It’s hard to believe that two years ago we were preparing for a global pandemic, stockpiling loo roll and pasta.
A few months later, we would watch a Black man murdered in the street by the police as he called for his mother and said, “I can’t breathe.”
Thirteen months ago, I watched in horror with the rest of the world as a mob of right-wingers stormed the Capitol in my mother country.
Whilst still recovering from these, we now read stories of Ukranian parents trying to explain war to their children while they try to settle to sleep in underground Metro stations amid the moan of air raid sirens, as young men are called to arms and prevented from fleeing to safety.
To centre ourselves in the midst of all of this is quite rightly felt as a self-indulgent privilege and a disservice to the people who have the most to suffer in times like these. But to feel nothing as we witness these atrocities is inhuman.
So what do we do? What can we do? Or perhaps more precisely, what do we do when there seems little we can do?
I’m not going to pretend to have answers, or even that there are entirely satisfying answers at times like these. This blog has never been about knowing answers, it’s about exploring questions, and trial and error as I write about possible appraoches to answer these questions. It is in this spirit that I share some thoughts of what we can do as we witness trauma in our shared world.
Settle the body
I’ve learned by following Black people of marginalised genders (MaGes) in anti-racism work that the right to comfort is a myth of white supremacy culture, and feeling entitled to comfort drives us to avoidance, performance, and defensiveness.
Equally, an unsettled body – one that is driven by anxiety, fear, anger, and a lust to punish others – does not support the movement for real change. Especially coming from a place of privilege being outside of the immediate danger, if I don’t settle my body, I risk coopting the pain others are feeling, centring myself, and then undermining the work that needs to be done.
As therapist Resmaa Menakem writes in My Grandmother’s Hands:
We need to join in that collective action [body-centred collective action that heals] with settled bodies–and with psyches that are willing to metabolize clean pain…Bringing a settled body to any situation encourages the bodies around you to settle as well.Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands
Let’s not forget we are witnessing suffering. We are witnessing trauma. Struggling to be settled, feeling fear and sorrow ourselves, are all natural and understandable responses. We don’t need to compound that pain with guilt and shame. If we need to show ourselves lovingkindness first, and then settle ourselves, we can do that without judgement. Once settled, we can go into action in ways that will seek solutions, peace, and comfort for those most affected.
Settling ourselves first helps prevent us acting to comfort ourselves under the guise of helping the peace and social justice movement.
How do we settle ourselves? Mindful breathing that helps engage the sympathetic nervous system, inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 7, emitting a low hum or sigh on the exhale…I’d recommend seeking the numerous well-established step-by-step guidance on these techniques, including the numerous body practices Menakem covers in his aforementioned book.
Help those who are most impacted
Help can take different forms, and will vary depending on what power, privilege, and proximity we have.
#1 Show solidarity and bear witness
This can seem very much like performance, as so often the action taken is the same, but in times like these it can help to uplift the truth. This is the opposite of turning away from uncomfortable things that are happening.
We saw the power of this as people stopped turning away from the murder of Black people by police and went to the streets to acknowledge, publicly, that we see what is happening. We saw what happened to George Floyd, and we condone it.
On its own, it does not mean much. The support for Black Lives Matter has dropped to levels lower than before George Floyd was murdered. It does not do to overstate the power of this. But right now, as Ukrainians face the behemoth of Russia’s onslaught, I understand they appreciate knowing the world is watching, the world is caring, the world is witnessing.
It is also powerful seeing Russian people saying, “Not in our name” – a reminder to resist our human instinct for tribalism, binary simplicty, and all-or-nothing thinking.
#2 Contribute if you can
Here are a few humanitarian aid fundraisers for people in Ukraine:
Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain’s GoFundMe fundraiser to provide medicines, food and critical services to support the most vulnerable to overcome the consequences and trauma of war.
Polish Humanitarian Action’s SOS Ukraine campaign to provide humanitarian assistance including food and other forms of support to people who have to leave their homes.
Pomogam.pl’s Solidarity with Ukraine official fundraiser, which will transfer the collected funds to Ukrainian humanitarian organizations that know best what support Ukrainians need.
#3 Practice discernment
Conscientious objection is not a total repudiation of force; it is a refusal to surrender moral responsibility for one’s action.Kenneth C Barnes, 1987, 24.25 Quaker faith & practice (Fifth edition)
As humans, we often want to others punished for the harm they cause. This is normal, but not always helpful.
As I’ve started to scratch the surface of transformative justice (TJ) and prison abolition, I’ve learned how readily this instinct rears its head within me. But there is much evidence about the ineffectiveness of this punishment model, and the inhumanity and atrocities we commit when we are driven by anger, no matter how righteous it may seem.
Mariame Kaba distinguishes between accountability and punishment, which we often conflate. As she says in relation to the desire for criminal punishment for cops who kill Black people:
What people don’t want to acknowledge when they say that is they want punishment, right? It doesn’t feel sufficient to fire that person, take their gun, and take their money. Like it doesn’t feel enough, right? There has to be more punishment; they have to suffer. That’s part of this. And so don’t say that what you’re looking for is accountability. What you’re looking for is really punishment, because nothing else that people offer — that can be a spectrum of things — you feel is sufficient for what’s happened. And to me, I think defunding police is a sufficient response. Getting rid of the harmful institution is a really effective response, you know?
Kaba is looking for consequences that get rid of the harmful institutions, even if that itch to see the person suffer does not get scratched.
It’s not as satisfying as the bloodlust demands. But if we want peace, if we want to stop the harm, we have to look beyond that instinct for punishment and determine what accountability and healing look like. Our righteousness in any situation does not absolve us from the harm we may cause in response.
Nor does peace mean appeasement:
All forms of non-violent resistance are certainly much better than appeasement, which has come to mean the avoidance of violence by a surrender to injustice at the expense of the suffering of others and not of one’s self, by giving away something that is not ours to give…It should be distinguished sharply from admission, which personal or international integrity might sometimes demand, that we have made a mistake or have ourselves done wrong, and are ready to make open amends or to reverse our policy.Kathleen Lonsdale, 1953, 24.33 Quaker faith and practice (Fifth edition)
Peace and appeasement, accountability and punishment…it takes discernment and honesty to unpick these. As much as I don’t want Russia to succeed in Ukraine, what does it mean to applaud the deaths of thousands of Russian sons who will never see their mothers again?
These steps are part of a cycle, as we continuously settle our bodies, seek ways to help and reduce harm, and discern what we are working for. They are not always comforting in the individualistic sense, and quite often not satisfying both societal and animal-instinct urges we have.
But comfort isn’t always a guide of what we can do. Sometimes progress and truth and fairness and love means making peace with discomfort.