Recent research suggests that the function of sleep is to clear out the accumulation of toxins that build up between brain cells during the waking day. And it is said that if there is any sense to be made of the dreams that roll through us in the night, it is that they absorb and process the accumulated emotions of the day; repairing, healing, restoring.
These days, I fall asleep under a cloud of sadness. In the morning I find I am momentarily disoriented. I know I am still sad but I can’t remember why. Then it comes back in layers.
At work, we are observing “26 Days of Kindness”, a commemoration of the lives of the children and their teachers who died at Sandy Hook in 2012. Each morning we look at the image and story of a dead child, and are asked to offer a small act of kindness to someone in our lives.
Our agency sees children at the first point of a child abuse investigation, and recently we had all been shaken by the case of a frail 8 year old child, malnourished and covered with bruises; more troubling and more disturbing than usual.
We also offer supportive mental health treatment to stressed and traumatized children in area schools. One morning recently, we watched a New York Times video about a Syrian psychiatrist using very similar interventions to ours, with the youngest victims of Syrian civil war. All of a sudden these were not “Syrian children”, “other children” or “refugees”; they were just like ours.
On the evening of November 13, we began to hear news of the series of attacks in Paris. 130 dead. On November 27, a gunman shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, killing three. And as I drove home on Monday, December 2, I began to hear about the shootings at a community social service center in San Bernardino; 14 deaths. It’s a setting somewhat like the place I work in, where we’ve had several lockdowns this year because of upset parents whose children are in protective custody.
So I retrieve these memories in waves each morning, because there is not enough sleep in the world right now to detoxify my brain each night. And the next to be retrieved is the dread that in this new day, I will encounter more of those entrenched emotional views about the free availability of guns – assault weapons, specifically — and the deadly combination of scared and angry people. Trigger happy; hair trigger — too likely to make the problem worse instead of better. We are in an epidemic that puts us far and ahead of any our peer nations when it comes to homicidal violence. We are so polarized culturally on this issue that there seems to be little potential for any form of dialogue. In the December 6 New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff‘s editorial is headlined “Hysteria about refugees but Blindness on Guns”.
And the next thing that I do each morning is to check my broken heart, take a deep breath, remember to keep myself calm, and try to keep my heart open for another day. I don’t want to be angry or vengeful. I don’t want to shut down; I don’t want to be cynical; I don’t want to feel helpless either.
I had begun reading healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer, after a heartbreak far smaller than any of these. Last spring, a development company proposed to build 36 housing units on a lot in our neighborhood. In keeping with the “Housing First” movement, these would be used as transitional housing for families in which a parent had a substance abuse or mental health disorder, and needed stable housing to get their lives back together. I’d seen this idea work in my many years at Heartland Family Service.
The proposed site had a convenience store on it which was torn down probably 20 years ago, after a clerk chased someone who’d stolen a 40 ounce bottle of beer– shooting and killing him. The site was leveled, and has sat vacant ever since. And as if it were biblical land strewn with salt, there has been no serious commercial interest, ever. It is at the intersection of two heavy traffic radials, without a safe way for pedestrians to cross or cars to exit the area. At a neighborhood meeting, a poorly prepared representative of the developer stood up to describe the project. Their planned message about how much they cared about human beings hit exactly the wrong note. The hostility in the room sat right below the surface, erupting at the first chance of a break for questions. One man decried the plague of drug addicts and criminals who would soon create a threat to our neighborhood. He knew for a fact that no on site social services could control these problems because his sister lived in one of “those places” and the police were always being called there. The apartments would be full of “baby mamas” who would invite their gang affiliated baby daddies over. They would break into our homes and probably litter as well (a tired old complaint about the former convenience store on that site). A woman claimed that we did not need more of “these people” or “these types of projects” to bring our neighborhood down. Let some other neighborhood get taken down this time. Our city councilman, present to hear the proposal, had the courage to call people out on the derogatory and race coded language; and to speak up for the benefits of the project.
There were multiple problems. It was way too small a space for 36 families, and the location was not safe for children to enter and exit. The developers missed a zoning deadline, and the project has been shelved for now. But I left the meeting silent and heartbroken. How did parents and children trying to make a new start become such a monstrous threat? I am sure this hostility is not new among my neighbors, but seldom has it been so openly aired in a public setting. It is a crushing disappointment. I wondered how I could be part of this community. I retreated, thinking I was done with the association.
It was around this time that I discovered Parker Palmer’s book. His use of the word “broken heart” drew me in. I read his weekly columns for “On Being” and had been reflecting since New Year’s Day on his “Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold”. He wrote the book in a time of personal despair and depression, in the years following 9/11, “wounded and overwhelmed by fear”. The book explores the territory of disagreement, how emotionally polarized it has become, how quick we are to label and avoid “the other”, the stranger, and how difficult it is for conversation to bridge the distance between those like us and those unlike us.
I have often wondered if our country will break apart; I have certainly wondered what it means to be whole. Palmer goes back to the time of the Civil War, when the nation was about to break apart Our democracy was held together by a leader who also suffered severe bouts of depression in his life – Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, he says, “has much to teach us about embracing political tension in a way that opens our hearts to each other, no matter how deep our differences”. How can our broken hearts stand to hold the tension until we are capable of understanding and healing it, without turning our backs on each other?
In our neighborhood, I can’t shut down. It’s home. We have obligations to one another, small ones like looking out for dogs, kids, and packages on the porch; mowing the parkway, tending the gardens. I decided that I couldn’t be silent on the housing issue and would not be when the next one came up. I paid our dues, vowing that as members, “we will be a thorn in your side”. I posted a letter on the neighborhood site: “We don’t all agree. Let’s have some compassion. Let’s be realistic about what this development, or the next one, really means for our neighborhood. If there are problems let’s solve them”.
I’ve taken six months to read and reflect on healing the heart. I have shared the ideas at work, in the bar on Friday night, on Facebook, in meetings with friends and associates. Inside my everyday notebook I have taped a copy of the “five habits of the heart”: we are in this together; we appreciate otherness; we hold tension in life giving ways; we have personal voice and agency; and we have the capacity to create community. I took a deep breath and went to the next neighborhood meeting. Recently, one of the neighbors who opposed the development, but did so civilly, stopped while riding by on his bicycle to say he’d seen my post on the neighborhood site. We had a nice chat and we still don’t agree but I feel like I belong here again.
It’s a small thing. When I wake up tomorrow I will try again.