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Thursday, March 26, 2020

How We Treat Each Other Matters

In times of crisis, perhaps the truest indicator of our humanity is how we treat one another. It is relatively easy to be nice to one another in the early stages of a crisis - even six feet apart - but as
the crisis deepens our true character emerges. There is nothing about capitalism that supports our efforts to be kind, and fear magnifies that trend. A small, but telling, example of this is the Wing Stop restaurant chain. They are fine with allowing third party delivery drivers to ensure they can remain open and continue making a profit, but since they have closed their restrooms to customers they won't allow delivery drivers to use them either. Not only is this sub-human treatment, it misses the point entirely on a practical level. While customers can return to their homes to use the restroom after picking up their food, it isn't practical for a delivery driver to do so. As this trend continues, there simply won't be people willing to risk their health and make less money doing it as they chase around town looking for a place to relieve themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen children playing in their yard wearing medical
gloves and/or face masks. To what end? Given social distancing restrictions in place almost everywhere and shut down orders (under various names) in others, how is your child going to be exposed? What's more, gloves aren't going to do anything to protect anyone who isn't actively caring for sick patients, and your children using them as playthings contributes to an already critical shortage. Related to this is widespread hoarding, at first of toilet paper and sanitizers, but now of almost everything. Store shelves are often nearly empty, despite many stores adding staff and shortening hours to allow them more time to restock. I spoke with an employee at the local WalMart recently, who told me that people line up outside their doors for the seven a.m. opening time and then literally run into the store when the doors are unlocked, attempting to keep others from getting more of the things they all have already stockpiled. Our behavior has degraded significantly already, and locally we are only a few weeks into the panic.

The truth is that there is a long way to go in this pandemic. It won't be over by Easter, no matter what clueless politicians might say. Our stress levels will only be magnified by running around frantically searching for things we already have. On the other hand, people are already struggling with staying at home. Many of these people, when they go on vacation, spend hours sitting in a boat or on a beach and find doing nothing quite relaxing. At home, however, it is a struggle. It seems to me this indicates one of two problems. Either you aren't happy with the other people who live in your home or you need constant distraction to avoid looking at your own feelings. Either way, there is no better time to address these problems than right now. What else are you doing?

This crisis, like every other crisis before it, will pass in time. We can choose to learn from it and grow, or forget about it as quickly as possible and lose the opportunity. The first option will leave us better prepared for the next crisis, and we can be sure it it will come. The second option will leave us in a worse place when that next crisis comes, because we will be convinced our maladaptive behaviors are our only choice. Which will you choose?

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Break in the Action

We interrupt our series on Trauma in the Spiritual Life to discuss something we may all be getting close to being tired of hearing about - COVID 19, or the Corona Virus. Despite perhaps being tired of hearing about it and wondering if anything else is going on in the world (plenty is!), I would be remiss if I didn't mention it here in this blog.

The unknown is one of the most stressful things for us to deal with, and in this new virus we are confronted with more unknowns that certainties. We aren't absolutely sure how the virus is transmitted, though we believe that one way is through coming into contact with secretions from
infected people. Sneezes, coughs, runny noses, and - for some of you - your habit of drooling uncontrollably will transmit the virus. As with many diseases, we don't seem to need to be having symptoms to be carriers and transmitters of this illness. That means we can have it, not know it, and pass it on to someone who may be killed by it without either of us knowing.

Despite mixed messages from government officials, fools running off to spring break not caring that they may come home and infect those who can't afford to have this illness, and all of the other nonsense that is going on, we can do the right thing. We can stay home if we feel sick, and we can keep a safe distance from one another even if we feel fine. Despite the fact that we are conditioned to an unhealthy level of busyness, it isn't good for us and we will survive slowing down. In fact, it will be good for us! So order some books or some movies, talk with family members who live in your house even though it has been ages since you tried, make babies, call friends. Learn about yourself and others. See what we all have been missing in our flurry of self importance. We may look back on this time as the best of our lives.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

TSL Pt.5: Comfortable in Crisis

One of the perhaps counter intuitive qualities those of us who have experienced trauma tend to develop is a certain level of comfort when operating in crisis. If your house is on fire and you need help getting people out, get your neighbor who has a trauma history. If you see a particularly nasty car accident and there are people calmly helping who are not first responders, the odds are they have a trauma history. It's not just that these folks are calm, it's also that they seem to know what to do. They are comfortable in chaos because they have spent significant time in chaos and coping with the fallout from chaos. They calm people down and direct them where to go with a confident authority, and this isn't an illusion. We should listen to these people in tough times because they handle these situations very well. In fact, many trauma survivors are drawn to helping roles professionally. Walk into your local hospital and you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a staff member who is a trauma survivor. If the cat's tail comes off you will hit several!

What's the problem? The problem is that it isn't healthy for anyone, especially trauma survivors,
to spend time in traumatic situations. We get triggered and our PTSD flares up, setting us back.
Really Bad Advice
We become hypervigilant, our cortisol levels increase in response to stress causing systemic inflammation. Our minds literally become our body's worst enemy. Remember, the familiar is comfortable because it is familiar, not because it is good for us! In spiritual settings, this can cause us to hang around unhealthy environments and leaders. Your pastor may remind you of your father, but if Dad was an alcoholic with rage issues you may want to consider if your pastor is the kind of fella who can help you on your spiritual journey!

As we work through our histories and seek to move forward in a healthier manner, our spirituality will be a huge part of our recovery. It's good to be aware that there may also be places in our spiritual history where trauma or its effects can hide. That's neither good nor bad, it just is. We may read or hear stories from our particular spiritual tradition that remind us of our own trauma history. Recognizing what is happening will help us to avoid being triggered in the future. Finding time and places to relax where we feel safe is always an important part of the journey!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Trauma and the Spiritual Life Pt.4 - Letting Go of the Past

I had the occasion to meet with some western Buddhists in our space at Compassionate Heart recently. I should tell you that since Compassionate Heart is an Interspiritual Space (something of a radical notion here in conservative Milwaukee, where local time is about 1982) and so we have
images from many different faith traditions. One of our Buddhist guests said, with roughly the same inflection you might expect when asking about dismembered young children sacrificed in a satanic ritual piled up in a corner, "are those Christian images?!?"

I certainly understand that many of us have been burned by traditions to which we have belonged in the past. It is natural, for a time, to harbor some animosity. Perhaps counter intuitively, those feelings are not signs of progress but rather of being stuck. When we have bad experiences in religious traditions it's not the founders of the tradition who have burned us but rather its contemporary representatives. We experienced a bad teacher or a bad pastor, a foolish doctrine or policy, perhaps some retrograde fellow adherents who were intolerant of something about us. Neither Jesus, the Buddha, nor Mohammad showed up and announced, "I hate you!" screaming it to our faces in front of an assembly of all of our peers. Despite that truth, yoga studios, Buddhist sanghas, Hindu temples, Unitarian Universalist churches, and therapist's
couches are filled with people who believe precisely that. As long as we feel that way, the traditions we have left behind still have a hold over us.

When we do the hard work of healing our wounds, we necessarily come face to face with what happened. We come to see precisely who wounded us. Invariably it was people and policies, not the entirety of a tradition. Those people were surrounded by an institution that arose and created rules and forms to which members were required to adhere, but those things are later developments. Jesus never said, "exclude that woman's mother from Communion because she is divorced," no matter how much the Roman Catholic Church might like you to believe he did. It is only when we come to understand and feel that distinction that we can begin to heal. It is only when we begin to heal that we can authentically participate in our new tradition. Until then, it will only be a place of refuge from those nasty people over there. To be healthy, we need to move from being Buddhists who are Buddhists because they don't want to be Christians to being Buddhists who are Buddhists because they want to be Buddhists. That is where healthy spirituality begins!