Yesterday, like so many of you, I woke up in a state of shock and sadness. When I got out of bed, it was after hours of insomnia followed by restless sleep of nightmare after nightmare, from which I could not force myself to wake. When I did finally regain consciousness, I was covered in sweat, congested, driven crazy by neuropathic itching and muscle twitching, and feeling disoriented. That disorientation followed me like a dark cloud for much of the day.
I too was shocked to learn that our next president will be the one who proudly spews messages of xenophobia, misogyny, classism and bigotry, and who has bragged about getting away with sexual assault. I too have been incredibly disheartened by those in the general populace who now feel more emboldened to do the same. I too continue to fear and rail against bureaucratic policies that perpetually threaten the marginalized. I too remain fed up with a government and media that constantly feed the public fear, spur divisiveness and encourage communal inertia.
When I got up for the day following the election, the apartment was appropriately dark. I dared a glance out the window and saw clouds filling the grey sky. Even the vibrant goldenrod, scarlet and honey leaves of autumn looked faded and depressed without the rays of the sun to illuminate them. My joints and muscles carried the heaviness of looming rain. Sleep-deprivation, humidity, tense muscles and emotional stress are the perfect recipe for dystonia flare-ups, so I knew I had to be gentle with myself for the day.
Yet while I took it fairly easy physically, my self care unfortunately did not fully encompass my emotional state. On the contrary, I found myself unconsciously absorbing the chaos of emotions from my diverse and vocal community on social media. Though I was seeking connection, comfort and unity by going online, I instead found disconnection, division, fear and anger. While some friends were thankfully sharing messages that spoke of hope, love, encouragement, and impassioned calls to action, an overwhelming number of them spouted hate, anger, blame, fear and helpless resignation.
Yesterday, I found my words failing me. It’s not that I was at a loss for words–specifically, about politics, American society and humanity as whole. On the contrary, I had a constant flow of words running through my mind and springing off onto the pages of my journal and on the private screen of my laptop. Unfortunately, when I tentatively tested the waters for offering an alternate perspective online, I was surprised by some of the animosity, bullying and shaming directed at me and toward people like me. Didn’t they realize we were all on the same side? Rather than instinctively react with self-righteousness and annoyed frustration, I chose to mindfully withdraw from the toxic and hostile environment, ensuring my heartfelt words would not be misinterpreted and cause real dissension. I decided, at least for the day, to keep my words private and close to the chest.
Today, I woke up to a sunshine-filled morning, determined to risk doing what it takes to make meaningful connections. Playing it safe is not part of what Brené Brown–a research professor who studies shame, vulnerability, courage, and authenticity–calls wholehearted living. According to Brené, in order to live wholeheartedly, we must cultivate and practice courage, compassion and connection. In her famous TedTalk, The Power of Vulnerability, Brené says, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.” And in order to be really seen, we must confront our fear, show willingness to be vulnerable and risk baring our imperfections. In other words, in order to meaningfully connect with my readers here, I could no longer silence myself.
In those moments of terror when we’re “catastrophizing over what might happen” when we show our true selves, Brené encourages us to stop and take a moment for gratitude, because to feel this vulnerable means we’re alive. Being a living, breathing, feeling human being is proof positive that we are worthy, that we belong and that we have a right to love and to be loved. Not everyone else in society may believe it about us. Perhaps we struggle to believe it about our very selves. But it is nevertheless true. Each of us is valuable and brings meaning and purpose to this world. We must strive to act as if this were true, even if it may take longer for our hearts to believe and our heads to wrap around this certitude.
Because of this truth, we are continually called to acts of bravery by revealing who we really are at our core–underneath the labels, mercurial emotions and the false beliefs we may hold. When we can acknowledge and act from this place of worthiness and authenticity, Brené says, “We stop screaming, and we start listening. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.” What if, instead of blindly reacting out of fear and pain, we pause to remember who really are and want to be, consciously acting from a place of love and compassion?
Speaking Up With Courage
I, for one, no longer want fear to cause me to shut down and check out. More than a month ago, I made the commitment to start building and flexing my courage muscle. One of the first small acts of courage for me was going to a meeting for Toastmasters, an organization geared toward public speaking, the thought of which sometimes terrifies me.
I wrote about my first time attending Toastmasters, and my reasons for doing so, here. At my second meeting, I was captivated by the magnetic presence of speaker Darla Shaw, PhD, who became the first female Toastmaster in the state of Connecticut in 1971. As a young elementary school teacher in the late ‘60s, Darla was continually passed over for leadership roles at her school. This was not because she was thought incapable of excelling in these positions, Darla explained, but because she was painfully shy. She was perceived as passive at parent-teacher meetings, and fellow staff members stole Darla’s great ideas when she wouldn’t speak up at faculty meetings. Her superintendent hated to see Darla’s discomfort outside of the classroom cripple her chances at thriving, so he said the school would pay for Darla to join the local Toastmasters group in order to gain more confidence speaking up.
After sitting through three Toastmasters meetings, Darla was told that women weren’t allowed in the group. When she bravely mentioned getting legal counsel involved, the officers had a 45-minute executive meeting over her unprecedented request to join. After a tense wait, she was told she could be a provisional member and that no concessions would be made for her.
At her first meeting as member, Darla was asked to be secretary, treasurer and community organizer. Yet she took it in stride, even when the pressure became personal. She recalled the other members being especially harsh in their critique of her first speech. “They said [my voice] was high and squeaky,” Darla said. While it was hurtful, she said she kept showing up and speaking up.
The men, most of whom were engineers, also complained that her topics were too boring. However, when Darla participated in her first speech competition, she decided to talk about a popular self-help book for married women that she despised, The Total Woman. Humorously describing author Marabel Morgan’s suggestions that women cover themselves in saran wrap or whipped cream when greeting their husbands after work, Darla received a standing ovation. Yet she–a woman–still came in second place.
Decades later, Darla is an education literacy specialist, professor, historical character actress, kazoo band member, justice of the peace and international lecturer. At the age of 77, she was honored by an invitation to join the Green Light Comedy Club. Over the years, Darla has become a bold and proud nonconformist, which earned her a feature in the 2014 documentary called A DIFFERENT DRUMMER: Celebrating Eccentrics, directed by an Academy Award-winning filmmaker.
“Now, I don’t have a fear. I don’t care what someone else might say or think about me,” Darla said during her speech at our local Toastmaster’s meeting, where she was dressed in a brightly colored patchwork coat with matching accessories. “I’m not going to die, saying, ‘I should have…’”
Darla said that joining Toastmasters opens the door to amazing opportunities of all types. She encouraged me to keep showing up and to take every invitation to speak. Inspired by her incredible transformation and passion, I decided to do just that.
On Tuesday, I went to my fourth meeting of Toastmasters, and my first one as member. Energy was high as members pondered the election-in-progress. When it was time for impromptu speeches, the day’s host stated that she was staying away from the theme of the election. Instead, those speakers who wanted to participate would pick from the cards of questions she held in her hand. Remembering the rush I felt from jumping into the previous meeting’s brief, improvisational speech round table on Halloween, I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand again this time.
The two women who spoke before me addressed more straight-forward topics–which traits did one most seek out in a friend and which once-hip childhood fashion trend of another is now decidedly out of-style–but I drew the heavyweight question:
In your opinion, what is the biggest problem we are facing in the world today?
I stared out at the supportive and friendly faces of my fellow community members, cleared my throat and my mind, and boldly began to answer.
Connecting With Compassion
While our society faces serious issues, such as environmental crises, economic marginalization and cultural divisiveness, I said, underlying every single one of them is our notion of separateness. If we could look beyond our different shades of skin color; past whether we’re a Republic, Democrat or Independent; if we can tune out the barrage of messages from media, the government and our communities that emphasize an “us” vs a “them,” we’d realize that we really aren’t so dramatically different from one another at our core. Each of us wants to be he happy and healthy. Every one of us wants to feel safe and secure, to be accepted and appreciated, to love and to be loved. We all want to have purpose and to lead meaningful lives.
We lead meaningful lives when we want to help one another, when we work together as one. If we can focus on what unites us instead of what divides us, I said, all the other problems we face in the world become much more conquerable. If we can learn to truly recognize how deeply connected we are—that what I do affects you, what you do affects me, and what one superpower country does affects us all–we become much more conscientious about our actions.
Why would we be reckless in our clean up of toxins in one part of the country, for example, when we know the devastating effects they can and do have on the wildlife and the environment, on the surrounding community and eventually, on the rest of us? As individuals, communities, corporations or countries, we wouldn’t want to act in such a way that hurts others since we instinctively know that every action we commit reverberates in impact–including right back to you and me.
In truth, we are never really alone and isolated in this world. We surely have our differences, but we are not separate from one another, unless we allow ourselves to be. We must not forget our oneness. If we can learn to fully appreciate and celebrate our shared humanity, then I absolutely believe we can tackle any issue that confronts us personally, in our relationships and as a society.
Standing Strong Together
While I am being slightly more articulate in writing this than I was when I passionately answered on the spot, the message is still exactly the same. Each and every person in that Toastmaster audience nodded his or her head and smiled in recognition. I was relieved to be acknowledged in stating this truth, and perhaps it may resonate with some of you reading this.
Yesterday’s election certainly left shockwaves across the nation–and indeed around the globe–that we struggle with today, and will continue to for weeks, months and even years to come. One prickly man was elected to the highest office in the United States. This man has come to represent what many of us fear and loathe most in our society. What does it mean that so many American people have rallied behind someone spouting most despicable mores, supporting vacuous values and encouraging the basest behaviors? If we acknowledge and appreciate that no man is an island, it means enough of us have bought into the rhetoric that you and I really are very different from another, that we can’t trust one another and that we shouldn’t look out for and care for another. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.