This article first appeared on Happify.
There are times when it feels like we’ve hit the limits of our ability to hold on. And then life asks even more of us. Collectively, it seems like we’re living through one of those times.
The past two years have depleted our resources; even those who have faced less fallout from the pandemic are feeling anxious and distressed about the state of the world. It feels like we’re hurtling toward disaster and unable to stop. And now, we’re left to watch the events in Ukraine in horror and helplessness as our hearts break apart.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the role those of us in the Western world have at this stage of our collective journey. And I believe our world is calling us to show up with, in the words of Zen Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., strong backs and soft fronts. We must use our ability to stay balanced during tough times while opening our hearts in compassion.
These appear to be opposing qualities, but they have the same source. The resiliencef a strong back and the compassion of a soft front both require us to be present to the way things are.
When we open up to the little joys, we build our reservoir of resilience. When we sit with and fully absorb loss, pain, and grief rather than running away from them, our hearts become more supple. And as author and activist Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D., writes of supple hearts, “When heartbreak comes, the heart breaks open and not apart.”
If you’re feeling anxious or distressed, yet want to be engaged in work that makes a difference, begin by opening up to the world and its innumerable delights and deep sorrows, because the world provides both in plenty. There’s always beauty amid the burning, and joy intertwined with the pain. We’re being called to see the beauty, not so we turn away from the pain, but so we can feel the hurt and do something about it.
Sometimes gratitude can be used as “spiritual bypassing,” a term introduced by the late psychotherapist John Welwood, Ph.D., to describe the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep emotional issues. I know I have unknowingly used gratitude to do so in the past, especially during the peak of the pandemic when I couldn’t deal with my children’s negativity over the shutdowns.
However, heartfelt gratitude is different, because it isn’t about ideas and behaviors. Instead, it engages the heart by inviting us to notice the many small ways the world gives itself to us.
Some examples of ways to do this include spending a few minutes every day in nature and noticing the sights and sounds that make you feel part of the larger flow of life. Or taking a few minutes at night to ask questions of yourself: What nourished me today? What brought a spark of joy into my life? What made me feel connected and secure?
Let whatever comes up be your truth; your morning Frappuccino is as valid an answer as giving your coffee away to a homeless person.
In a world where our locus of control is limited, we’re being asked to do the inner work of staying present to the suffering of others even when we can’t fix it. It isn’t easy; we’re wired to run away from pain and to run toward pleasure. And the world offers us many distractions to do so.
Even now, as I watch the images and read the accounts of the suffering in Ukraine, I find myself yo-yoing between rage and cynicism. And I often feel an almost overwhelming desire to distract myself because of the whirlwind of emotions
Yet I know that being human is about recognizing our common suffering and knowing that pain felt on the other side of the world can become pain inside of us if we can’t sit with it. Self-compassion allows us to do so. It helps us be with ourselves in loving acceptance and asks curious questions that heal: Where does it hurt? What do I fear? What does my heart say? What do I long for?
When I ask myself these questions, I feel a wave of fear for my children and the world I’ll leave behind for them. I feel a longing for the world as I knew it, the innocence of an earlier era, of childhood days floating paper boats in puddles of water, of lazy summer breaks where no one scolded us that we’d fall behind in society’s race to the top.
When I can be present to the loss and grief without judging it, I feel the urge to protect what is still beautiful and innocent. That, I believe, is the work cut out for us:
To protect what we cherish.
To protect what is glorious and true.
To plant the seeds even if we don’t live to see them grow.
Wholehearted leaders have been doing so for generations. They are the people who marched and demonstrated in the civil rights struggle, the women of the Syrian revolution, the Ukrainian people, and all the women and men in war-torn regions who fight to protect what is good, true, and possible in the world. They are showing us the meaning of true courage.