Anxious Activist, Part 1: Gratitude as a Tool for Self-Care and Social Justice

For the next three weeks, I will be posting an Anxious Activist post on Wednesday afternoons, highlighting spiritual practices which could assist in better self-care and self-maintenance for activists living with anxiety. This first post will focus on the spiritual practice of gratitude.

Please note: I am a bi-racial (white/Arab American passing as white), cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman who writes through those lenses. I know there are a number of mental health conditions which could be discussed in relations to self-care and activism, and I will be writing only about anxiety, as a person living with anxiety and not as a medical professional.

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Every night for the last six weeks, I’ve engaged in a daunting spiritual practice.

Each night, I’ve opened my pink Princess Peach journal and written down four moments for which I felt gratitude in the previous 24 hours.

They range from a clean house to a productive work day, hearing back from my therapist to playing a favorite song, even coloring a Pikachu page gifted by my colleague’s son and maintaining a collected mental state when I felt tempted to spiral out of control. My husband and his actions come up a lot, as do our Brooklyn Nine-Nine marathons and snuggling with our kitties. On particularly rough days, I find myself scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything positive to include, but I still write it down.

Gratitude as a spiritual practice has been on my mind for several years. I remember my friends from the Pentecostal church of my youth engaging in the practice on Facebook either for the month of November or, for the more ambitious types, a full year. They would post photos with captions about their gratitudes, and I found my timeline full of snapshots of children, steaming mugs of coffee and tea, spouses, life events, and clean kitchens.

I enjoyed seeing their photos and gratitudes, but I often worried that they acted more as signs of privilege and remedies to “first-world problems” instead of actual examples of God’s grace. Since I’m a person with a significant amount of privilege as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, and able-bodied person, I didn’t think it right to broadcast what was going well in my already great life and call it a manifestation of God’s favor. It didn’t seem to do any justice or provide any assistance to people with less power and privilege. Not to mention, I was already a major cynic at this time, and expressing gratitude for such “mundane things” seemed beneath me and my nihilistic worldview.

But as I began to engage more in political and social activism and dealt with the constant threat of burnout, mental exhaustion, and apathy, put into hyperdrive with my anxiety, I thought back to those past posts of gratitude and wondered if these folks were onto something.

I thought about the posts from people of privilege living in their safe and secure walls, and I also recalled the examples of grace expressed between groups of marginalized people. I thought of the Black Lives Matter youth rallying support for all victims of police brutality, the strength of LGBTQ+ siblings who continue to engage with faith communities who cannot decide if they want to include or exclude them, and the radical and vulnerable expressions of love Muslim leaders showed to victims of anti-Semitic persecution.

So when I finally decided to take up a gratitude journal, I decided not of focus solely on the tokens of privilege in my life. Instead, I learned to focus on the gracious actions done by people around me, and the moments of grace I extended to myself when I was less than “perfect.”

Practicing the art of gratitude can be a positive influence for our activism. When we note moments of grace and mercy in our lives, we become more gracious and merciful people, first to ourselves, then to each other. When we remember to accept the cup of water handed to us, we might be more inclined to share some sips from it or pour a cup for someone else in need.

This practice can also remind us we are not alone in this life or in these struggles. Noticing how others have reached out to us in our difficult times, through a message, an embrace, a gift of food, or practical assistance, we might begin to notice how even in our most anxious moments and in the most troubling times, there is someone by our sides who is with and for us. We might even become inclined to be that support for another who is marginalized, either by a systemic issue or their own trauma and pain.

And, perhaps most important of all, practicing gratitude will remind us to extend grace to ourselves. Perhaps we will be more gracious with ourselves when we deal with anxiety, burnout, failure, and other traits and results normally deemed “undesirable.” Perhaps we will learn to accept we are both holy and dust, divine beings in limited bodies and spaces, and we will learn to be gentle with instead of rough on ourselves. We need the strength to keep going, and self-expressed grace can be the balm to soothe and heal our wounds that we might otherwise seek to make worse.

And as I look at these moments of grace extended to others, I learned more about extending that same grace to myself, because how can I give a cup of water to another when my own cup is bone dry, and I am dehydrated?

Gratitude is a radical action, for the one in a position of power and the one on the margins. When we remember we all belong to one another, we express gratitude for God’s loving presence among us. When we remember we as individuals are beloved by God, in our divinity and our humanity, we express grace to ourselves when we are not at our best. And it could whet our appetite enough to seek more grace not only for ourselves, but for those to whom little grace seems to exist.

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My First Anxious Moment

I remember I was 4 years old. Or 5.

I remember my best friend Emily was visiting me.

We were in the living room. Toys were scattered on the floor. My doll house. My fire truck. My Barbies and a few stuffed animals.

And I was crying inconsolably.

I sputtered out my reason between the sputtering sobs: “Emily doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t like me. She isn’t having fun.”

My mother told me it wasn’t true. She even point blank asked Emily if she was having fun, to which she graciously, and perhaps falesly, replied “Yes.”

Later on, we went to the playground at the school where Mom worked, right across the street from our apartment.

Emily climbed the jungle gym. I stayed on the ground, once again weeping.

Same fears.

“She doesn’t want to be here.”

“She doesn’t like me.”

“She isn’t having fun.”

Same consolations.

“That’s not true.”

“She does like you.”

“She is having fun.”

And the big one: “The only reason she wouldn’t be having fun is because you’re so upset.”

Which inadvertently caused me to feel more upset.

Emily played. I wept.

(Emily and Mom, if you’re reading this and remember that day, I am so sorry.)

It’s been 23 years since this first anxious moment, and I’ve seen it play out so many times.

In friendships, classrooms, romances, my interactions with my family, the workplace, and church.

In every close relationship I’ve had, there comes a time when the song inevitably plays, and it often gets stuck on repeat.

“My best friend hates me.”

“My teacher doesn’t think I’m smart enough.”

“My husband is mad at me.”

“My parents are judging me for not being like them.”

“My colleagues don’t think I’m as good as them.”

“My fellow Christians look down on me.”

It’s a song I hate, yet it plays on and on, rarely ceasing.

That’s not to say things haven’t improved.

Yes, the thoughts ring in my head, but most days, the volume is low. The annoying sound becomes background noise, and some days, I can even hear a lighter, sweeter, calmer melody instead. Most days, I have some degree of control over the sound, so even when I notice the noise drifting to an uncomfortable level, I am conscious enough to turn it down.

That’s the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work.

And then there are days I lose control of the dial, and it’s cranked to 11, and the speakers threaten to blow out.

That’s also the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work, but instead they are losing to my mind, which has gone into dumpster-fire-mode. (It’s like normal mode, only over-caffeinated and with fangs).

When I find myself in these moments, I start to wonder.

I wonder what my childhood might have been like if I had actually felt like a child, not someone carrying the weight and worries of the world on her small shoulders. I wonder what my adolescence could have been like if the anxiety had not paralyzed me from pursuing my dreams of theater, athletics, and writing. I wonder how much less strain and baggage my friendships, family relationships, and marriage would contain if I could actually trust that all of these people loved me for me.

I wonder what is it like to be truly free from this burden, to not wait for the next panic attack, or to not beat yourself up when you say the wrong thing, or to not question if your dearest loved ones are out to get you.

I only catch glimpses of that Promised Land of No-Second-Guesses once in a while, and they are freeing and wonderful.

But to live a whole life like that? I doubt I’ll ever know what that’s like.

It’s hard to accept that the fears you had at age 4 are still the ones you carry in your heart in your late 20s, and maybe even will carry your whole life.

And the only way out I know is through struggle: the daily struggle to keep my thoughts from consuming me, to consciously remind myself that I am loved when I only feel worthy of hate, to battle with my mind on a regular basis.

I struggle, alone and with others on my journey, so I may rest again at the feet of contentment.

And each time, I hope the respite lasts longer than the previous one.

Water for the Fiery Soul: My Brief Break from Watching the News Everyday

Active.com

When Mom was pregnant with me, she swam daily laps in the community pool at her Orlando apartment complex.

And as she swam, I kicked and tumbled within her womb like a wild child.

Water has always been my favorite element. But me? I’m not like water. I’m like fire.

I burn. I blaze trails, burn bridges, and destroy foundations. I engulf my surroundings and heat them up to their melting and warping points. I don’t change for them; I make them change for me. I leave trails of ashes, kindling, and charred remains. I leave behind smoke that chokes throats, stings eyes, and makes people gasp for breath.

Water is my opposite. It can flood, damage, and drown, but it also cleanses and flows. It takes the shape of its containters instead of forcing them to adjust for it. It is a habitat and home for a variety of creatures. It cools, refreshes, gurgles, and comforts.

I am fire, and I love water. But if I’m honest with myself, I spend more time in the fire, especially in the past year.

I’ve been following the news everyday, especially as it relates to civil rights activism, Islamaphobia, and police brutality. And it’s burned like the fires of hell. One week, it burned white-hot, and I felt its pain and consumption. I realized I was very thirsty. I wasn’t quite parched yet, but dehydration was close.

So in the past few weeks, I stepped away from the fire to partake of the water I love and so desperately need.

I’ve gone swimming in my future in-laws’ pool for various get-togethers. I watered my mother’s plants while she was away on vacation. I planned and helped execute a summer day camp with my co-workers and some amazing volunteers, during which I drank gallons of water.

I began a new fantasy series. I binge-watched American Gods and Preacher and am in the process of re-reading the later’s comic series.

I began moving out of our current house and moving in with my future in-laws as we search for our first home as a married couple.

I added to our registry and began a honeymoon fund. I spent time looking through old pictures of myself and Bryce to send to my cousins as they prepare my bridal shower, and I’ve seen how much the two of us have grown in a million ways. I ordered invitations, cake toppers, and ring bearer boxes, and I browsed wedding rings. In short, for the first time in this process, I thoroughly enjoyed wedding planning.

After a long time dwelling in the fire, the water quenched my parched throat and washed out my stinging eyes. It flushed away the soot and cooled my burning skin. It carried me to new places I would otherwise avoid and ignore. After the fire’s deafening roar, the water spoke softly to me.

When I jumped into activism, I kept hearing pleas to be careful, to remember the discipline of self-care and protection from burnout, to treat it like a marathon and not a sprint. And I said, “Yeah, OK, Mom, I’ll be good and I’ll be fine.”

And this still happened.

I’m afraid to go to the waters and partake. After all this time, I’m still afraid the world will stop turning without me and my voice, opinions, and actions. I’m afraid people will become more racist and hateful if I don’t constantly remind them of how messed up the world is because of their hardened hearts.

I’m afraid to take a break from being God. I’m still recovering from this freaking Messiah-complex.

But I remind myself that while in the water of my mother’s womb, I wiggled and played as she swam in the water of her community pool, relishing in its coolness and flow, wanting to join her out there in that big, scary, mysterious world. Mom had a little ball of fire in her womb, and all that firecracker wanted was to swim in that refreshing pool of water with her.

I am still a ball of fire who yearns for the quenching water, a raging inferno that desires the easy, steady flow of the river. As I’ve drank deeply of the water, I’ve wondered how to reconcile the fire within me and the water that brings me such joy and contentment. I’m still figuring out how to swim in the water without extinguishing my flames.

Maybe, one day, I’ll be ready to embrace both my inner fire and my deep desire and need for the flowing water.

At least until my dominant fire takes over again and I have to burn for a while before I realize how parched I am.

And then I begin again.

Fire in Our Bones

fire

Christianity Today

“I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

Jeremiah 20:9

There is fire within all of us. It can refine, and it can consume until nothing is left. The fire can warm us, and it can burn us.

Fire escapes containment. It spreads, and it tends to do on the outside what it is doing on the inside. If it is refining us, it can refine others. If it is consuming us, it can completely consume others. If it is warming us, it can warm the minds, bodies, and souls of others. If it is burning us, it can hurt others.

I struggle to keep my own flames in check. My passion can burn bright and warm people into action. It can also reach points which harm myself and those closest to me.

This is why prayer, rest, community, reading, and laughter are crucial. These practices keep the flames burning while preventing them from destroying me, which in turn can prevent me from burning friends, family, and allies in harmful ways.

In my very limited time of political involvement, I’ve realized the importance of maintaining these flames. I try to keep the fire at refining levels when I talk to my representative and senators. I let the fire burn with power at marches and meetings without allowing it to burn me to a crisp.

But the fire of passion threatens to turn into destructive hate when I hear naysayers and snowflake-accusers tell us as a movement to “get over ourselves,” “accept results,” and “just wait and see how things happen.”

Don’t they understand?

We have waited. Things are happening, and we oppose them. Things are happening that affect not only my family, but other American families. Things are happening which threaten our humanity, because they threaten the humanity of many. My liberation is bound up in the liberation of those on the margins. As long as they continue to be threatened, I continue to be threatened.

When I hear these attacks, I feel the passionate, beautiful fire in me change into hateful, destructive embers. I begin to feel the flames consuming my soul.

The best I can do to control this dangerous fire is to remind myself over and over that this is not all about me. Yes, I march, call, and write because the holy fire in me compels me to, and it’s part of what makes me a child of God. But I also do this work because of the Divine Image in every person I do and don’t encounter.

I do this work for the Divine Image in my cousin’s little girl Rylan, who celebrates her first birthday today; for the Divine Image of my sisters and brother, that they may live in a world which regards them with love, not suspicion; and for the Divine Image in the refugee detained at the airport, who only wants to begin life anew after witnessing so much destruction.

I do this work because of the Divine Image present in every single human being affected by fear-based policies, for the Black Lives Matter activists who demand just treatment of their divinely made bodies, and for the parents fearful of losing healthcare coverage because their Divine child has certain disabilities. I do this work, as hard as it can be, for the Divine Image present in those who enact these policies and in those who approve them, because they need to see the Divine Image in those affected by the laws they sign.

I do this work to remind my fellow citizens, as well as candidates, delegates, mayors, representatives, senators, cabinet members, and the President to see their own Divine Image, even when it’s disfigured beyond recognition. I want to call that Image out of them so they may see it, because maybe the act of seeing the Divine in themselves will cause them to notice, honor, and endorse the Image in everyone else, especially those they want to keep out.

I worry if we forget Whose we are and why we’re here, we’ll lose our souls. We’ll lose what makes us human, the love, compassion, and mercy God gives each of us, which is more than enough for everyone. I cry out to prevent us putting up walls, promoting fear and hatred, and singling people out as scapegoats, because these actions further damage our humanity.

I worry the act of forgetting our Image will cause us to lose our God-gifted love, compassion, and mercy, and I worry what such a loss will do to my actual Muslim brother, sisters, and parents, my black and brown brothers and sisters, my LGBTQ family, and this human race.

So my challenge to those who believe walls and vetting will save us is this:

Take the fire within you which ignites fear and hatred, and allow it to burn with love and hope. Let it kill the parts which hang on to misguided ideas of “other” and let it push you into life with those you once feared.

My challenge to those resisting and calling out the powers that is this:

Let the fire burn in you. Don’t let it be dimmed by onslaughts of negativity. Let the fire keep you going, and let it warm those who are hurting.

And to those already dealing with the negative repercussions of these policies and all of the ones which came before, I say this to you:

I see your Divine Image. I hear your Divine Cries. Let your fire live and burn bright. We are in this together.

For the sake of our humanity, for the sake of the precious Image of God in us, let the fire burn.