Conflict and Resilience in Spiritual Community

This past weekend I facilitated a workshop on resilience in spiritual communities for the Many Gods West conference. There was a spirited engagement from folks who have great experience building local communities and had seen successes and failures across the board.

Some of the memorable points I walked away with were:

  • Knowing the goal or mission of your community, to anchor your efforts.
  • Training and preparing leaders, almost from the first day, so they can continue the mission when the founding leadership is exhausted or passes on.
  • Identifying who is doing the work in your communities—including the invisible labor of organization and the emotional labor of tending and repairing relationships—and making sure they are supported.
  • As a complimentary point those doing the work who feel unsupported or overextended need to feel able to scale back their vision and labor to something that is workable today, to say “no” when needed, to delegate.
  • Skills around conflict are necessary for resilient relationships.

This last point became very important and highlighted during the presentation. We discussed how conflict avoidance in communities and organizations contributes to collapse and rigidity. Sometimes communities devolve into bickering, back-biting, and in-fighting where people attack and defend but never sit at the table to have an open-hearted conflict that brings them back to connection. The other extreme is when communities become hyper-legislative and make rigid requirements and rules to try to manage and process conflict, which similarly makes them brittle and unwieldy or prone to cover-ups when problems do arise.

This is not exclusive to spiritual communities, but in my experience these communities have a particular vulnerability to people acting out their wounds around attachment, their family roles, and their family styles of conflict management. We create powerful containers for connection and self-transformation, places where we want to feel trust so we can become more ourselves, and the spiritual framework often tends to heighten or mythologize the tensions and conflicts. Which provides the opportunity for even more potent healing and transformation… or more damaging explosions.

Image of a person of color holding a firework emitting thick orange smoke, which arcs overhead and obscures their face.

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey

Conflict is inevitable and normal, and successfully allowing and working through conflict strengthens and deepens relationships. So many of us feel that if we were truly honest about our wants and needs then we would be rejected, attacked, ignored, or some other terrifying thing. Perhaps at some point—or many points—in life this happened. Lacking this capacity to say and hear honest expressions of feeling restricts our ability to heal wounds and develop resilient, workable relationships.

Resentment doesn’t go away when we ignore it, it only deepens and becomes toxic. Turning toward and befriending resentment helps us to see the ways in which we’ve taken on tasks that aren’t ours to do, or ignore our needs for someone else’s, which helps us to set cleaner boundaries and even show up in relationship with more generosity and joyfulness.

One question that arose in the workshop was around conflict resolution, and fortunately there was a whole other workshop dedicated to that topic. What occurred to me in that moment was that many of us are not ready for conflict resolution because we still struggle to engage in open conflict. I have a style of conflict avoidance and people-pleasing that showed up during the workshop itself, when two participants began to have a conflict and I reacted by attempting to smooth it over and avoid it with some statement about “we disagree and that’s okay.” A moment later, I realized what I had done, and acknowledged that I had acted out the very dynamic we were discussing as a problem in our communities.

After the workshop, those of us involved in that exchange sat down to discuss where each of us were coming from. I cannot speak for those in attendance, but I felt heartened at the mutual sharing of concerns and emotional responses without shutting each other down. I do not know if any minds changed that night, but I hope the processing and softening of hearts helped us to walk away with things to contemplate.

When will loses heart

Will is a beautiful, liberatory capacity and it can become a tyrant. This tendency is one of the reasons why will fell out of favor after the Victorian age—it was talked up as a kind of brutal self-mastery, dominating all the weakness within and crushing the body and heart beneath its achievements.

You might be doing too much. You might be doing things when you need to be resting. You might be trying to take care of everyone and please everyone but find that instead you are tense, distancing, and critical of the people you think you’re trying to care for, unable to hear what they’re actually saying to you.

So often I hear, and occasionally say, the phrase “I don’t know how to feel about this.” This is a way that the mind and will slip away from relationship with the heart and body and become oppressive. We convince ourselves there are right feelings and wrong feelings and try to select the feelings we think we should have. When the feelings we do have don’t line up, we’re not sure what to do.

Mental and emotional distress arises from this discord. Our animal bodies are wondrous organisms that have all these useful signals for when we need rest, food, water, emotional care, and sex. But too often we learn it’s not safe to listen to these signals, so we learn how to read the social cues that let us know when it’s okay to listen and when not. When our emotional and biological needs conflict with the social expectations of family and community, we have tension, and the greater the tension, the more this manifests as illness.

At its best, will bridges these two realms and brings deep desires into manifestation in our social relationships. It comes from the core, converses with the heart, chooses where to invest energy based on what is meaningful, responds to feedback.

At worst, will pushes help upon people who don’t want it, pushes us to work past the point of exhaustion, keeps us grinding forward until we feel resentment and draining obligation even toward the people and work we love. If we’re not careful, we start to blame them for our experience, struggling to accept that it is we who are unable to say no, who failed to set a clear boundary, who was not honest about our needs. Then the harm deepens.

When we start edging into that territory, it’s time to step back and think about what has heart and meaning. What kind of life do I want to lead? And perhaps reflecting deeper… what am I afraid will happen if I stop doing this? What would help me to take the step of cutting away, saying no, finding time to rest? Who can I ask for support? Who can I ask to witness while I acknowledge my needs?

This too is will work. We are unlikely to summit the mountain if we break our leg running up the base. Self-honesty helps us to set more realistic, achievable expectations. We can succeed while taking smaller steps.

A white person, facing away from the camera, standing upon a grassy ridge looking toward snowy mountain peaks.

Photo by Joshua Earle

Impossible to Control

“Even though you try to put people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good. That is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”
― Shunryu SuzukiZen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Control is exhausting.

Often the control is internal, in the realm of the mind, body, and heart. The rigid policing of thought, or the repeated quashing of an irascible longing, or impatience with pain and weakness.

Control also comes out in relationships and communities. The constant expressions of jealousy or insecurity and demands for reassurance. The urgency to “fix” every single problem or moment of discomfort that comes up in a relationship. Running to the boss to tell them about a conversation your coworkers had that made you uncomfortable, though you sat there quietly.

Picture of a silhouetted figure in the air, behind whom is a sunset.

Photo by Joshua Earle

We can spend so much time controlling things that are beyond our control that we lack the energy and will to do what is actually within our power. Control seduces us into believing that somehow we can arrange our lives and relationships to avoid suffering and maximize pleasure, but at great cost. For just as we might love to feel in control, very few of us actually enjoy being controlled. (Even those who want to be controlled might, upon reflection, consider that they have some particular thoughts and feelings about who controls you, under what circumstances, and what kind of control you want to experience.) When our sense of identity and self-worth is vested in how much control we can exert, any spontaneous or unfiltered experience is a threat, which keeps us experiencing a lot of what life has to offer.

Control is also an outside-in approach to the world. We feel, if only everything goes according to the way I think it should go, then I can relax and be myself. But for too long we avoid being ourselves, trying to get a handle on things that we have no power over.

Power, in contrast, could be a model of inside-out approach. Power influences the world based on who I am and what I want. Power is my capacity for influence and action—asking for what I need, telling you what I don’t like, saying no to a draining expectation, asking for appreciation instead of seething in quiet resentment. Power is vulnerable because it comes from the self and it could be denied, rejected, or ineffective. Yet expressing power helps us to learn what works, who in our life actually has our back, and who is not a person we need to be around.

Rather than trying to manage and control things, connecting with and mastering our sense of power helps us to be responsive to the world. We express something, observe the results, and then adapt. It is not a guarantee of safety or security, which is guaranteed to no one, but it takes far less energy.

Willing with Discomfort

Some people feel they are completely without discipline and will, mostly thrown about by the waves of life circumstance, craving, accident, emotion, or simply being screwed with by others. By “some people” I mean “most people at least every once in a while.” Will is the capacity to recommit and continue following one’s intention even with these conditions.

I recently committed to studying something new, a martial art, which brings up a lot for me around my body, athleticism, and conflict. As with all new habits, the first few sessions were quite fun and exhilarating. I wanted to go around telling everyone how cool it was and all the cool things I was learning.

Beware the person who has done something new for less than a month but tells you it changed their life. For it is inevitable that after newness wears off, the practice goes through a sour period. It starts to bring up feelings of boredom or frustration as we realize we’re not as far along as we hoped, or the work is not as glamorous as we’d imagined, and we have to keep showing up to gain the benefits.

Image of a person standing on a mountain ridge with a backpack and thick jacket.

An act of will. Photo by Danka & Peter.

Getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning doesn’t seem as rewarding as hitting snooze. Those vicissitudes of life come up again—emotions, discomfort, cravings, unexpected circumstances. Giving up the practice sounds tempting, especially since it didn’t immediately make your life better. You’re still the same person, growing slowly, but perhaps not as slowly as you were when you weren’t doing the practice.

In talking about mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn advises beginners to start the practice with a curious skepticism. Believing it’s going to perfect you and go so smoothly is a recipe for overwhelming discouragement when we hit the phase I’m writing about. Believing that it’s a waste of time and will do nothing for you is a guarantee that you will get no benefit.

I think his advice applies to all new habits or practices, including mental health treatment. We ought to commit to them for at least a month, ideally three months, and continue showing up so long as they are not actively causing us harm. But do the practice with curiosity, watching your experience as it happens with interest. Let it be an opportunity to learn about yourself in a new way. Perhaps you notice a tendency to give up at the first sign of frustration, or to fixate on the practice and ignore other matters such as self-care and relationships with other people. After we’ve been doing the new practice for three months, six months, a few years, through times of hardship and times of ease, then we can accurately evaluate the power of the practice and the gains it brings to life.

Underlying all of this is the cultivation of will, which offers so much more. If I am able to bike to work in the winter gloom, simply because I said I would do it, then I am able to start the hard conversation with my loved ones about something I know we need to discuss. If I can rearrange my schedule to go to that workout class then I can flexibly commit to my dreams and my life goals. If I can let myself be thrown to the ground and get back up to face my attacker, then I can call my congressperson about something that matters to me.

Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist who founded the theoretical orientation of Psychosynthesis, either drew upon or happened upon a concept contained in Western esoteric traditions: that will is a human faculty that expresses one’s Higher Self. In this respect, will is not the Victorian concept of muscling through all hardship, ignoring pain, controlling vulnerability, or somehow never facing problems and setbacks in life. Will is about experiencing all of that and still moving wisely in the direction of desire.

If that’s too esoteric for you, you might think of will as a psychological “muscle” that becomes stronger with exercise. We exercise it by committing to doing something and then doing it. Simple but not easy. Start with what’s achievable for you, and build from there. With practice, we gradually expand feeling that sense of agency and meaning in life.

Unhooking

As a kid, I learned in First Aid not to pull out a fish hook if it got caught in my skin. The barb of the hook, designed to dig deeper with resistance, would cause more damage. Instead, the recommendation was to push the hook through until one could clip off the barb with pliers, then back it out.

This wisdom may well carry over into relationships and community interactions. We use the metaphor of “baiting” people into conflict and refer to sharp, cruel statements as “barbs.” They hook us into emotional reactivity, and the more we struggle against them, the deeper they get “under our skin.”

We see this in Internet trolling, how people looking to stir up trouble throw out barbs, and then their prey gets hooked into an argument or reactivity until the troll is able to find some evidence to vindicate themselves. No matter how cruel and stupid the troll has been, they win because they have the greatest emotional distance and outward appearance of self-control. The fact that others respond to them is seen to be proof that the others are in the wrong.

An image of a person holding a freshly caught fish.

“Catch of the Day,” by Sticker Mule

It’s classic bullying. It’s unfair. The fact that it’s unfair seems to make no difference.

It’s a challenge for people who value living authentic lives, too, for expressions of vulnerability and appeals to compassion are not always safe or effective. Indeed, sometimes this seems to intensify the attack as the bully finds delight in the pain they cause. Or one’s efforts to advocate for one’s self while upset and hooked end up too messy and unfocused to be effective.

One sure sign of being hooked is feeling convinced that you have to get the other person to change their mind or stop their behavior. There is a fine distinction here. I’m not saying the bullying is okay. What I am saying is that bullies are unlikely to stop what they’re doing when they’re getting what they want. There may be things you can do to advocate for yourself and change, but what helps all of this is to start by getting yourself unhooked.

Emotional hooks find purchase in the parts of us that are vulnerable to the attack. Some part of me that quietly worries that the attacker is right about me, or feels I deserve the treatment, or refuses to admit that I’m hooked because I don’t accept my vulnerability.

This is where the powerlessness comes in—I have, let’s say, a secret story about being selfish. That being selfish is bad and I worry I’m a selfish person. So here comes someone who can defeat me by implying or outright stating I’m being selfish. Now hooked, I do everything I can to convince this person and everyone around me that I’m not selfish—I’ve already lost because now I’ve agreed with the attacker that their claim has enough merit to be defended against. I am on their ground. And I am trying to convince people whose opinions do not matter because they are not coming from a place of good faith. The person who first needs to get it is me.

So unhooking is following this inward, finding the emotional vulnerability, and pushing it out to expose the barb. What in me worries about selfishness? What is “wrong” with being selfish anyway? Perhaps I check in with people whom I trust to care about me and give me accurate feedback about my selfishness. Overall, I want to befriend this part of me that is in pain and give it loving witness until it is able to release the barb.

In this way, being hooked leads me to my next phase of inner healing work. The difficult situation may persist while healing, and may linger for longer than I’d like. Whenever a person brings out reactivity in me, I see where I am still hooked and where there is more work to do.

With time, however, I’ve discovered more emotional freedom is possible, which can lead to surprising ways of standing up for myself and changing the situation. Those attempting to bait or bully find instead a disconcerting self-possession that does not feed their hunger for victimization.

Something Beautiful is Happening Today

A person posed with an ecstatic expression, behind whom is blue sky and cloud.

Photo by Jaie Miller on Unsplash

Awake. Tongue tracing crisp
contours of air. Skin warmed,
eye illumined, red and green
cells fueled by the teacher
of generosity, whose passion
daily enters our world, meets
the land, generates newness.
Though your tears blur light
into halos, new needles green
from pine. Your breath offers
another chance to love, though
a thicket of thorn encircles you
and the brush of softness causes
your teeth and fists to clench.
The land is an altar upon which
to dedicate your bones to joy.
The wind gathers your tension
from the effort of forcing sense
upon the mystery of another day.
The river whispers the victory
of yielding, leading you to dark
space beyond any lover’s touch—
the relentless play of the heart.

The Ego of Whiteness: Stories, Privilege, and Shame Resilience

Anti-oppressive work for people in privileged positions demands learning to tolerate and roll with the stresses to our cherished ego stories. According to Jones and Okun, white supremacy shows up in perfectionism, individualism, binary thinking, urgency, power hoarding, avoidance of conflict, and the belief in rational or objective positions. Those of us raised to identify with whiteness are often hesitant to step into the world of activism and consciousness-raising because our white-identified egos struggle to tolerate the shame of conflict. We personalize confrontation or generalized observations. If someone says something that brings up in us a feeling of shame, we’re more likely to attack that person for saying it and not exploring with curiosity the meaning of this shame.

In simple terms, my definition of the ego is “a story about myself that I want you to believe.” The more attached I am to that story, the more fiercely I will defend it against perceived assault, for beneath that ego-story is often shame.

My complementary definition of shame is “a deep story I fear is true about myself, one I don’t want you to believe.” In context with Jones and Okun’s article, I suspect my conceptualization of the ego is a psychological construct of whiteness that we impose upon each other and people of color, and not a descriptive feature intrinsic to humanity.

Mindfulness and meditation practice helps us reach deeper capacities of the inner Self, and work in community helps us access broader capacities of the collective Self. The deep Self helps us to recognize that stories of worthiness and unworthiness are simply that—stories that shape our experience but not the absolute truth of who we are. The broad, communal Self helps us to see how our Being and sense of worth finds function and expression in community.

A white guy sinking into the deeper Self. Photo by Isabell Winter.

This movement—downward into the Self or outward into Community—suggests strategies by which we can roll with and recover from shame. When I feel upset or “called out,” I immediately want to center my own feelings and react based on feeling attacked. This typically makes the problem worse. Here is a process I work with to move in a more generative direction:

  • Recognize that I am feeling ashamed/defensive or responding in a way that is harmful.
  • Name that out loud. “I’m being defensive/I’m feeling ashamed/I’m being really racist and sexist right now.” (This is context-specific and not always safe or appropriate, but it is remarkable in its potential to defuse reactivity. First of all, it stops me in my tracks. Second of all, it helps me move out of shame’s state of disconnection.)
  • Take a breath, letting my awareness drop into my body.
  • Sense the physical and emotional experience.
  • Take another breath, and expand around the uncomfortable feelings.
  • Ask myself—What is this person expressing? What are they asking for in this moment?
  • Identify a step I can take now to move toward what is being asked of me.
  • Take the step.

Notice that none of these steps involve telling the other person what to do, arguing with them, or agreeing with them without consideration. Often shame wants us to jump over the discomfort of the moment and defend or apologize excessively, both of which get in the way of us actually hearing what the other person is saying.

When I respond to a call-out with my ego, I notice that my responses often center myself or subtly try to make me look good (or really bad, if I’m in shame). Sometimes this is the best I can do. What I find even better is if my response centers the person I am talking to—not their perceived ego, but their expressed need and desire.

When a person expresses a need or desire to me in a way that arouses feelings of shame, it is tempting to want to dismiss or avoid the topic because I feel uncomfortable. My ego says that to take care of that person would be “giving in” or “rewarding the behavior.” Imagine if a person crossed the desert, was completely dehydrated, and standing behind you in line for the water fountain while you idly checked your phone. It would be understandable for that person to get impatient and loud in their need for you to move.

Your discomfort at being yelled at is less of a priority than their need for water in that moment, and from an outside perspective I think most folks would agree. Lecturing them about asking nicely is not helping anyway. Get out of the way, or if needed, help them get the damn water. Later you can discuss civility.

What trips up a lot of folks raised in whiteness is that pernicious wish to have the perfect response. It doesn’t actually exist, and believing we have it only throws us back into the dualistic ego dilemma. What we can offer is the loving response, one that has compassion for our own struggle and the struggles of the people we care for.

Boundaries are about Self-Respect

Acknowledging and respecting boundaries and limits is healthy and gives us power, yet I notice often folks seem to set boundaries in ways that are ineffective and self-defeating. Or we set boundaries but then fail to support them. All of this leads to frustration and dissatisfaction in relationships.

What helps me think about boundaries is to start with the most immediate and tangible one: my skin. My skin is a boundary between my body and the external world. It keeps things together. It is somewhat permeable. It delimits that for which I have responsibility and authority. Violating this boundary has immediate consequences and causes me pain. Your skin is your boundary.

Subtler psychic and interpersonal boundaries are not the same but ideally arise similarly from our own center and experience. All I really have control or responsibility over is myself, and even that comes from a process of expanding in consciousness and capacity for responsibility.

Responsibility, power, and consequences all play a role in boundaries. A boundary is not about controlling other people’s behavior; it’s about communicating my expectations and enforcing the consequences. Here’s an example: “I appreciate when you invite me over, but I can’t eat certain foods. When you ignore that, I get sick. I’ve told you my food sensitivities a few times, and every time you ignore them, I feel less interested in having dinner with you.”

This describes a situation in which the person with food sensitivities has been disrespected and endangered. This boundary is communicating both the personal consequences—I get sick—the good faith efforts to work with the other person, and then the interpersonal consequences—I don’t want to come over for dinner. The latter are the consequences that often we find hardest to enforce, but from this frame, there’s actually nothing to “enforce.” I’m simply letting you know how your behavior affects me and listening to my feelings. You can decide what to do with that information.

Image of a person spinning rainbow-neon lights in circles in a dark background.

Photo by Tyler Lastovich

This isn’t an ultimatum or a threat, and doesn’t need to be stated that way. Ultimatums or threats come from the belief that I can coerce you to do what I really want, which is sometimes successful in the short-term but rarely in the long-term. It’s a statement of self-observation. It’s listening to and respecting your self and not enabling others to disrespect you.

“What if they keep making food I can’t eat?” Then you listen to yourself and stop going over for dinner, or if you absolutely cannot stop then you can unapologetically make accommodations for yourself. For some, setting and enforcing boundaries brings up guilt and shame. That happens, but if you’ve told this person what you need and they proved unwilling to listen or adjust their behavior, you’ve done due diligence. It is painful and sad to recognize that people we want to be important to us are not behaving with respect. We can’t control them or force them to change. It is quite vulnerable to decide we are going to behave as though we’re worthy of respect, even if parts of us don’t quite feel that way. But threatening consequences that never happen only diminishes the power of our words. 

Your primary responsibility to the other person is to communicate your expectations and the consequences. In many cases, once you actually begin to have and respect your own boundaries, the folks who are used to disrespecting you will act out and try to guilt, coerce, or force you to continue accommodating them. Yet you owe them no further explanations or compromise. You can reiterate your expectations, or tell them what you need to see to rebuild trust, but you don’t need to sacrifice your health or dignity.

Nothing to Fix

In the past few years my thinking has shifted around the idea of “fixing.” I am of the opinion that when it comes to myself, the idea of being “broken” or needing to be “fixed” comes from internalized shame and is not useful for the work of becoming whole and in integrity.

This is a confrontational idea. We are so beset by ideas of who we are “supposed” to be. When we look to the harm we do to ourselves and our loved ones, or the harm done by others, it sounds bizarre to hear someone say there’s nothing to be “fixed.”

I do not suggest there is no harm being done, and there aren’t people who do and espouse evil. I simply do not think shame offers us anything useful for becoming whole and building harmonious communities. Shame as wielded today is a tool of dominance and social control. “You are bad” is all it has to offer. “You are broken.” “Fixing” has denotations of fastening into place as well as repair. “Fixing” is about maintaining things as they are, not transforming the lead of life into gold.

When we believe that judgment is an essential truth, then we have no room to grow or become better. If I’m bad, then everything I do to become better is still based on the premise of my badness. All of my works, my good efforts, my skills have been built over the shoddy foundation of my badness. As soon as I make any kind of mistake or hurt someone, or am myself hurt—an absolutely inevitable risk and reality of living any kind of enjoyable life—it cuts right to that foundation and seems to confirm it as the underlying bedrock truth. “See? You were bad all along. You simply hid it well.”

From a mindfulness-based perspective, this is an exceptionally convincing illusion. When we sit in meditation, we become aware of a deeper level of awareness and a broader experience of Selfhood that is able to experience pain and joy but is neither and both. It is the field on which these experiences play out. When I connect with that sense of spacious Self, I find myself fully capable of expressing the qualities of life I most desire. It is like I discover I already am the person I always wanted to be.

And then I get stuck in one of these smaller parts of me, the ones that carry all my doubts and fears and anger, and I forget that spaciousness and become convinced that this smallness is my truth. So I have to keep practicing.

This is why there is nothing to “fix.” The idea that I have to “fix” comes from this smallness, this idea that I am “bad” but I can make myself “better.” It is not coming from that spacious Self, and its solutions are inevitably limited and stuck in the smaller thinking that only maintain the problem.

A green glass alembic of Iranian origin

An alchemical Alembic of Iranian origin

If I start with the assumption that I am basically good, that everything in me is striving for wholeness and integrity, then I have to take my inner conflicts seriously without taking sides. The parts of me that cause harm, lash out, and interfere with my goals do so with a notion of my best interests. They try, in their painful ways, to bring something important to my attention, and my work is to—as best as I can today—drop out of my attitude of trying to categorize and fix and into a deeper listening, witnessing state. To really understand what these parts want and fear, and why this upsetting pattern persists in spite of all my efforts to “fix.”

At times this means putting limits on the parts of me that are causing harm, which is in practice easier when I am doing so from a place of acceptance and non-shaming. It is not about accepting all behavior and outcomes. It is about accepting the innate dignity of every part of me and a willingness to seek out what needs liberation within the painful and harmful impulses.

This process of listening and understanding allows these conflicts to soften and dissolve into each other. With time, a solution emerges—including facets of all—a way forward that moves out of the stuckness, reduces harm, and increases efficacy.

Changing the Things We Cannot Accept

At New Year’s Eve 2016, I was at a friend’s house and noticed a book on the astrology of 2017. Some of us picked it up and looked it over, in conversation. From the author’s picture I had immediate (and inaccurate) judgments of the content, thinking it would be a relatively shallow New-Agey text. When I flipped open the book, the first thing I saw was this quote was this epigraph:

“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing things I cannot accept.” – Dr. Angela Davis

Holy shit, I thought. Even the nice white New Age lady is pissed off.

Earlier this year I was thinking about mental hygiene during a propaganda war, which continues to be a worthwhile practice and point of contemplation as the United States’s traditional arbiters of meaning have gone to war against each other and insurgent communities are using this opportunity to flood us with noise, misinformation, and seductively simple answers.

No matter how powerful anger makes us feel, it’s exhausting to be angry and guarded all the time. It’s exhausting to feel overwhelmed and powerless. And as life-transforming as it is to accept what we cannot change, there are times when it is also necessary to change what we cannot accept.*

When I feel the most cynical, despondent, and powerless, that’s when I know I need to get off my ass and do something important to me. If there’s a cause that matters, then I need to make the phone calls to the congresspeople, go to the city hall meeting, even symbolic gestures like lending material support to works I care about. Powerlessness is a significant feature of several mental health disorders, which can lead to a complete surrender of agency like a major depressive episode or, seemingly paradoxically, into destructive expressions of rage.

We are made to be heard and seen, to have an impact on our surroundings, and to belong to a community. These days, it is unfortunately all too easy to lack any of these experiences of connection and personal or social power. And people who have felt powerless or victimized—whether we think it’s warranted or not—are quick to jump onto self-righteousness and gleeful joy in others’ suffering should the balance of power abruptly shift.

None of this is particularly helpful in changing the things we cannot accept. Spite often relishes the conditions that cause it. People nourishing spite love being attacked and persecuted, even if they accuse others of being “victims,” because the high of feeling self-righteous feels more enticing than the vulnerability of acknowledging how one has been hurt and what one truly wants.

This is one of the reasons why I am a proponent of setting aside labels like “good” “bad” “positive” or “negative” for our feelings—fixating on the “good”-feeling feelings and avoiding the “bad”-feeling feelings can turn us into self-absorbed assholes. Whereas embracing the value of all of our feelings, and understanding that taking meaningful action might engender painful or “bad”-feeling feelings ultimately contributes to true personal power. Changing the things we cannot accept is rarely easy and without stress, but these are the experiences that draw upon the virtues of courage and resilience—the qualities we celebrate in our heroes.

* Discerning between the things we can and cannot change is a subject larger than the scope of a blog post. However, I do think they are complementary. As I learn the things about myself that I cannot change and must accept, so am I better able to accept these things in other people. Then my efforts toward changing what I cannot accept are more effective, as I’m wasting less energy on things out of my control.