Balancing the split screen of suffering and joy
Back in the crazy fall of 2020, I wrote about what I called the psychic phenomenon of "split screen," the strange feeling of balancing the horrendous assaults of the daily news with the serenity and beauty of the tangible world around me.
This is a uniquely 21st century condition, as we spend more and more of our waking hours in a cyberspace dominated by the sense of urgent, never-ending crisis.
I no longer listen to the morning news on the radio, and I stopped watching television a long time ago. But I can't pretend that I don't know that every single moment of every single day, millions of humans and more-than-humans are suffering from human-inflicted violence, destruction and privation.
I know it. I feel it.
And yet, as I wrote in 2020, to carry the weight of all that suffering on my shoulders, all the time, would be unbearable and incapacitating.
That is why I am grateful for the split screen effect, which allows me to acknowledge and honor the pain I am witnessing, while simultaneously nourishing and fortifying myself with awareness of the beauty, love and peace that also exists on this troubled planet.
Of late there has been a growing chorus of activist writers calling for a recognition of the importance of joy and pleasure—not as self-indulgence, but as the necessary soil in which the seeds of our creative resistance to oppression and violence can take root and grow.
For me Adrienne Maree Brown has been a leader in this shift, a strong voice reminding us that we will not be able to care for the world if we don't care for ourselves first.
It's the equivalent of putting on your own oxygen mask before turning to help your neighbor. If I am fainting under the pressure of my anger, fear and sorrow at what is happening in our world, I am of no use to anybody.
If I want to write to right the world, to use my creativity to make the world better, I need to give myself quiet time and space to channel my inchoate vision into words. If I am constantly operating in reaction to the bad news of the day, I cannot stretch myself psychically to reach beyond what is to what could be.
It's another way of saying Einstein's famous dictum that you can't solve problems from within the paradigm that created them.
To stay locked into a negative stance, shouting NO! is to reinforce the status quo, because the more we pay attention to what we don't want, the greater the psychic space occupied by that battle, and the less energy there is for stepping on to new ground and imagining a different, better way of being.
No, this is not spiritual bypass. I am not talking about retreating to a meditation cave, disengaging with the world.
I am talking about maintaining the delicate balance of the split screen: acknowledging present reality but not feeding it with the energy of our undivided attention, positive or negative; and continuing to drink in beauty and harmony from any and all possible sources, in order to strengthen our spirits for the challenges of creating a better world.
I know that there are many people whose circumstances are so dire that finding such a balance is absolutely impossible. They must focus on sheer moment-to-moment survival.
Those of us who still have the luxury of tranquility in our day-to-day lives can consciously choose to put our creative energies in service to the good of all, using our writing, art and voices to amplify the hopes and dreams of those who are living the horrors of war, displacement, discrimination; as well as to support the simple desires of the more-than-human denizens of the planet for a healthy biosphere in which to flourish.
I am mindful of writer-activist Valarie Kaur's wise advice, in her remarkable memoir See No Stranger, that it is absolutely necessary to take the time and make the space to love ourselves, in order to have the strength and will to put our love for others into action.
I encourage you to read Kaur's book and check out her well-developed platform of activist tools for what she calls "revolutionary love." For now, I will close with three key quotes from her memoir, which I have been discussing lately with my current college students, many of whom are constantly distraught over the state of the world and struggling to find pathways to wellbeing.
First, Kaur reminds us that "breathing is the most universally available wellness tool”:
"Breathing creates space in our lives to live and see differently, enliven our imagination, awaken to pleasure, move toward freedom, and let joy in. For those of us who live in bodies that are denigrated by society, breathing like this is a political act. The world sends a barrage of signals that our bodies—as women, people of color, women of color, queer people, trans people, and disabled people—are not beautiful or strong or worthy of love. Taking the time to breathe—literally and metaphorically—is a way to assert that our bodies are worthy and beloved. Loving our bodies is the first and primal act of loving ourselves" (See No Stranger 216).
She also insists, out of the wisdom of her own hard-won experience, that
"You don't have to make yourself suffer in order to serve. You don't have to grind your bones into the ground. You don't have to cut your life up into pieces and give yourself away until there is nothing left. You belong to a community and a broader movement. Your life has value. We need you alive. We need you to last. You will not last if you are not breathing" (See No Stranger 248).
She concludes her memoir, and her "compass of revolutionary love," by encouraging people who care about making the world better to "let joy in":
"In the face of the horrors visited upon our world daily…choosing to let in joy is a revolutionary act. Joy returns to us everything good and beautiful and worth fighting for. It gives us energy for the long labor.…Joy is the gift of love; It makes the labor an end in itself. I believe laboring in joy is the meaning in life….May we let joy in. For we will be someone’s ancestors someday. If we do this right, they will inherit not our fear but bravery born of joy (See No Stranger 307).
May it be so.
Yours in the heartache, reaching for joy—
Upcoming opportunities for writing to right the world together
Join me for a contemplative Winter Solstice workshop: For the Love of Gaia: Sparking Wonder, Tending Grief, and Cultivating Resilience for a Time of Transition.
In this thought-provoking 90-minute online workshop, we’ll plumb the depths of our love for Gaia, exploring our wondrous connection to the great Web of Life on our planetary home.
We’ll honor our grief for all the harm that is being done in our time, to humans and more-than-humans alike; and we’ll search out the seeds of resilience that lie buried in our creativity, just waiting for the sweet water of our attention to stir them to life.
BYTS members register here.
Come Riding & Writing with me in Portugal or Iceland!
Monte Velho Equo-Resort in Evora, Portugal, January 7 - 13, 2024. A week of dressage lessons on beautiful, well-trained Lusitano horses, plus guided writing sessions and plenty of time for relaxing and exploring the hill country of the Alentejo. JUST ONE SPOT LEFT! Find out more and register here.
Hestaland in Borgarnes, Iceland, June 10 - 16, 2024. A week of riding spirited Icelandic horses in beautiful rolling countryside, writing in good company, and soaking in the hot springs and Arctic Summer Solstice energy of Iceland. Find out more and register here.
Write your memoir with me in the enchanted landscape of Tuscany!
Imagine staying at a meticulously restored 10th century monastery…
…Waking up to a delicious breakfast on the patio by the pool…
…Gathering in good company for writing and sharing…
…Taking stimulating guided excursions into the beautiful countryside, visiting nearby vineyards, cloisters, charming Tuscan towns, and magnificent Siena…
…Coming home to eat a hearty meal and relax with new friends in beautiful surroundings.
If this sounds like your kind of dream vacation…make it come true! I’ll be back at Borgo San Fedele with Il Chiostro May 25 - June 1, 2024, with a merry band of memoirists, and you are welcome to join us!
A la dolce vita!
Upcoming Free Events at the Birth Your Truest Story Online Community for Writers!
We have some great events coming up for you at BYTS, including:
Friday, November 17 8:45-9:45am PT / 11:45 am - 12:45 pm ET - Community Writing (FREE)
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