All posts by witch

FEAR AND CONFUSION

I have a theory that scared people are the easiest to confuse. They grasp at straws in a bid for certainty, and that makes them more gullible. Ironically, their craving for assurance leads them down a path of accepting false information and being misguided in ways both big and small. They can be convinced of all sorts of things that others would red flag and question immediately. Because they cannot live in uncertainty. They want to “know” even if it makes them wrong. I have an inside track to more reliable information, working in healthcare. I happen to work at a global center for infectious diseases and related studies, including testing and vaccine development and broad statistical analyses. We have instant access to cutting edge science as it emerges. Not claiming expertise, but simply more ease, comfort, and acceptance in processing the onslaught of COVID information.

Of course, one need not work in healthcare to have a grasp of COVID and the basic preventive measures available today. Many of my non-medical friends seek out and discern what is reliable from the scientific research, government agencies, and international health organizations as well as other sources. They follow current guidelines, and keep up on the data as it emerges. Yet a few people I know choose to ignore the available evidence. They focus instead on the dramatic COVID stories of someone they know of who had it or didn’t get it, who narrowly escaped or died from it, or who was exposed to it and now has terrible problems! Debilitating! And these few weave a tenuous and fragile web of perceived personal safety by throwing around wildly generalized rules of conduct based on some third-hand stories they have unconsciously merged into their personal (fabricated) story. They cling mightily to it as if their lives depend on it. And the conclusions they draw tend to involve a lot of strong feelings about what other people should be doing, along with a sense of certainty that whatever they themselves are doing is correct. They know! They have a friend, a cousin, an acquaintance. They saw a meme, a cartoon, a chart or a graph on social media. It’s true!

It is human nature to try and make sense of the world around us. Otherwise, I don’t think we could handle living in it with all the natural uncertainty that surrounds our daily existence, and the even more frightening certainty of our own mortality. Knowing we are infinitesimally puny in the face of an immense universe (or multiverses!) and that our lives cannot count for much on a such a overwhelmingly immense scale, it is understandable that we want to break down the COVID pandemic information. How else can we begin to digest it? COVID is terrifying and it can sweep in unannounced and unsuspected, leaving permanent holes in our precious circle of loved ones, or even snuff out the very light of our own bodily existence. How can we face this risk?

For some, the same way we face other risks. By relying on the most reasonable sources of scientific information, and avoiding social media and other fear-mongering, misleading sources. Then by focusing on the practical steps we can take that the most reliable studies consider worthwhile: Working remotely. Avoiding unnecessary contact with others. Social distancing in public. Using a mask as appropriate. Using good hygiene and sanitation, along with a full dose of common sense. Now, will these measures guarantee that we and our loved ones do not catch COVID? Of course not. Just as wearing a seat belt, having our car regularly maintained, and driving defensively cannot guarantee that we don’t die or even kill someone in a traffic accident. Yet we don’t spend our time obsessively reading and sharing stories about freak accidents where people burn to death in their vehicles.

One of my friends told me she had read about someone pregnant catching it, and now she is worried sick about a pregnant relative. Another said her cousin who is a nurse caught it at work, and has antibodies, but she just read that having antibodies doesn’t help you. One told me they just read that all this surface washing and hand-washing doesn’t help you at all and even gives a false sense of safety, which puts you at higher risk! Another just saw that masks don’t help much, so it is better to wash a lot. Oh, no! Someone read or heard that keeping your distance is way better than trying to “wash it off afterwards”. So they are just staying at home and not even grocery shopping, getting deliveries at the door and not opening the door until the delivery person is gone. Problem is, she is freaking out because of being alone for so long. Heads are spinning. We want certainty that we won’t die, but of course we will die. We can be certain of that!

So how do we get back to living whatever time we have left without obsessively reading, guts churning, about one more shocking death, one more study that overturns all prior studies, soon to be refuted by another? One more shocking revelation about how broken in health certain of our COVID survivors are, and how it is linked to their blood type, their thymus, their dominant hand or their propensity to freckle? How do we turn off the voices of friends and family when they tell us how dangerous and scary everything is, how very old their grandmother is, how very young their pregnant daughter is, and how we should all stay home lest we all die? How do we move out of these tangled and choking threads of life stories shaped mostly as warning tales reminding us of our very fragile existence, by people desperately trying to weave a cloak of safety for themselves out of thin air?

People are farther apart than ever on what they think is right to do while navigating these quicksands of changing rules and numbers. One said she was justified in traveling to another country because her mother was turning 90 years old. Her friends were shocked, as they are decidedly NOT visiting their elders. One chose to travel to her dual citizenship country, as she had been in quarantine for nearly six months, had been working from home, never went outside without a mask, and had tested negative for COVID. Another friend wrote in response she herself would not feel right to do so, because “I wouldn’t want risk becoming a burden on the country’s healthcare system or harming other people, and I just cannot understand why some people in other countries think they can just do whatever the want!” Emotions run so high and they all circle around being right and making others wrong in order to try to feel safe while actually feeling very scared.

For me, my current philosophy is summed up by what a very wise cousin of mine told me when we fell into discussion about this. We absolutely agree that we must take all reasonable precautions in order to stay alive and protect the people around us, just as we do while driving. Yes. All of that. Be careful. Be responsible. But once you have taken all those steps, don’t shut down in fear, or get paralyzed by it, because then you ARE giving your life to COVID. Don’t presume that anybody you see doing anything different than you (such as visiting their aging mother) is a horrible, dangerous, and irresponsible person. Don’t let yourself wallow in so much fear that you cannot even see clearly, steer clearly, or actually keep yourself as safe and comfortable as you can be. My cousin’s advice to you all is that you be responsible and cautious, and considerate of others. But she added as a vital reminder that once that is accomplished:

“Let us keep in mind that we must also dare to live!”

I am with her.

WHEN IN PAIN

I worked with one of my favorite occupational therapists this week. He is gifted, gentle and practical. He could easily be a drug and alcohol counselor, or a life coach, because so much of what he talks about is gaining strength by moving through pain. The way he expresses ideas to our patients is both memorable and moving. He balances encouragement with hard truths, and offers of help with demands to keep trying. To not give up. To not let pain stop them from reaching maximum healing. At one point, he was rocking the patient back and forth in what looked very much like a loving embrace. He was rocking the patient into learning how to safely transfer from bed to wheelchair after a debilitating illness, and the thin and bearded patient was laying his weary head upon the strong young shoulder as the two of them perched on the edge of the hospital bed.

It took a lot of words and gestures to get the patient to stop resisting the forward movement to get off the bed. Each time the therapist would rock him forward, the patient would stiffen his arms with his hands on the bed and pull back in fear of falling. He just wanted to stay where he was. Eventually, the patient was convinced to cross his arms and rock back and forth with the therapist without resisting. Once we practiced that movement four or five times, the patient was finally able to put his hands back down for added support and put his weight into the movement and get out of the bed, over a transfer board, and safely into a sitting position in the wheelchair. A short distance, but still a leap of faith and an immense effort.

Early in the appointment, the patient told the therapist that he was simply too tired to move. That he had already sat in the chair today using the mechanical lift to transfer. That his legs hurt and even trying to put on his socks was too painful and hard. He didn’t feel up to it. He knew he had grown weak from lying there, but he still paradoxically wanted to lie there, because his comfort zone had shrunk down to that one position, that one activity, that flopping, passive bed rest. He kept shutting his eyes and then opening them to reveal his disappointment that we were both still there – me on the video screen, the therapist in person and masked. The main feeling the patient seemed to have was a combination of irritation: Why can’t everyone just leave me alone in my suffering and quit pushing me? And exhausted discomfort: Everything hurts, I feel raw and exposed, so leave me alone.

But the therapist did not leave him alone. Instead, he tried to explain:

Here’s the thing about pain. When you’re in pain, you have two options. Just like everybody else in pain, no matter what kind. All circumstances.

One option is you don’t move. You stay where you are. The problem with that option is, it’s a downward spiral. You’re gonna get weaker. It’s gonna hurt worse. People think if they don’t move, its not gonna hurt, but that’s not true. I get it. You’re thinking, like, hey, if I don’t move, nothing will happen to me. So you avoid doing what you need to do. You do nothing. You avoid. You repeat. But you know what? You can’t just stay in the same place. Life is not like that. You don’t change, nothing changes. You change, everything changes. Believe me. If you try to just stay still, you go downhill. Things get worse. You crash. And it gets harder and harder to get back up. You feel like you’ve lost a lot, and you’re grieving, and I get that. But do you want to lose more? What has happened, has happened.

Here’s the alternative to giving up, staying still, and getting worse. You move with the pain. You move in spite of the pain. You moving while you’re in pain. And you move through the pain. Yeah, it’s scary and hard. Sure it is. And it’s relentless, because you can’t give up. You can’t afford to. But here’s what happens. You gain strength. You get more flexible. You find new ways to do things. You learn. And over time, as you keep moving through your pain, you reach your goals. And guess what? Are you gonna have a perfect life? Hell, no. None of us do. But if you can push yourself just a little, right here and now, and then just a little, every day, you will overcome this pain. Then you will find that everything hurts so much less, and you can do what you need to do. You can do what you want to do. And that’s when I say you have conquered the pain, and you get your life back.

No false promises here! It’s not gonna mean you don’t have any pain. It just means you can handle it. You can work through it. It doesn’t own you. You make yourself big and you make the pain small. You make yourself strong and you take away the pain’s power to paralyze you – to hold you where you are, to keep you suffering. You move. You try. You keep trying. You move again. And you get your life back, in ways big and small. And it all starts with a leap of faith, and movement. And then you just keep going. You keep going. You keep going.

Yes, a leap of faith. And a movement. One of many to come. My heart goes out to this patient. And I wish him deep and abiding comfort, along with the strength to keep moving and to conquer his pain. May there be many people in his life like this therapist, who can encourage, support, and walk with him. Because in our times of intense suffering, every single one of us needs this kind of help, this kind of guidance, this kind of love.

VALUE CONGRUENCE

In addition to the ongoing vicarious trauma interpreters are exposed to through our work in healthcare and court, we also come upon vicarious healing, advice, and ideas that can guide us forward. We learn so much both from caregivers and patients, crime victims and the accused. I have been interpreting for many trauma therapy patients lately, and find the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach quite enlightening. It seems a way to move from talking about something to taking steps toward integrating the new thoughts and feelings into actions that create a positive feedback loop and lead to healthier thoughts, feelings and actions.

“You learn something every day” is a true motto for the interpreter’s life. In discussing with a patient various aspects of self-care, I was surprised to hear the therapist add in something about defining one’s values. I had expected the more typical suggestions for self-care, like take a bubble bath or listen to music, along with other ways to self-soothe besides the obvious harmful ones. But I had not considered defining one’s moral values, and investigating the degree to which one is aligned with those values, as a form of self-care. It is an interesting way to take stock of one’s life.

The approach in looking at value congruence that I have seen in therapy is to start by thinking of someone whom you admire. Several severely traumatized people have answered there is no one. Even when they are told dead or alive, real of fictional. They have not had the luxury of looking up to someone. Admiring someone. Seeing characteristics they wish to emulate. Identifying with someone. Trusting someone. With one therapy client, she was finally asked to find anyone she had ever admired even for a moment, even if they later let her down, and she was then able to mention her brother.

What about her brother had she admired? He had been protective. He had been strong. He had been tough and handled physical suffering like starving and being cold. And being beaten. Through all of that, he had been encouraging to his young sister. He took initiative and tried a lot of ways to make their lives better. He was trustworthy and reliable. Until he left. But while he was there, she had admired him.

Then she was invited to bring the focus back to herself and consider whether these admirable traits might represent some of her most dearly held values. Indeed, they all were very core and central to her sense of right and wrong, her moral code of conduct – the way in which she wanted to live. She was then invited to notice that most if not all of them were well-developed in herself, especially her resilience, her ability to be safe and strong with her children, her “toughing things out” and continuing to try. Her face lit up when she was able to see that she was indeed “being a good person” and living up to her own value system on the whole. It helped her to see that she was so much more than the sum of her mistakes.

Finding qualities that we have externalized and considered out of our reach, and then locating them within ourselves, is a rich discovery. Especially if we have been in a process of “beating ourselves up” for not being better, not being stronger, not being kinder, not “figuring things out by now” in that invisible and false race we sometimes convince ourselves we are participating in. To find that like other humans, we are still struggling along and just as frail as the next person, while humbling, is something we each need to accept. And yet on the whole, to discover that we are living a life that is mostly congruent with our core values, hey. That’s not such a bad place to find ourselves. And it makes it easier to then accept and forgive our humanity in our areas of frailty.

If we keep looking for our inner treasures, and keep finding the areas in which we can respect ourselves, where our actions line up on the whole with our core values, we gain in strength and we learn that we can trust ourselves. Then it can be easier to make those adjustments where our values are either not well-clarified, or are in actual conflict with our actions. These gaps, or conflicts, cause quite a bit of our stress, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. Forgiving ourselves and building on our strengths is the first step toward integrating our thoughts, feelings and actions into further alignment. Or so I have learned in my vicarious therapy sessions.

Getting into alignment with ourselves is an adjustment well worth the effort. Getting to know ourselves, as Oscar Wilde famously stated, “is the beginning of a lifelong love affair”. Pinpointing those few areas where we are out of balance and misaligned, and gaining the strength and courage to face our inner turmoil, is not as overwhelming then. When we can start by really noticing the many areas where our values are already congruent with our actions, we have a framework and a platform. From there, we can launch into aligning any outlying thoughts, feelings and behaviors to match our core values. It is pretty wonderful to have the honor of watching other brave souls going through this process, and see their transformation over time. And it encourages me to continue my efforts toward reaching my own atonement and inner harmony.

WALK WITH ME

When my Dad died, I was truly devastated and bereft. From the first breath I had ever taken on this earth, my Dad had been alive. He showed me unconditional love. He taught me by example the value of hard work, silence being golden, staying calm, keeping our sense of humor, showing curiosity instead of judgment, avoiding gossip, and enjoying nature. Being true to myself, being trustworthy and loyal, having a right to my opinion while allowing others theirs, these are among the precious gifts my Dad gave me. He wasn’t perfect, and neither am I. And we didn’t always understand each other, because our lives were so different. But we loved each other, and I miss him still. My experience with him is a defining feature of my character, my identity, and who I am in the world.

When he died, I was in disbelief. I was in grief. I was in mourning.

When I told people that my Dad had died, not all my friends shared my personal experience with their own fathers. Many had both their parents still living. Some had never had a father figure. Others, a violent or abusive parent. Some had a father they loved, but didn’t respect, or a father they could respect, but not really love in a comfortable way. My Dad was an immigrant with a sixth grade education from a small, indigenous population in his part of the world, which also made him different from my friends’ fathers. With all of this, friends processed my mourning in different ways based on their understanding and their experience. But no one tried to erase my experience. No one got defensive or accusatory.

Instead, they were able to meet me where I was at. I remember to this day the comforting sense of not being alone. People repeatedly said they were sorry for my loss and for my suffering. Not because they had caused it – my Dad died of natural causes. But they were sorry for my suffering and wanted to acknowledge it. Some made offers of practical support, but most simply invited me to say what I might need from them, now or later. They were able to offer their support, no matter how much or how little my personal experience intersected with their own. They were able to walk with me, and demonstrate compassion for my suffering in my time of need.

One thing never happened: When I said my Dad died, not one single person felt called upon to say, “All Dads die!” No one hinted that perhaps I was complicit in the fact that he had predeceased me. Instead, they did their best to walk with me in my experience, without trying to argue me out of it, center themselves, or tell me why I was wrong. And that was incredibly healing and helpful. So let’s consider Black Lives Matter.

I am certainly not comparing the death of an aging parent to centuries of oppression! Just suggesting that something is wrong, and needs to be addressed, for those who feel a gut need to react with defensiveness to Black Lives Matter. Step back, and consider. I can be sorry for systemic oppression, without defensively adding that it’s not my fault. I can say yes, Black lives absolutely matter, without feeling the slightest need to add that all lives matter or bring up any members of my racial heritage. Can you imagine if when you told friends that you lost a loved one, they responded by saying so what, everybody dies? How heartless, how unnecessary! It should come quite naturally to say, I am sorry for your grief and your suffering. Please let me know how I can help.

As for social injustices that impact us so unevenly, weighted down by centuries of history, with ongoing consequences and policies embedded in the very fabric of our society, I can be with my fellow humans without telling those most directly impacted how they should feel, what their experiences are, or what they need to do. I have no need to personalize it, center myself, or try to erase their individual or collective experiences. Instead, I seek to acknowledge those most directly harmed, walk with them as far as I am able, educate myself, follow their guidance in offering my heartfelt support, and do my part to achieve the kind of changes that are long overdue. To me, it seems the only decent response.

13th Amendment

An archaeologist friend of mine claims that through a simple piece of ancient pottery, much can be known about a culture’s past, and even traced through to current practices. I claim the same for our laws. We carry the burden of the broken shards of our historic past in every law that is still valid and enforceable. As laws are eventually discarded, remade and transformed, we carry the possibility of creating something both useful and beautiful. Yet the current legal system allows overwhelmingly huge corporations to lobby corrupt politicians for laws that add to their profits, no matter the consequences to the soul of any society: basic human rights. And this is not new. This is fully traceable through our legislation.

Many of us are having hard conversations with ourselves and with others, trying to make sense of this historic moment in the battle for human rights that in some ways is so exciting and hopeful, yet still so heavily weighted by the burdens of our collective, and especially our not so collective, past. And in having these discussions, reading, and learning, I am bewildered at my own ignorance, at how much I have not known about the very government under which I live. I am not alone in this, as our general education system easily leaves us complacent and biased about what is happening at our very doorsteps, in our own communities, unless and until we feel the actual brunt of it. Some of us, myself included, know so little. It is imperative to task ourselves with learning more.

I spent the 4th of July, safely socially distancing, as we now call it, with two friends from a small town across my home state. One of them shared that when she wished a black coworker in her town a “Happy 4th of July” he told her that it was for her, a white person, to celebrate the freedoms and civil rights that she and her family can enjoy, but not for him, as long as black people are still systematically oppressed. She expressed some surprise along with discomfort at this.

We fell into discussion about slavery and incarceration. She was not aware of any connection. So I dug up and read aloud a portion of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1865, just after the US Civil War: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, […] shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” I asked each of my friends if they could tell me what was missing. They could not. It seemed complete enough to stand alone. Slavery is outlawed. Right? Well, not quite. Here is the broken shard, that telltale bit of our culture that cuts us even today:

“…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,..”

This “exception” to the slavery ban in the United States meant that even as slavery was supposedly ending, the law allowed for the wholesale hiring of slave labor from the prison system. With traditional slavery outlawed in a system so reliant upon it, a long list of invented crimes were conveniently passed by slave states. These new “black codes” which only applied to people of African descent, were specifically created to imprison newly freed blacks and channel their work into a profit system that excluded them. Sources indicate that under these laws, as many as 200,000 blacks were arrested, convicted and hired out for profit. In short and extremely simplified fact, people with money and power had a direct and ongoing benefit off the enslavement of their fellow humans, well after 1865. And now we have privatized for-profit prisons across the country that we fill to overflowing. The exception written into the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution still cuts deep.

It is necessary to understand this buried piece of US history before even beginning to contemplate how black men, who make up about 6% of the US population, today constitute close to 40% of national prison population. To understand how police brutality is a symptom of a much deeper, historically rooted problem. I am not the appropriate person to give that history, but the information is out there for anyone interested. Documentaries such as “13th” about the current mass incarceration of blacks and how it relates to slavery and the black laws. Books such as One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South 1865-1928 by Matthew Mancini. Websites such as the Equal Justice Initiative, Prison Policy Initiative, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. All at our fingertips. Perhaps the very isolation necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic will allow us the time to learn, connect, and eventually work together in new ways to help create healthier communities.

A country claiming to be founded on freedom, with 4.4% of the world’s population, and yet over 20% of the world’s incarcerated, is a problematic country. A torn and wounded country. It is a country in dire need of repair, restitution, and healing. Here we are, rolling into another year of US history, close to 250 years since the US Constitution was written. Over 150 years since the US Constitution was amended to (almost) outlaw slavery. Over 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. What are we, the generation alive today, embedding into our legal system, to be uncovered and analyzed by our descendants a century or two from now?

TRUST

In marked contrast to my current work, I used to attend political asylum hearings as a refugee advocate during several civil wars. I was not interpreting then, but sitting with the refugee and their attorney as support. And I remember things the judge at that time would say. At one hearing, after reviewing a doctor’s statement and attached medical record confirming electric shock to the kidneys administered with two knives to the back, the judge simply stated that “I know you guys all play soccer and I have no way of knowing this isn’t a sports injury.” Political asylum denied for lack of proof. Applicant ordered held in custody.

This trial remains in my mind because of the hours of detailed testimony about torture from a kind-faced man whose mother was wailing softly in the corner with a handkerchief held over her face so as not to disturb the judge. She was allowed to stay in the room after she had testified about how he was taken from their home before dawn, roused from his bed and forced to leave in his underwear, because the soldiers assured her “he won’t need any clothes where he’ll end up!” The mother went on to testify that so many dead bodies were being tossed into their local river during the civil war that the residents didn’t have the heart to eat fish from there any more, “because we fear we may be dining on our beloved missing ones”.

I cannot describe the emotion and the strain of that immigration case in words, except to mention that at the end of the trial after the decision was rendered, the attorney stood up with tears on her face, and sent a shock wave through the courtroom by straight up saying to the judge: “I hope you can sleep tonight!” The judge from his throned chair was able to calmly reply, “Thanks, it has been a long day!” and adjourn the session. One guard led the refugee away in handcuffs, and the other ushered us back into the street, as our trial had run over and the building was closed. Having to stand by the mother while armed men once again took her son away. Saying our goodbyes outside of court, leaving the mother bereft. Knowing a young man who had been tortured in prison was now facing custody again. Imagine the pain. The suffering. The helplessness. Multiplied.

I once worked with a man who while under interrogation in his home country, was presented with a psychiatrist on his torture team. Not a treating physician, but a military staff doctor who would come in and see if he was close to breaking under interrogation, and make sure he wasn’t likely to die before he had said everything they wanted to hear. With post-traumatic stress, you can imagine how hard it was for this counseling patient to accept meeting with a psychiatrist here in the US, who was sadly quite a cold fellow, and limited his “treatment” to pharmaceutical side effect oversight, such as appetite and sleep. There was no reaching out or acknowledgement that “someone in his position” had so irretrievably harmed this patient, even after the refugee tremblingly explained in wrenching detail what the “other psychiatrist” had done. It left an aching void in all subsequent sessions that was never healed over.

These are extreme cases, and I sometimes comfort myself by choosing to believe they are rare, because the alternative is too painful. Let us turn to more everyday disappointments and reasons not to trust. What about interpreters? How many of our language service recipients have had another “interpreter” let them down? How many have had their voices cut off or skewed? How many were not fully and accurately told what the English speakers with power and control were actually saying? How many suffered some degree of harm? Probably most, to one degree or another, over time. From a bilingual border agent to a resident doctor to a teacher’s aide at their children’s school. To a certified interpreter, yes, it can happen. Do interpreters have any obligation to acknowledge the harm, acknowledge the power dynamic, and vow to do better? Do we have any obligation to reach across to them? Are we even allowed to?

In discussing this with various colleagues who work in the medical field, where such a pre-session would be allowed, while some agree, others don’t seem to fathom the problem. Some have shrugged and claimed, “I just say what they say.” Some talk about how they are not responsible for what someone else said or did, so why should they apologize? Most of those cases were not even “real interpreters” so what does it have to do with us? Some feel that even a two-sentence introduction before an interpreting session could seem invasive and center the interpreter, where we are supposed to be “in the background”. They hate pre-sessions and just want to dive in. A few have even told me that they cannot possibly know, nor do they need to, whether someone has had a bad experience in the past with an interpreter. Not their problem. They do a good job!

It may be worth pondering how healing, how helpful it might be, to have a very brief acknowledgement: These can be difficult experiences, but I want to assure you that with me, you will be heard and respected. Or should our work, should our words, should our voice, as it becomes their voice, tell them all they need to know? Should we silently expect them to take that leap of faith, once again, and trust this unknown and imperfect process to keep them safe? I find that with a clearly hesitant or worried patient, it merits a quick statement, even a couple words and a nod, to reassure them that we are here for them. That we will do our work honorably, and serve them faithfully. A quick acknowledgement to let them know that we care. Remembering the many ways in which our patients may be particularly vulnerable, this is a kindness that should not be overlooked.

STRAIN OF NEUTRALITY

Since the Spanish occupiers wrote up an interpreter code of ethics around 500 years ago (hint – it includes an absolute ban on assisting the native population or advocating for them in any way in their “negotiations” with the Spanish occupying forces) and likely even before, interpreters who work between two unequal parties may feel the strain of enforced neutrality. Never as much as the disenfranchised party does, of course, but the strain is there. The “just doing my job” while witnessing injustices becomes vaguely reminiscent of extreme cases, such as war crime tribunals.

It is an absolute requirement for interpreters to stay neutral, but as the power differential between the two parties grows, so does the strain. Having worked with interpreters from around the world, including war zones in which the United States is implicated, I have met people who have provided language services during interrogation. I have also met people who have witnessed and been the direct victims of torture under interrogation during imprisonment for their political affiliations. And I have met people who have interrogated and even killed prisoners.

I feel fortunate to live in a city where by and large, our judicial system is open, transparent, and follows the rule of law. The laws and the system are not perfect, and I would be either a fool or a knave to make such a claim. But in general, in my little duck pond, due process is followed. The people for whom I interpret, including the accused, the crime victims, and many parties in civil proceedings, are shown respect and treated with dignity by the judges and the court staff. There is even room for compassion and healing with alternative programs for the mentally ill, veterans, and impoverished defendants.

People ask me how I can “stand” to hear all the sadness, the violence, the failures and betrayals of human society, over and over again. My true answer is that I do believe in the rule of law. I do see people getting fair trials, and crime victims having a voice and support through their advocate, and low income, uneducated parties having court facilitators to help them access the court system. I do see people seeking and finding some modicum of justice, some redress and protection from further harm. The system is far from perfect, but there is a concerted effort to follow the law and provide assistance where possible. And this makes it much easier for me to “stay in the field” and keep to my vow of neutrality as interpreter.

WINDS OF CHANGE

I will be very interested to see how many of my colleagues, friends and family end up making a radical change to their established way of life after the pandemic.  How many will step off the hamster wheel into a more humane and natural pace?  How many will do something as simple as work from home a few days a week?  How many may end their primary relationship, or realize they want a new one?  Some may move to a whole new place, cut their career short, go back to school, take up new endeavors.  I imagine a lot of people will have a slow recovery and have real problems “revving back up” on demand.

As to our daily practices, I think a lot of us are feeling torn between heroic uses of our downtime:  Take out the front lawn!  Learn to read piano music.  Exercise each morning. Clean out the house. Grow your own food. Meditate daily.  Knit your own socks.  And the other end of the spectrum:  Give yourself a break.  Take it easy.  Don’t worry about being strong or resilient or even productive.  Just get through the day.  And if that means pajamas and binge-watching, accompanied by chips and ice cream, so be it. 

Part of the tension between “being productive” and “taking a well-deserved break” comes from the uncomfortable fact that we have to be closely attuned to how we are feeling in order to make our ongoing decisions.  And the high-wire balance of constantly noticing our feelings with so much sadness and fear floating around leaves us in danger of free-falling. So we either run back to busy-busy or collapse on the couch, but in neither place do we wish to deeply contemplate how we are feeling while we are feeling so poorly.  We may awkwardly avoid ourselves the way we would avoid a needy and broken ex-partner, because it is just too painful to face the feelings.

This does not even take into consideration the very real struggles that so many people are facing on the ground. Loss of their jobs. Loss of their housing. Loss of their health or even their life. Not being able to care for their loved ones. Not being able to keep their loved ones safe. With such a collective weight of sadness, I can only imagine how heavily it falls upon the many who are literally fighting for their lives and their future. Those who have to work in unsafe conditions without adequate protection. Who don’t even have the “I was doing okay” life to contemplate going back to. The list goes on and is overwhelming. It is exhausting. It is scary and sad, and yet there is a budding sense of tentative hope, at least in my city’s air, as we discover that not so many of us are eager to rush back onto the same hamster wheel and run, run, run.

As time goes on, whether we hibernate or supercharge our lives for now, whether we long for what we lost, or hope for something better, the day of reckoning will come when we each configure our post-COVID (or ongoing pandemic) lives. When we make the choices that will ripple into our futures. Only one thing is certain: we will not go back in time and pick up where we left off. That status quo has blown up in our faces and we will have to rebuild on many levels, not just economically. Just as the saying goes that you cannot step into the same river twice, because the river is changing, we too are changed by having stepped into the river. Here’s hoping that we may emerge with more compassion and strength. That our spotty and fragile downtime contemplation of how we wish to transform our lives may turn into broader lasting changes. And as we come back together after our lengthy solitude, that we can work together to create stronger, gentler, more humane and ultimately healthier communities.

GOOD GOVERNMENT

I just watched my state Governor’s press conference regarding the protests against institutionalized racism. He brought up some important points and revealed his humanity and sincerity in the process. Some will feel he was an apologist for one side or the other, or didn’t go far enough. Yet in light of the absolute shit show that is our current national discourse, it was stunning to hear a government official speak in such a heartfelt and reasoned way. He presented as a public servant who cares about good government and society. This is the gist of what I understood:

The protesters are reasonable in taking to the streets. They are justifiable in their outrage. All thoughtful people feel a visceral revulsion when confronted with the institutionalized injustices and their impact upon vulnerable communities, especially of color. As to protesting government malfeasance, that is enshrined in our constitution. Part of our call to peace and justice has always been made through public gathering and public protest. This is our constitutional right, to seek redress from our government through protest. This is our responsibility as well.

Violence and destruction – (and I cringe at this part for several reasons – mostly because I don’t want to seem to equate the very different power positions and consequences between someone running off with a pair of shoes and someone literally killing a man in broad daylight with no concern for his life – and by the way, our Governor was careful not conflate this). Violence and destruction are not constitutionally protected, as they are criminal acts. But we cannot use those few who are breaking the law as an excuse to ignore the vast majority who are gathering legally and rightfully to seek redress from their government. And we cannot use any rioting as an excuse to once again obscure the underlying issues which gave rise to the constitutionally protected demonstrations in the first place.

As concerned citizens, and as government, we need to raise our eyes to the larger context and refuse to be caught up in the distraction tactics of blaming the protesters and ignoring the underlying racism, systemic injustice, and crying need for a transformed society that is inclusive and serves the needs of all our members. Those who are committing crimes, especially those who endanger the lives and safety of people, should be prosecuted, especially if their actions endangered lives, but we cannot allow these few to cloud our vision: Implementing changes to help create a more just society with room for all of us. Justice and equality under the law. Equal protections and equal opportunities. Fairness. Inclusion.

Thus spoke my Governor. Perhaps not revolutionary, but neither incendiary. Not pointing the finger at anyone with derision and disdain. Not inciting more hatred. Not trying to make himself right by putting others in the wrong. In fact, he went on to humbly acknowledge that as a white man, he himself has not lived through the experiences of minority communities. That he, as well as the rest of us, need to learn more and do more if we want to see real change. The Governor went on to recall with strong emotion when he and his father had watched Robert Kennedy’s speech right after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered back in 1968. He said that Kennedy spoke powerfully of the need for us to make an effort to understand each other with compassion.

The Governor cited Kennedy, ” What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country”. Of course, reading the full speech through the lens of our troubled history, it is tainted with the stain of yet another white man telling oppressed blacks to turn the other cheek, and brings to my mind the supposed Malcom X quote, where he talks about how turning the other cheek presupposes justice and mercy on the part of the oppressor, but where that is absent, it is right and necessary to fight: “Give me an M-16 and then “I’ll sing We Shall Overcome,” at least so he is purported to have said in our folk mythology.

The Governor was not citing the part of Kennedy’s speech telling others to keep calm and carry on under oppression without fighting for change. Instead, he was distinctly acknowledging the harm done and the fundamental need to transform our society. And in spite of the burdensome weight of our history, he remains heartened by his abiding belief that most of us, as Kennedy once stated, “want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.” And most of us very much long to “make gentle the life of this world” as the ancient Greeks once wrote (and Kennedy had the privilege to study, probably in the original).

At this point, our Governor looked up from the notes in his handwritten spiral notebook, and told us how his father had cried at Kennedy’s speech, and how he, too, had cried. And then our Governor choked up and sat there in front of the cameras unable to speak, taking sips of water, swallowing, pausing, clearing his throat, trying to pull himself together, and then choking up again, and saying he was sorry. And I choked up with him, and I suppose that other people across my state choked up as well. Those of us who long to “make gentle the life of this world” are choking up a lot these days. Each of us mostly still isolated in our own homes, yet each a tiny living thread in the fabric of our state, not wanting to be torn apart, but longing to be healed and made whole, with inclusion and justice for all.

COLLECTIVE GRIEF

People seem to be pondering grief and a sense of loss as common COVID responses.  Articles talk about the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).  But this COVID grief is different than, say, the passing of a loved one, or losing a marriage.  Instead, we are losing our sense of normalcy on a global level.  And it is not a single event that grows more distant in time as we heal.  COVID is coming along with us, as close as the Grim Reaper, and no one can say what the end point will be, or whether there will be one.  How can we truly grieve, how can we “put it behind us” when we are facing constant changes on the ground, and a series of unknowns in our health, our financial picture, our social lives, and almost every aspect of our daily routines?  We cannot move away from something that isn’t an event in time with an end point.  The very idea of grief seems to presume that the loss happened in the past and it is over.  The grief model doesn’t fully cover the COVID experience, and yet there is grief.

One aspect that I haven’t seen discussed much yet is how COVID is bringing more people to question the very meaning of their lives.  It seems impossible not to wonder, in this quiet downtime, what was it all about?  Why was I in such a hurry?  Where was I going, and what did it all mean?  Being detached from our set goals and ways of doing things – and the rituals and daily routines that defined us – can create a sense of detachment from our very selves – our identities.  It can leave us floating in a void of uncertainty.  Not just “when will things get back to normal” but “what was I doing, and do I even want all that back, and if not, then what do I want, and why is it all so scary, when I could take it as an opportunity?”  Then we can easily start beating ourselves up for not handling it better, for not having better lives, for succumbing to all the uncertainty, for caving in to our fears.  What was it all for?  What was it all about?  Why does it even matter, and if it doesn’t matter, is that depression, or acceptance?

There is also more acknowledgment, at least in the medical community, that we are physically carrying sadness, anxiety, fear and stress in our very fibers.  Our heads are hurting.  Our muscles are tight.  We may feel a heavy weight upon our hearts.  Any old aches and pains we didn’t really notice in our busy days are rising to our conscious awareness.  Any problem we have grows enormous and insurmountable in the face of so much instability.  We cannot easily turn to our friends or our usual support systems. We are not “too busy to think” with our daily routines, so it is easy to ruminate and even become morbid. Our sleep is disturbed and off.  We feel more fatigued, even exhausted.  Spent.  We feel like we have been through the wringer.  Our bodies have all the stress hormones of running from danger, but there is no defined set point where we are declared out of danger, where we can start to shake it off.  No wonder so many of us have simply slowed down almost to a stop.  Fight, flight, or freeze.  Sometimes, freezing might be the safest and easiest waiting it out position.  The trick is we need to be able to ease back into movement when the time comes.

While hibernating is my natural refuge in times of pain, as the weeks have gone by, I have found unexpected solace in talking with others.  I was truly starting to wonder if something was wrong with me, if I had become some sort of weakling, for not handling things better. But in talking with others and finding that they have similar thoughts and struggles, I have taken great comfort and found relief.  So much of what I had considered to be a personal problem turns out to be collective sadness and loss that we are dealing with across the board.  This helps me hang onto the fact that I am still a part of a larger whole even while isolated. “I don’t know if I can do this” is transformed into “we are all in this together,” and that means I don’t have to handle it alone.  The old saying “safety in numbers” has never felt so real.

So yes, we have a new, uncharted form of grief.  We have dragging sadness.  We have an underlying nagging sense of unease.  Of impending danger, and unknown risk.  It is hard not to walk around on high alert “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” waiting for the next disaster, the next bad news, the next wave to hit us.  We are each finding ways to cope wherever we are holed up, alone or in shared housing.  We each have to decide how much to push ourselves, and how often to check in with ourselves and really notice how we are feeling, so we can take care of ourselves.  We also have time to develop our patience.  Time to forgive ourselves for our humanity, our puniness and fragility, in the face of these overwhelming unknowns and pending changes. And, if we are lucky, we have trusted loved ones with whom we can share these experiences, and we can take comfort in the fact that even when we are isolated, we are not alone.