Trying Not to Take Things Personally
Marisa Guerin, PhD -- October 30, 2020
My lifetime friend and mentor, B. J., is both a psychologist and a spiritual director. For most of this year, I have been pondering and wrestling with a phrase he uses: “Try not to take things personally.”
At an intellectual level, I know what he is talking about. The two of us have been working on a book together for more than a year now on the wisdom of Therese of Lisieux. In one of the chapters – on the theme of inner freedom – we write about "not taking things personally" as an aspect of emotional and spiritual maturity. I understand this to mean that I don’t have to react to everything that happens as though I personally am at the center of the drama. I can preserve some distance – big or little – in order to have a degree of freedom to choose my reaction, rather than a knee-jerk compulsion. Like Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in the play by Tom Stoppard, most of what happens in my world is on a bigger stage than I am. I may be affected, but it’s not about me. There isn’t much point to over-reacting.
So far, so good. This counsel certainly is helpful to me when, for example, I arrive at the drug store for an errand and find it unexpectedly closed. (I live in the neighborhood that recently suffered the tragic killing of a mentally-ill young Black man; the peaceful protests unfortunately gave cover for others to do criminal looting.) I might be annoyed or inconvenienced by the store’s closing, but no one is trying specifically to mess up my day. I take a deep breath, accept what is, walk home and think about Plan B. It's the same with aggressive drivers who cut me off on the road, or endlessly rainy weekends that keep me inside, or the impossible labyrinth of menu options when I want to reach a customer service person on the phone. These things that bother me aren’t intended for me personally; mostly I remember in time that there is no need to inflate my importance in the universe by getting angry or railing about how unfair life is to me. I can politely invite my heathy ego to step aside.
I have even been OK with not taking personally the coronavirus pandemic. It is having a huge impact on my life and on the life of everyone I know, and I certainly have periods of depressed and anxious feelings, but I usually don’t get all worked up about it. I can accept its reality, even if my patience is often paper-thin. I remind myself that not taking things personally is not a counsel for detached lack of caring about what happens, it's not coldness of heart or suppression of the spirit. I think it's rather an invitation to hold frustration gently, remembering that it isn't the whole truth.
But there is a stubborn struggle I can’t seem to get out from under: I confess that I have been having trouble not “taking personally” the political division and sense of threat that I have been dealing with for four years now, ever since 2016 when the current administration shocked pretty much everyone by being elected. My distress with this national leadership is a brand new experience for me. Even though I usually vote for the Democratic candidate, I have respected many Republican public figures before. I am used to having "win some, lose some" years when it comes to public policy. Not this time, not even close.
So why do I keep losing my inner calm? Why does my fear persist? It makes me curious. Why is national politics different from other bothersome issues, and why have I been clearly, personally “worked up” about it? On any given day, I may be anxious, or angry, or frustrated, and often I feel unbelieving. Despite understanding many of the reasons for how we got here, I have never shaken my dismay that our nation elected a leader that I think is dangerously unfit. Most distressing of all, millions of my fellow citizens, including people that I know and respect, continue to support him and his administration. I don't know if we even see the same reality (fragmentation of media and truth is a huge issue) but at least some people do; and yet they support him anyway, for reasons they must believe override the deficits. I can only imagine they are just as opposed to my viewpoints.
Even if the voting underway and soon to be completed will change our government leaders – which I cannot be sure of -- I still don’t know how or if we all can re-fashion a majoritarian consensus about what is good for the nation. My mind has yet to find a larger concept that can embrace the whole of us in some healing way. I hold on to hope, but I remain upset. I often feel grief along with the discouragement. I am so exhausted by our division.
So, the truth is that I do feel like I am “taking things personally” when it comes to politics under this particular President, despite my continuing hope that I can keep calm and act freely. The only interpretation that makes any sense to me is that at some level, I must truly feel personally threatened. My conclusion is that the reason I am reacting as if I am implicated personally in this drama is because it has grasped and shaken me at a foundational level -- destabilizing my sense of security, my sense of identity, my ideals, my confidence in my country.
I'm not worried that my own immediate freedom or health or security will be taken away – although that is a legitimate fear for many others in the US these days. It's more that I've lost faith in my democratic society and its usually reliable guardrails: the rule of law and the ideals of fairness and justice, no matter how imperfectly realized . What I have believed about my nation is revealed to be false or at least very, very fragile. We are perilously close to the cliff edge. My anxiety is functioning like a red light and alarm bell, warning me that action must be taken. (If that’s been my experience as a white person, who is privileged in all kinds of ways – I can’t begin to imagine life for my friends and neighbors who are people of color, immigrants, people of the Islamic faith, and others. The threat is existential for them, and they have been under no illusions about the way we all do or don't live up to our stated ideals in this country.)
I suspect that I will eventually emerge wiser when this particular time of trial ends – either in a few months, or four years from now, God help us. The experience has turned me into a more vigilant and engaged citizen. I no longer take for granted that our national direction has a default setting toward the common good and equal justice. I have been trying to do everything I am able to do -- call, write, donate, march, vote, volunteer -- and if I must do so for another four years, I hope I will be able to.
Seems to me that I’m getting on in years to be still looking forward to more maturity and wisdom! But there is a part of me that knows that in the long sweep of history and in the Loving Mystery at the heart of reality, all will be well -- and that it isn’t in any way up to me alone. I'm not sure I saw that in my twenties. I think the word that I need to stay with, as I ponder my world in my heart, the most important word out of all of this for me, is “Trust.”
It could be that this awareness is another way of saying, "try not to take things personally". Even us book-writers are still learning what we write about.
Sculpture: Triune, by Robert M. Engman, 1975, Philadelphia