By David Jones
2016 has been angry, anxious and sorely lacking in compassion—compassion for others, and compassion for self.
November 8th I got off work and met up with my fiancée to go vote. I was trying to stave off an anxiety attack the whole way there. It was my first time voting, at age 51, and due to the campaign I was a shaky mess.
Growing up in Nevada, Missouri (a town correctly pronounced Neh VAY duh, mispronounced in many ways) a hundred miles south of Kansas City, politics hardly figured into my young life. Politicians were viewed as dishonest and lying, and as out-of-touch with real people like those that were farmers—real people like my family. I didn’t care if anyone voted.
But 2016 was such a perfect storm of anxiety that it moved people to get involved who had traditionally not bothered. With that much tension, the Post-Election period would become an immersive exercise in acrimony. Everyone was just hurt and scared and mad.
If you weren’t careful, you might think the whole universe was unravelling, when it was really just another example of choosing attachment instead of acceptance.
Here’s what I mean: large segments of America not only hold specific beliefs and views, those things inform their self-identity. When your views become an integral and indivisible part of who you are, any challenge to them is automatically an attack against you personally.
When my psychologist was teaching me about mindfulness as a way to live life that wouldn’t result in me stepping in front of a speeding semi, I became hyper-focused on one aspect because it’s what I was so weak in: acceptance.
I had notions of how people should be in my life, how marriage, parenthood, sexual relations, family and career should look and behave. Because I insisted on reality matching how I wanted things to be (and reality wasn’t in the mood to accommodate lil’ ol’ me) I was thoroughly miserable for a good decade.
My psychologist asked, “Have you ever thought of not insisting the world be a certain way? Maybe letting go of what you expect and accepting how things and people actually are?”
No. Absolutely not. Because accepting things as they are is defeatism. It’s giving up. It’s frankly unfair!
Yeah, it took a lot of work for him to open my mind to acceptance. But it also took me getting to a point where I was willing to stop insisting things be fair and accommodating. In other words, I couldn’t accept things until I got the place personally where I would.
And that’s where we are today. People don’t want to accept the way things and people are. Since they won’t, they can’t. Efforts to make folks accept the way things are will not only be unsuccessful, they’re likely to set their determination in concrete. Push a person into a corner and they usually come lunging out of it with teeth and nails presented (which makes others more determined to make them change).
I blogged a lot about acceptance once I got to the point where I could, well, accept it. This was a hard-fought accomplishment, because I have a Rescuing personality. In my marriage and life, I felt the compulsion to fight for change. That was true even if it meant robbing people of their personal sovereignty by deciding for them how they needed to be.
So as this year’s presidential election looked, I found myself within a Facebook tempest, trying to “help people see matters the right way.” I wanted to challenge every argument which was based on ideologies I didn’t share. I couldn’t let any fearful, conspiracy-based post exist without wanting to challenge it.
I felt that was only fair, only right.
But it totally wasn’t my job to steer how others felt and thought. They have the right to view things their way. Instead of trying to join an online dust-up that would not help anyone and which would only toss my emotions over a cliff, I could have shrugged and gone to watch a movie I enjoyed.
In time, my therapist’s voice cut through the anger and anxiety I was sinking beneath.
Could I be okay even if others believed something I didn’t?
I could choose to wade into the fray and express my views, but was it compassionate towards them to add another voice that just came across as another person attacking them? Wouldn’t it be compassionate on my part to accept their disagreement?
I still chose to get involved in many discussions, but I also chose compassion. I can refrain from adding pain and anger to others as well as to myself. If people insult me, attack me, or drown my newsfeed in dubious reportage, I can choose to log off social media and do something pleasant.
Watching SpongeBob, professional wrestling and Mystery Science Theater won’t fix the world or rescue others from their views. But they wouldn’t make matters worse for folks either, and I mindfully chose to have more chuckles than tears.
I can live with people who passionately argue about things without needing to “fix” those people, especially if my efforts would actually lead to more anguish. They are free to follow their path along with any pain, fear, or anger that path includes.
And if others feel I’m uncaring, irresponsible, and even cowardly for choosing my own path, I can live with that too.
David Jones has a 27-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
Editor: Dana Gornall