I expected the panel to be difficult. Its theme: advocacy, activism and social fatigue. The discussion? How to keep people engaged in your cause in the face of so many causes, so much pain. People get tired of investing that energy. Someone said the average person used to have 20 friends -- now she has 200. To be bombarded with the hopes and fears of 200 people is overwhelming.
We humans have our limits. Compassion can have limits.
I sat there alternately feeling my body grow hot then cold as it raced through my typical gamut of emotions. My former therapist, who is into evolutionary psychology, told me that anxiety or boredom or fatigue is a sign that I'm repressing a deeper, more primal emotion: fear, anger, love, lust, pain, pride. Usually within ten minutes of getting bad news, my eyelids are so heavy I can barely stay awake. Then my stomach hurts. Then my mind wanders. If I allow myself to just feel the real emotion without assigning it any morality, the others soon fade away. (Editor's Note: Try this for eating disorders.)
This does work, by the way. Raw anger, untouched fear -- these are not paralyzing emotions like guilt, anxiety, self-hatred. Primal emotions get you problem-solving before you realize you're already two blocks down the street. You don't sit around and eat chocolate when you're Godfather-level mad. You plot, you plan, you seethe, you destroy a pillow. You don't mope. You don't cry. The trick is to feel the emotion without necessarily acting on it. You don't really want to bean the guy who cut you off in traffic with a shovel. But it's human -- and rather harmless -- to imagine it and then decide it's not in your best interest to really do it. Humans want to dominate the world around us. It's an occupational hazard we all share. It requires a fancy trick to be able to view your amygdala like it is television. It's hard. I admit that when I first heard this theory, I thought my therapist might indeed by batshit crazy.
I was trying to identify the emotion at the bottom of the guck I was feeling when my friend Anissa Mayhew, who has had a kid with cancer topped off by a few strokes and a wheelchair, told a story about falling down when nobody else was around. She said something to the extent of "And so I went to my therapist, and I said, 'I've fallen down, and now I need you to teach me to get back up.'"
And then I recognized it: Fear.
I immediately started crying, repressing the emotion as fast as I could realize what it was.
And then I let myself feel it -- the coldness, the palm-tingling, the accelerated breathing. I am afraid, as well, of falling down alone. Physically. Mentally. Spiritually.
I forced a deep breath. That's another thing I've learned -- we humans breathe very shallowly in times of intense stress. A deep breath can literally make you more sane instantly by flooding your brain with oxygen.
My response to fear is typically fight or flight, just like everyone else. But when you're afraid of something that hasn't happened, that might never happen, there is nothing to fight, nothing to run away from. I imagined running away anyway, just because it felt good, but then I realized there is nothing to run away from when you fear the unknown. There is no point at all to that fear.
Fear of the unknown? There is nothing to run away from.