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Emotional Emergency: Looking at our own Resilience

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By Carol Smaldino, CSW

We interrupt the royal wedding programming to give you urgent sources of obligatory worry if democracy is to become more than a word. There is nothing about this that can trump (sorry for the pun) -- at least for most of us -- the details of a royal wedding, the fairy tale of another Camelot, that we can all watch together. Who would choose a discussion of our take on torture above the ceremonies? What would happen if we didn't feel the choice? But here is a question about juggling in a culture that thrives on multitasking. While the capacity to multitask can cause a generalized distraction from detail and depth, it can also permit us to be aware of different channels, different aspects of ourselves, our lives, our country and our world.

So while the attention of the globe is focused on royal nuptials, I cannot help but ponder other more pressing issues that deserve press attention. How does this country feel about torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan? What does President Obama feel and think about the reports issued about Guantanamo in recent days?

As a Jew, albeit a secular one, I ask my fellow Jews: how do you feel about the Nuremberg decree that following orders was not a lawful defense for Nazi perpetrators of sadism and killing? How do you feel about that notion being applied to anyone else, which definitely raises the issue of patriotism for all of us?

Does patriotism include our capacity to question -- for the love of country, for the love of humanity, for the love of conscience and consciousness? Or is it all relative, whereby those we have decided are a threat to this nation have become less than human, even less than the dogs we love more than anything, to be chained and tormented and humiliated with no exit for hope and dignity?

Is it okay for us as a nation to be divided to the point where we cannot discuss differences without hatred ruling all? And what of the religions that command us to be cognizant of our actions, do they apply just on our Sabbath or Christmas or in the hymns to God Whomever?

When is it time to interrupt the normal programming of melodrama, local murders with the view of disasters in our weather systems? Moreover, when does a crisis in the human and emotional weather system demand an interruption, putting our attention, facing the stories of the detainees whose torments are -- I admit -- too painful for me to watch for more than seconds.

I refuse, perhaps unable but for sure unwilling, to completely relinquish my idealism. I have seen and even treated people -- individuals and families -- who have shifted from orientations of power to those of relationship, not that they are unrelated. It is, however an alternative many will choose when they see its effectiveness, to operate through using human connection, mutuality and self-awareness to set boundaries without entering into endless power struggles that don't end.

Part of self awareness, however, does push us towards seeing things from different angles and within frames we hadn't tried before. In terms of bullying for example: Just because some authority talks louder and faster and more condescendingly than anyone else, doesn't mean that "authority" is right. In terms of patriotism: Loving a country or a person for real is monitoring and caring enough to become a critical thinker and advocate, courageous enough to interrupt the ones we love in their addictions, illness, and to be there for them through difficult times.

In terms of our soldiers: do they deserve the empathy so that we hear their fears, their rages, their outrage and their trauma? Do we want to hear them, not solely "train" them into a resilience that can pass over their own terrors? About bullies or tormentors in general, are we willing to hear their stories so we know how easily it is to deteriorate into depravity when any of us feel up against a wall? And about Jews, and this one I know: many of us have said we do not know how we would have fared if made "capo" in a concentration camp forced upon punishment of death to torment other Jews to save our hides, if only for a day? For that matter, what about Nazis: can we stand to hear the stories of adrenalin unleashed, that goes to a blood lust and the fever of hating?

And about blame: can we afford to examine our own lust for blame, for the "axis" of evil always looked for outside of us as an avoidance of the complexity and variety of emotion that exists in each of us. For sure there were weddings in Nazi Germany and many indeed turned their attention away from any concern about the cruelty and the Jews who were so dehumanized and debased by the culture at large, for the most part.

We are made imperfect, and admitting that would go a long way towards beginning dialogues not pre-scripted. I do know that hating each other extracts something from our humanity, that the tone itself of hate fests that pass for discussions exacts a toll to our capacity for caring. We are all connected, not only to each other, but to our own selves. The more we are ashamed of our own "little crimes"--our eating, our spending, our fights and little and big flaws and addictions -- the less compassion and gentleness we will afford ourselves. If we look in our mirrors with perfectionistic gazes, where do we expect to grow the compassion we need for each other.

We talk a lot about diversity, and we hole ourselves up in different interests and campaigns that we suppose are really separate. We focus too rarely on commonalities, for the good and for the bad. We need to be open to our capacity for cruelty so we can grow the compassion from within, as it doesn't seem to grow on trees.

If that were our mission, there would be time -- I'm supposing -- for the royal wedding or whatever soccer or football game of choice -- and for our coming together to question how we feel. Once again, I'm offering "Tell me a Story" as a concept and practice for helping us humanize the road to and from hatred. Once we see the similarities between ourselves and others, without the brutality of perfectionism, we can recover. We can find and invent supports, this I promise.