, we did not heed the warnings of environmentalists. We continued to oppress women, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. We did an inadequate job of recognizing and meeting the needs of people of differing abilities. We cannot undo the damage we have caused, but in the brief time we have left, we can work to repair it and support those who are doing the work for the future. The work is about healing—the earth and everything that is a part of her—people and all other forms of animals, forests and plant life, air and water from small streams to the oceans.

Let’s not give up hope, let’s make sure love guides our actions and remember we are all in this together.