When Everything in the World Feels in Disarray, How Do We Manage? We Turned to Martha Beck for the Answers
One of the most challenging realities when facing hardship is that everyday life continues. We must feed ourselves, care for our children, meet deadlines, and show up. But how do we move forward when the world feels crumbling and there is pain and loss all around?
It's a question we often ask one another in our weekly editorial meetings. We always seek to offer solace and light to you, dear reader, and ourselves. So we turned to one of our most trusted advisors, Martha Beck, for her counsel.
In her generous and warm approach, Beck offers us a framework for understanding the strife of life and how we can move forth with compassion—one moment at a time.
A CONVERSATION WITH MARTHA BECK
So much is scary, overwhelming, and devastating right now. How do we even begin to move through our days when all this is happening?
Our human nervous system has different states of being. When you see or read something about everything that is going on now and has gone on before, our impulse is to go into a fight or flight response. That is a human impulse. You see something, get very angry or devastated. Then, after fight or flight comes a total collapse: The nervous system will give up, and you'll stop caring and become numb. These are both defensive states, and they are an animal response.
To move through this, the way I think of it is that I have an animal that I need to care for. As Mary Oliver says, we must start by caring for the soft animal of our body. People think constructive action comes from anger, suffering, sorrow, and horror. But if we're still in those nervous states, we're just putting more of that energy into the world. We don't want to be part of that, so we must care for our soft animal.
How do we care for ourselves?
The first thing I do is accept the fight, flight, collapse response. It happens, and I let it. Then I take the little soft animal of my body to my sanctuary, where I can sit down alone. I've created a place with objects and pictures reminding me of the people I love and why I love the world. I have a small collection of stones and paintings and play music that reminds me to be compassionate. I sit there and breathe until I can connect again with the present. Instead of hardening into anger or numbness, I feel myself softening into grief and compassion. It's not fun, but it heals me.
With all the little dings and dents that come every time you get a little bit of news, we need to put ourselves back into a place of calm before we do anything else—because nothing we do out of those fight-flight collapse states will make the world better. But everything we do out of a state of presence and compassion starts to help. It starts with us, and then it spreads—and love acts. Love acts more powerfully and more intelligently than any of the other states.
What do we do when we are spinning?
Take yourself to your sanctuary, sit down, and say to the part of you that is spinning, 'Of course. I see you.' If you had an animal that was freaking out, you don't make it get up and do a job. You acknowledge its suffering. So say that to yourself. 'I see your suffering, and I allow it.' Then, stay put until it finishes. You may be shaking, feel rage or numbness, you may weep. Just keep saying to that soft animal, 'Of course, you feel this way. I'm here. I understand.' I believe that there is a universal compassion that does that. It sits with us in all our horror and grief, saying, 'I'm right here. I understand.' And then it waits for us to come back to love.
Tell us more about that universal compassion and how it helps us and humanity.
Some people ask if there is a higher power, then where is it? I believe it loves us and is not afraid of our suffering. There's a consciousness in the universe, and it sits with us in our horror and suffering, and it says, 'I'm right here. I understand what you feel, and you get to feel that until you're finished.'
I've worked with thousands of people. I used to try to push them to feel better. But it does not help to push yourself to feel better. Instead, tell your frightened self, 'I understand, and I'm here. You can feel this way as long as you need to.' That starts moving us to be able to process the new information and get back in touch with the compassion at our center. Then we grieve for everyone—for the children, for everyone.
All this begins to shift the energy around us and makes us the the biggest power for good that we can be in the world. Sitting and taking care of our grief is a more positive, powerful step than running out to join a march or give a speech or whatever it is in a state of pain, fear, anger, or numbness.
How do we extend this compassion to our children, friends, partners, and others to help them not act from flight or fight?
Grab a second to get your own center back. Practice doing that so you can hold it for other people. It is a matter of tracking that part of the nervous system so we have that wiring when things get bad. Even if you haven't solved the single problem yet if you get your feet under you and you get back in a position where you can feel a softening instead of hardening, then you say to another person, 'I'm here with you. I'm not afraid of your feelings. Go ahead and feel them. I understand.' And then listen. When they stop talking, say, 'Is there anything else?' Let them talk and just be present without fear. They will come back to heal themselves.
Dr. Martha Beck is a bestselling author, life coach, and speaker known for her unique combination of science, humor, and spirituality. Her newest book is The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self. Learn more at marthabeck.com.