Wise Mind for a Chaotic World

Disclaimer: This post is written by a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, American-born, middle class woman who has a lot of privilege. I am hoping there is a little something for everyone in this post but I also know that much of it may be most relevant for people, who like me, want to be better allies.

The United States was built on racism. We uphold and rely on systems of oppression. We are always in chaos and always in crisis. Do not forget this. And now we are at a moment in time when crisis is impacting those who typically live comfortably amidst the chaos. In other words, we feel the chaos more than we usually do, especially those of us who have a lot of privilege.

When I was in grad school, a professor said that when the middle class gets uncomfortable, social justice movements really take off. And I think what she, a woman of color, meant but perhaps felt unable to say is that when white, liberal, middle class people (aka her students) get uncomfortable that is when change happens. And not because we’re better at social change than people of color or poor folks are – puh-lease, we are so not. But because we’re privileged, we do have more resources and power at our disposal. It is an embarrassment and injustice that we wait until we’re uncomfortable to join movements but that’s a whole other blog post. The only other thing I’ll say on that is DO NOT CO-OPT the work of people with less privilege than you. We didn’t start the work – they did. If not for them, we would not know where to start. I am eternally grateful to so many people who have been doing this work all along. My advice to you; Listen to them and join them. Follow their lead for a change (pun intended). Believe me, they have everyone’s best interests at heart whereas we, often, only have our own best interests at heart.

When the 2008 recession struck, I thought that disaster was going to be what catapulted us into action. I thought then ‘oh this is what my professor meant!’ And in small ways it did. Obama was elected. The Occupy movements rose up. Those were big moments and movements and there was discomfort but not enough of it, apparently.

So here we are more than eight years later. And I think THIS might be it. There is a lot I have to say now that the privileged folks are committed to change too. But the first I will address is self-care and coping. These, as Audre Lorde points out, are survival skills.

Self-care to me is all about being self-aware and it is about balance. I use DBT skills, and find that the concept of Wise Mind is particularly useful. That link has more of an official definition/explanation. But the best way I can explain it is that when a crisis or trauma occurs, we go into fight, flight or freeze mode. Everything is all or nothing in an emergency. We have to react. That is essential for our survival. But when we have been through a particularly hideous trauma, we begin to live the entirety of our lives in survival mode. The same is true when we’ve gone through or are going through chronic stress or trauma. The next four years will likely be a state of constant stress, chaos and crisis. But we cannot live in survival mode for four years. Spoiler alert; that is neither good nor helpful for us or anyone or anything. Wise Mind brings us back to a place of balance where people, events and life are as they truly are; neither all good nor all bad.

And hey, it is okay to react in stressful situations. In fact in true emergencies it is necessary. And when there is or has been chronic stress it is normal to start living in constant survival mode. After all, you are human and this is what humans do. But humans  are also resilient AF and they adapt. As humans we have the ability (and gift) to reflect on how we feel and how to best support ourselves. So when shit gets real, ask yourself, what do I need right now?

I always need balance. I need downtime. I need moments to reflect on what I’m going through, how I’m feeling and why. I need peaceful moments. I feel better when I remember there are peaceful moments even during chaotic times and that you can be peaceful even during chaos. Incorporating these beliefs into my day-to-day helps me to be able to respond more than I react.

The oppressor will demand urgency, the oppressor will provoke reaction, the oppressor will often be reactive while also being calculated, the oppressor will thrive off extremes, the oppressor will split us. And we stay whole, we find balance and we respond. And we forgive ourselves. If we react and in hindsight think we didn’t need to, we be gentle with ourselves. It is absolutely normal to feel intense emotions when everything around you is so intense. What is happening is not okay but you, wonderful, kind and flawed human that you are, are okay.

If you have privilege, it can be easy to feel guilty. It is easy to feel like you have to always be working because other people don’t get breaks, they don’t get breaks from their oppression. And that is true. Unfortunately there is no break from racism, sexism, homophobia etc. And people who live with more than one oppression are working overtime without breaks. Still, it is essential for all of us to be balanced. This article talks about it and I can give an example from my own life. I did not choose to be born female and thus be a gender that is disproportionately impacted by intimate partner abuse and sexual assault, among other things. But I chose to work in Domestic Violence for a loonnnggggg time. I had no choice but to be impacted more by these issues than a straight, cis man is impacted by them. But in doing DV work, I became aware of just how prevalent this violence is. Despite my own personal experiences with it, I was exposed to it significantly more than I would have been had I not done that work. I learned even more about the ways sexism impacts all women. And I learned about the ways my white privilege minimizes some of the impacts of sexism. I learned that women and people living with multiple forms of oppression are even further harmed by misogyny. As Gloria Steinem (who is perhaps more woke than she used to be) said recently “Sexism is always made worse by racism — and vice versa.”

In short, I became more aware of my experience of oppression because of sexism but even more so, I became more aware of my privilege. Because I am white, I could have chosen a more comfortable job. Dare I say even as a social worker, there are many more comfortable jobs than doing domestic violence work. Because I am white, I could have ignored the intersection of racism and sexism. Because I am white, I could have lived very comfortably even with all the sexism I experience (granted many white women have been significantly more impacted by misogyny than me. Still they will fare far less uncomfortably in the aftermath than women of color, especially middle class white women).

While I did DV work, I chose to take breaks. I did not spend every waking second thinking about DV. I took breaks and tried to do fun things in my spare time as much as possible. True, my privilege made it easier for me to do this. It is important to recognize that so I don’t lose sight of all the advocacy that must be done for others to have the same privileges I have. And I am certain that I could not have done the work for as long as I did without engaging in essential self-care. Even now as I work a non-DV job, I am still doing DV work. By that I mean that I still attend to DV; I, among other actions, ensure my office is DV and trauma-informed and responsive. If I didn’t care for myself, I could not do that. So I think that when you take breaks from the resistance, it does not mean you’ve stopped doing the work. On the contrary, you are further committing yourself to doing the work.

The only other thing I’ll say is that if, like me, you have far more privilege than you don’t, please attend to those with less privilege. Offer them unconditional support. Don’t use them to get your needs met. Be mindful of the emotional labor that people of privilege ask of people with less privilege. Achieving a just, balanced society will only be possible after privileged folks have committed to giving more than taking. Because we already have more than enough.

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