My adult son texted me on the heels of a recent mass shooting. “I don’t want to live in America anymore, Mom.” Under his anger, I detected a question: How do you regain balance when the world breaks your heart?
On that early morning, having just read the news myself, I didn’t have much wisdom to offer. My hope for our country, like many people’s, had taken multiple knockout punches. I knew he was looking for me to tell him something encouraging.
In midlife, a time of personal recalibration on every level—family, career, health, beliefs—the problems of the world can feel too much to handle. Especially after decades of caring for other people, parenting or otherwise, we just want a break. And still, as personal responsibilities wind down, the cries of the world grow louder. In an ongoing pandemic riddled with a devolution of civil rights, safety, and freedom, it’s tough to fend off despair.
I’ve recently begun studying the work of Adrienne Maree Brown, author and activist for social change. She argues that long-term sustainability in any work, including activism, requires pleasure, which she defines as “happiness, joy, contentment, and satisfaction.” Brown says that the actions we take on an individual level affect our whole civilization. Her work is based on the science of fractals, which are repeating patterns seen in nature—consider the similarities between ferns and forests, for example. In nature, how we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.
“There are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe,” Brown says, “And what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.”
Antidote to despair
Put simply: to regain balance when the world breaks your heart, consider turning to the antidote of pleasure. What brings you happiness, joy, and contentment? What and who do you love? If you’re grasping to name five pleasures, stop everything now, get quiet, relax, and let the answers come to you.
I delight in slowing down at this time in my life. I was once a single mother responsible for all the groceries, laundry, meals, bills, and after-school activities. Now I have more freedom. I can watch the sunrise or rollerblade in the park in the evening. I can eat a popcorn lunch at a Saturday matinee or read a riveting novel on my porch swing.
And how, you might ask, does this help solve societal ills? Pleasure fosters aliveness, which fosters presence in the world. Generosity toward oneself leads to generosity for others. And as Brown suggests, the act of self-kindness reverberates to the larger scale.
A long walk
After I received my son’s text, I took a long walk with my husband in a nearby canyon. The wildflowers waved in the breeze as the sun rose over the mountain. In the pink light, I felt my heart expand and responded:
I wish our country were better for you and your sister. Have you considered writing a song about it? (My son is a musician.) This is a terrifying moment, but we are the people born to this time. Division and fighting aren’t helping us. Now is a time for creativity and courage. I believe you and I have something to offer. Let’s talk about how we can help.
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