by Dr. Leslie Nwoke
“It’s all Just Too Much”
My girlfriend and I had just hopped on FaceTime to catchup. At first glance, I knew something was wrong. “Hey. You ok? What happened?” I asked, my voice quickening as I watched her fingers anxiously tap the sides of her face. As she gave a big sigh, my heart beat faster, now seriously worried. “It’s the midterm elections.” Wait. What? I thought. “… and the #metoo movement. It’s the detained children in immigration detention centers and Hurricane Florence… All of it.” I stared at my girlfriend for a long hard second, trying to discern if she was serious and if more was coming.
“It’s all feels like too much. All of it.” Looking up finally, she glanced at me, surprised, asking “Why are you staring at me like that? Don’t you agree?” I exhaled. Realizing she was ok, I responded back, “Of course. I agree. I’m surprised you feel that way.” I’d been wrestling for the past few weeks under the weight of all the recent events, and often felt alone in my musings. It felt good… comfortable… to know someone else was struggling with the same. For the next hour, we unpacked our worries and feelings about the events happening around us. We lamented over the those who’d lost their homes in North Carolina recently. We cried over the death of Botham Jean, who was killed senselessly in his apartment. We expressed our outrage and fatigued hope in the continued race dialogue in this country.
After we finished, we exhaled – collectively settling the flurry of emotions we’d just unearthed. I stared at her again in the screen of my iPhone. Though I’ve known her for years, I suddenly felt closer to her. For once, I felt connected to her, not just as my friend, but as my fellow sojourner in all the hard events happening before us.
There was power in allowing ourselves to share in that collective pain – letting that pain touch us, inform us, and unite us. Many of you know this power. You’ve grieved. Donated. Corralled people to help. You touched the pain of others and let it move you to benevolent action. That is true power, my friends. When we allow ourselves to be impacted by the emotions of others, it has the potential to be a force for good for others. When we choose to really see each other, we are better able to show up for each other in ways that truly change the world.
But there are many who have not experienced the power of this collective experience. Not because they are unwilling, but because it is overwhelming. With all our technology and media, we can’t avoid what’s happening in the world – as well as sometimes, be knocked right out by it. We gingerly try to dance around the conversation of it all. Yet, the weight finds you and sticks to you, unable to undo it’s grasp on you. Grief, loss, confusion, outrage are all some of the emotions from the past few weeks. But they’re also uncomfortable… and as humans we run from uncomfortable things.
“Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable”
The irony of life is that it is the uncomfortable that has both the power to take us out and push us forward. It reminds me of a recent family trip to the beach. My son had insisted on bringing their sand bucket and pail into the water to “wash it off”. Before we knew it, one good strong wave swept the bucket from my son’s hands. I tried to catch it amidst the sandy water but it slipped through my fingers. As we walked back to shore, adjacent to us on the shore line, was the bucket. It had been swept back onto the beach by the next wave, after being plunged into the ocean. Our uncomfortable feelings do the same. They have the power like the ocean’s waves to sweep us off our feet, disorienting us for a minute. But, when we choose to ride out the wave, we see it pushes us further along the beach. Perhaps further then we could have ever walked ourselves.
In my profession, I get many responses regarding my work around emotions and human connection, including comments like:
“Emotions – that’s small stuff.”
“Ahh, emotions. Just get over it.”
“We don’t have time to feel right now. We have to work, then cry later.”
A man once told me that he viewed “softer” concepts like emotions, connection, and empathy like the annoying packaging material that comes in a box, preventing you from reaching the “real” gift that’s inside. I think many people feel that way – that emotions are these cumbersome unnecessary things we experience with no purpose.
But every time I hear this, I am still amazed because my experience and work prove the opposite. What I know to be true, is this: Our feelings help us see each other, connect deeper, and grow closer. These are the things that are needed and carry significant meaning. These are the things that will help us rebuild after everything we’ve experienced recently. Rebuilding Houston, US VI, and the Keys only happens when we first connect around the loss, fear, and grief from that shared experience. The way we have effective yet hard conversations about race and discrimination is by connecting over honest feelings about what we do and don’t know. Our emotions – our ability to connect – is the gift. It is our prized possession, the thing that we should all be striving to grasp and understand, and use for the good of others.
Brave the Wilderness
With over 20 million college students on campuses around the nation, there’s ample opportunity to practice really seeing each other. But will you choose it? Will you lean into the discomfort of someone’s uncomfortable experience or the discomfort of facing the realities of your own? True leadership is being the catalyst to create space for others to be vulnerable, and show their most authentic self. In one of my recent online classes, I was teaching participants about a concept I’ve coined called heartwork – which is the process of facing and conquering our most difficult life emotions, so we can be free to live out our purpose within. We cannot effectively do the work of seeing each other and creating space for each other, unless we have first done our own heartwork. When we can navigate the dark, tight uncomfortable spaces of our experiences, it gives us the dexterity to help others face theirs, and really show up for and belong to one another. In her recent book Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brene Brown describes the concept of true belonging as a wilderness that can only be conquered when we first learn to first belong to ourselves. It’s in doing so that we create space for others. Honoring the gift of our emotions is not just doggedly embracing those of others; it is first embracing the emotions in ourselves – facing the rejection, anxiety, insecurity, and pain that we individually feel. Because, its when we feel our own emotions – when we brave our own wilderness – that we can feel for others and help them brave theirs.
So, my friend, at the beginning of this was right. There is a lot going. It can all feel too much. But when do our work to face our own pain, get uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, and brave our wilderness, we experience the power of the collective and the undaunting truth of our human connection. It’s through this connection that we create true safe spaces on our campuses, not just for people’s political or ideological opinions, but for their hearts to show up, untethered, honest, and unafraid.
That is braving your wilderness. That is heartwork. That is changing the world.