Written by John Schorling, Professor and Head of the Section of General Medicine in the Department of General, Geriatric, Palliative, and Hospital Medicine in the School of Medicine at UVA, in response to the alt-right demonstrations on August 11-12, 2017.
The events of August 11 and 12 in Charlottesville continue to impact many individuals as well as the larger community. From white supremacists carrying Tiki torches across UVa Grounds on Friday night, surrounding students and community members guarding the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Rotunda, to violent clashes between protestors and counter-protestors on Saturday morning, to the horrific car crash on Saturday afternoon that killed Heather Heyer and injured many others, to the helicopter crash leaving state troopers Berke Bates and Jay Cullen dead, there were many events that have had a prolonged impact both on those present, and on those who witnessed them from a distance. Officials and residents of Charlottesville are still working through the events and the response, trying to understand what happened and what might have been done to prevent some of the tragedies that occurred.
What are some of the lessons from these events from a mindfulness perspective? Since mindfulness is often defined as intentional present moment nonjudgmental awareness, it can be helpful to begin with this, noticing what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, without judging whatever this is. We might be feeling grief over the loss of life, thinking we can’t believe this happened, and that the rally never should have been allowed to occur. We may be angry that it did, and saddened by the outcome. When strong emotions arise at a time like this, it can be easy to either try to avoid them, thinking “I want to be a good person. I shouldn’t feel so angry”, or feed them, thinking “This was so unjust. I hate everyone who was involved.” One of these reactions is pushing away, the other is grasping. Another option is to see if it’s possible to just be with whatever is present without wanting things to be different than they are. If we’re angry, we’re just angry, and that’s ok. If we’re sad, that’s ok too. Emotions like this are often difficult, so it’s important to have kindness for ourselves as we experience them, acknowledging that being with them is hard. When we do this we may suffer some, and in this recognition of our own suffering we may feel more connected to others who are feeling the same as we are.
Once we acknowledge what we are feeling and thinking, what’s next? We might decide to see if we can let the feelings and thoughts go, at least for a while, and focus on something else, like breathing. We might just do this for a few moments, or we might do it for longer, by meditating. This can be helpful in reducing our feelings of stress. This might be enough, and we could decide to move on and engage in other activities. Or we may still be quite upset. If so, it’s important that we be sure we take care of ourselves. In paying attention to our experience we may realize we are overwhelmed, or we may already know it because we’ve been anxious since the events happened, or we haven’t been able to sleep, or every time we fall asleep we wake up reliving some event or with some image coming to mind. If that’s the case, we probably need more help, and reaching out to a professional with experience in dealing with trauma is the best thing to do. If you are a UVa employee, the Faculty and Employee Assistance Program (https://www.medicalcenter.virginia.edu/feap) offers trauma services and referrals. If you are not affiliated with UVa, the Counseling Alliance of Virginia (https://www.cavahelps.com/events/ ) is offering free individual and group sessions.
If we have strong emotions but do not feel overwhelmed and think we can get through this on our own, what’s next then? Once we have paused and acknowledged our current state, then we can choose our response. If we don’t even pause to do this, and are just angry, then we will react out of anger. After pausing, we still might decide to do this, but at least then it is a choice. Or, noticing we’re angry, we might choose a different response. We might decide that we want to meet the anger and the violence of the weekend differently, and that we want to practice compassion and forgiveness instead. We might feel that the people who perpetrated the violence must really be suffering to have so much anger, and that maybe compassion is the best response. Compassion is the understanding that someone is suffering coupled with the desire to alleviate their suffering. While we probably cannot directly alleviate the suffering of those involved, we can still express the desire to do so, and there are several types of meditation in which this is the intent. We might also choose forgiveness, and similarly there are forgiveness meditations that can help us do this (https://med.virginia.edu/mindfulness-center/continue-your-practice/audio-recordings/). Heather Heyer was killed on Saturday by a white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters . Her father, Mark Heyer, said “People just need to stop hating. And they need to forgive each other… I include myself in that in forgiving the guy that did this.”
We might also decide that we wish to do more. If so, it can be helpful to decide what it is we would like to accomplish. It can be easy to get stuck in wanting things to have gone differently than they did, to focus on “what-ifs”. What if the police had stepped in sooner? What if I had done something differently? When we do this, it is easy to start blaming ourselves and others. While it is often helpful to review events to determine what can be learned to prevent a tragic outcome from recurring, and sometimes individuals need to be held accountable for not having acted in the most appropriate way at the time, it is also easy to blame ourselves and others based on what we know now that may not have been known previously. Thus, our actions are best based on knowing what we wish to achieve, focusing on things that we can actually influence, rather than those we just wish we could change, like events in the past. Heather Heyer’s mother spoke about this at Heather’s memorial service when she said “Find in your heart that small spark of accountability. You poke that finger at yourself like Heather would have done, and you make it happen. You take that extra step and you find a way to make a difference in the world!” Her father also said “I’m proud of her for standing up…but she wanted to do it peacefully and with a fierceness of heart that comes with her convictions.”
So present moment nonjudgmental awareness does not mean having no convictions, or that we should not stand up for what we think is right. It does mean understanding what our convictions are, perhaps even exploring where these convictions come from, and the deciding how best to pursue them. We can choose to pursue them peacefully and with compassion, or we might choose another path. As we do this, it can be useful to pay attention to whether how we are choosing to act is to make us feel better, or whether it is to most effectively pursue our convictions. The two are not always the same, especially in dealing with threats and violence. We often respond with threats or violence in return because not doing so feels like we are being taken advantage of or not standing up for ourselves, yet responding with kindness or compassion might actually be more effective in furthering our cause. As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” He also said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”