When Your Heart Breaks for Strangers
How do we avoid spiraling into anxiety when the news is so bad?
I don’t struggle with anxiety much anymore. I’ve done a lot of work over the years, and for the most part, I manage it well now. I still worry about things, of course. But those worries don’t generalize and take over everything.
I’m no longer a news junkie either. Several years ago, I realized I needed to curb my voracious appetite for minute-by-minute updates on the dumpster-fire of US politics.
But I still check in daily and stay informed on the big developments.
So, on Thursday of last week, I was aware of the recent mass shooting in my neighborhood park, and the worsening plight of the thousands of people living in the streets of my city. Nationally, I was aware of the most recently uncovered corruption, and the latest hate crime trial verdict.
But what loomed large in my mind that day were the the Russian shells falling on the city of Kyiv--on the homes of regular people, who like my friends and family here in the US, should have been doing regular things like getting to work, doing errands, daydreaming about their next vacation, and taking care of their families. Reading the news on my laptop, in my relatively safe and quiet home, it all felt a little unreal. A little insane.
For the first time in a long time, I felt that droning buzz of anxiety. That feeling of tension and doom, as if something dark and unknown and insanely bad was about to happen.
My stomach felt a little jumpy and sick—like when you have stage fright or you're waiting for an aftershock.
Being highly empathic--and prone to overthinking and rumination--it would be easy to give into anxiety--spiral into fear, anger, and sadness. But that wouldn’t help anybody. Not the victims of the mass shootings and hate crimes; not the people living in the icy streets of Portland; and not those trying to keep their families safe in Kyiv.
And it certainly wouldn't do me any good. Because the anxiety would never end. Our western media is very focused on the tragedy in eastern Europe, but there's a conflict raging somewhere in the world at all times. There is always chaos, turmoil, and suffering going on somewhere.
“If you’re invested in security and certainty, you are on the wrong planet.” -Pema Chodron
Of course we can try to help. We can stay informed, vote, pray, donate money, do our best. And if enough people step up, we can even make a difference in some way—maybe help alleviate a little of the pain, injustice, and insecurity in the world. But we can't keep everyone safe. That’s just part of the deal when you're living on this planet at this time.
So how do we keep ourselves from collapsing into anxiety and survivor’s guilt when we know others are suffering? What can we do when we feel heartbroken for people we’ve never met, on the other side of the world?
Feeling it All
When I was a teenager, my dad and I went to see Ram Dass speak. At one point he explained his experience of remaining open-hearted in a world that includes so much suffering. I don’t remember the words he used, but I’ll never forget his message.
Ram Dass explained that, in every moment, he was aware of the pain and suffering in the world. And it was heartbreaking. But at the same time, he was also sensing every experience of love and joy. And that was blissful. He said it was all balanced within him.
If we can remain open to the totality of our Earthly reality--the suffering and chaos; the love, beauty, and joy--it all evens out to create a sort of exquisite and open-hearted stillness inside. A full-spectrum experience of our collective existence.
We care about the people and animals who share our planet, so when they suffer it hurts us too. But we need to avoid sinking into the despair that can come from taking on the weight of all the sorrows of the world until they are all we can carry.
It isn’t about being in denial of suffering. And it’s not about denying our feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety. Those are all real. But to focus only on the painful--when there is so much goodness and joy in the world--is also a form of denial.
It is possible to be a little heartbroken and still maintain our focus on the beauty around us and on the gratitude within our hearts.✪
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