I woke yesterday morning to news of the Las Vegas shooting, continued calls for aid needed in Puerto Rico, and boos for kneeling NFL players at Sunday’s games. Though seemingly unrelated, these news stories relayed a larger message about the presence of everyday violence in our lives. My social media feeds were naming and critiquing this violence. People were already calling for action, for donations, and for prayers—for linking individual narratives with larger social ones, for recognizing the alarms of this moment, and for acting accordingly.
Though I know the dangers of going about business as usual, I spent only a little time processing before turning to my to-do list. My heart hurt, as it does with heartache, but it hurts so regularly these days, I imagined the ache would simply dissipate or accompany me into the work itself.
And I did begin to work, but I couldn’t settle into writing. I began to check off small tasks. Order humidifier filters, check. Update calendar events, check. Upload recommendation letter, check. Call museum about upcoming event . . .
So, I called to register for a Halloween party at a local museum. I called because it was a simple thing to check off the to-do list, and I thought checking it off might make me feel better. I called because I was still processing the morning’s news, and I was feeling emotionally and mentally congested (definitely not clear enough to write), even if I wasn’t admitting this to myself.
After pressing buttons through automated phone prompts, I was connected with the person who handles event registrations. Perhaps if I’d been more present, I would have heard that this person sounded weary and worn down. Instead, all I heard was a voice asking, “How may I help you?”
“I’d like to RSVP for the Halloween event,” I said. Then I proceeded to answer questions about the date, time, and registration: Yes, I’m a museum member. Yes, I’m aware my membership is for just two adults. Yes, I’m registering just two adults. Yes, I’ll be attending without children. (I’m prioritizing play for self-care, after all.)
The registration person then apologized: “Oh. It’s truly fine to come without children. I’m just having a tough day.”
Again, if I’d been more present, I might have made the connection linking our tough days. Instead, I responded, “I know Mondays can be hard. I’m sorry it’s a tough day.”
Luckily, my wrong assessment—that Monday had anything to do with the “tough day”—led to a correction: “Actually, I have friends in Las Vegas, and I’m upset about what happened.”
I rebounded: “I’m so sorry! Have you heard from your friends?”
“Yes, they’re ok, but I’m shaken up. I’m having trouble concentrating today.”
“Me too! I decided to call because I was having trouble concentrating on work.”
We laughed and finished the event registration. Before ending the call, I tried saying something more: “I really appreciate you sharing how you’re feeling today. I was going about the day struggling, but not naming it, and you’re reminding me that I need to hold space for myself and others. I want to be more present.”
“That’s what we can do for each other: hold space, and be present.”
Though I wish we’d said more and somehow continued to hold space (more than just acknowledging it’s important to do so), we wrapped up quickly with the customary “thanks for calling” and “have a great day.”
The conversation was short and felt full of missed opportunities. It was also the thing I needed at that moment, the impetus for me to stop working, to sit on my yoga mat, and to consider how better to hold space and be present—for myself and for others.
If I’d been more present, I would have been thinking about the person on the other end of the phone line and email threads and social media posts and other interactions throughout the day. How might I have interrupted my business-as-usual approach to recognize the NOT-OK nature of the day? To humanize interactions, to allow for more genuine connections, to understand this mass shooting (and me turning numb to it) within broader desensitization to violence?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville” about our relational responsibilities when communicating with others. In that post, I describe the sense of hurt I felt when seeing white friends’ photos of food, sunsets, and cute animals that, in effect, communicate that there’s not a collective crisis around white supremacy. Today I’m thinking that registering for the Halloween party was a lot like that. I can imagine how the registration person experienced my call very much like I was experiencing these social media posts. The stark juxtaposition of a party and mass shooting can’t be ignored.
Rhetorically and relationally, I’m thinking this wasn’t the right time to call. Or if the call needed to be made, it needed to be made with mindfulness and care.
I’m glad I could learn from talking with the registration person, and the conversation was perfectly timed as a true gift for me (a gift to reflect, learn, and set new goals). But because I wasn’t holding space or being present for myself, I wasn’t holding space or being present for them.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting—and with a lot of humility and love—I’m asking myself how I can better hold space and be present.
In times of extraordinary injustice, violence, and pain, it feels especially important to check in regularly with my heart, head, and hands. It feels especially important to relate more mindfully and compassionately with myself so that I can relate more mindfully and compassionately with others. And it feels especially important to de-automatize myself so that I can recognize my humanity and the humanity of others.
This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!