How to Keep Your Heart Beating

Before I went to sleep last night I reminded myself that I had a blog to write, and ran through the general outline of my idea for this week.  I woke up, enjoyed some breakfast, sat in the sun for a bit, and checked facebook.  Suddenly I didn’t have a plan anymore - my calendar was immediately and coldly cleared, as my hopes for the day were suddenly pulled and distorted into the black hole of tragedy.  Lucky as I am to not know anyone personally involved in the shooting at Pulse, I can’t keep the pain of such a horror from entering my chest.  This is the reality of tragedy, that it is impersonal in its ability to cross boundaries, insatiable in its ability to demand attention, and implacable in its ability to cause pain.

I’ll say this before jumping in to this post - I count myself among the blessed for having the opportunity to choose to engage with this tragedy, rather than being forced to.  Though I cannot choose whether or not I feel pain when I hear about this, I am privileged enough to not be personally effected.  And not just because I don’t live there, but because as an ostensibly straight person I don’t come away from this feeling like my life is in danger.  I don’t have to research any part of this to try and regain my safety, I don’t have to get involved in gun control because I feel like I’m on the target list; I have the privilege of stepping in to honor my conscience rather than protect my neck.

And that all points to something worth keeping in mind: one of the great difficulties of working with tragedy in ourselves is that it’s terrifying.  Two things happen within us when tragedy enters our lives - we feel incredible pain, and we think that we are in incredible danger.  These two separate phenomena happen simultaneously, and encode together in our minds.  So whenever we feel the pain, our brains and bodies respond as if we are in danger.  Whenever we think we are in danger, we feel the pain.

This dual-encoding creates problems for working with tragedy.  Which is a complicated way of saying that any time you try and engage with something like this, it’s utterly overwhelming.  Who wants to feel incredible pain and incredible fear at the same time?  So when working with tragedy therapeutically, when the goal is to bring a client into relationship with their feelings, you must first create a sense of total safety for your client.  I do this through a process called resourcing, a process of inducing a state of safety within a client by inviting them to “dream in” to a safe memory or imagined experience.

This is all in support of getting to the pain, which for a lot of clients seems like a lot of effort to go through in order to end up at a very uncomfortable place.  Why bother?  Who wants to feel something so overwhelming?  Because tragedy, like I said above, will spread itself out over our whole lives.  Tragedy puts fear into us, it cows us and silences us, it steals our hope for the future and replaces it with dread for the present.  Tragedy pushes us away from ourselves, darkens our internal light, and coerces us into fearful hate.  We have to fight against this urge!  Squeezing the joy out of life is hard enough without some monster reaching into your heart and keeping it from beating, we simply cannot afford to give in to the demands of tragedy.

So we must feel in to the pain, allow it and welcome it, even cradle it.  In this way, we allow the reality of tragedy to occur and move on: it hurts beyond everything we think we can bear, but we do bear it.  And having done so, we can say to ourselves that we are greater than this thing that looked so much bigger than us.  And that is when we are free to go after the second effect, the fear.  Fear is a thought that lies on top of a feeling, and so we deal with it by engaging with the feeling, and then proving to ourselves that the thought is just a little story.  We take action, we move against the grain of our fear, and we prove that it cannot predict the future.

Today as I continue to look out across my facebook feed and to talk to my loved ones, I am glad to see this happening.  People are stepping in to this tragedy and engaging with it, from something as abstract as a petition against gun sales or a retweet against Islamophobia to actions as direct as donating blood in Orlando.  This is what we must do when faced with tragedy, we must work to scrub it from our corner of the world.  We cannot prevent its entrance, but we can hasten its departure.  Tragedy is a reminder that this world is waiting for us to make it better, if we can get out from under the thumb of fear.