when you dont know what to do

The good news: people are waking up, looking beyond their own bubbles, and seeing the world’s problems.

The bad news: people don’t know what to do .

It’s hard to admit that we don’t know what to do , to solve the world’s problems—not in any absolute sense. And personally, we don’t know what to do, when seeing how others suffer re-stimulates our own old traumas, the clinical depression or panic attacks or insomnia. We don’t know what to do, with our fear that we could be next (let’s just be real: most of us, in response to tragedy, have at least some part of ourselves that centers around our own experience and thinks, “But what if that was me? What would I do?”).

We don’t know what to do, receiving critique. We don’t know what to do, to make up for a past history of not having spoken up enough on behalf of other people who suffer, or for all the times we could have made a different choice but didn’t, or with our shame and guilt about how we continue to benefit from privilege both invisible and right in front of our faces.

If we are talking about arriving at any kind of absolute answer for perfect parity and making up for the past or knowing the exact right solutions for how to move forward?

None of us know what to do.

And as soon as we think we’ve found the person who can tell us, often, someone else is shouting that we should be doing/thinking/saying/being different about the problem.

For example: responding to Hurricane Harvey. Some people donate money and then they get told that they just donated to the worst charity ever who won’t properly allocate those resources. Or some people send resources to Houston, and are smugly reminded that with the roads and airports closed, those resources won’t get to the people who need help, anyway. Or some people start saying how they wish they could do more for Texans, and someone tells them that they are American-centric-jerks because they weren’t aware about the awful flooding that has killed far more people in several poorer countries during the summer of 2017.

This often puts us right back to square one: not knowing what to do.

When humans don’t know what to do, and feel overwhelmed, they start shutting down and they do less of anything (which is, by the way, exactly what often contributes to the problems that we face, in the first place).

So here are a few suggestions for times when there are problems, but you don’t know what to do.

1. Listen, without attachment, to the people who are asking for help. This is a skill. It’s listening to what someone’s saying, without automatically launching into your personal responses, judgments about yourself or them, etc. So for instance, when a person of color is saying, “Here’s the experience of oppression that I’ve had, as a person of color,” listening without attachment means that you listen without going into your own head and attaching to the thought, “But I never did that to you! I never mis-treated you! I want a better world!”

It also means that if you say you donated to a charity for Hurricane Harvey and then get dog-piled on about how you donated to the wrong place and clearly should have known better, you listen to that feedback and…don’t attach to “I must have done it all wrong.” You just listen. Listen with presence and a willingness to truly hear what the other person is saying. Take the information in, without judging it, or defending yourself against it.

2. Check in with your body. Sit with the feelings of discomfort that critical feedback might arise. Check in with your personal integrity, which is the master honing device. Are you in integrity? Stretch to see if you can find any place, even a small place, where the feedback or the critique is correct.

3. See it from their shoes. Try projecting yourself into what this other person is thinking and feeling, based on the words or information they’ve given you. What might cause them to think and feel that way? Can you empathize? Where’s the common ground?

4. Learn how to differentiate between critique and abuse (and…this might take some time). Critique attempts to show you where a way of thinking or approaching a problem is problematic, and suggests alternatives. Abuse gets personal, and comes from a place of tearing people down. Our defenses against hearing critique are often quite built up, so figuring out when someone is critiquing versus abusing is tough. You’ll probably listen to some abuse, before you’ll be able to figure out if it is critique.

5. Wherever you can, Repair. That can mean a lot of things. It can mean apologizing. It can mean taking an action that counters a previously taken action. It can mean self-educating.

* * *

We really don’t know what to do. We are groundless. Even when answers are really clear-cut, they are often complex to communicate to others or to implement.

So I keep coming back to a willingness to listen better (fully, deeply, truly, listen—less talking, more listening), and then seeing how I can get on down the line to Repair.

Because if I’m honest, the more I listen the more I see the need for Repair that my own defenses have not wanted to fully see.

If I’m honest, I see how in my not knowing what to do–the perfect, socially approved, beyond judgment things to do–I sometimes didn’t do anything.

If I’m honest, I see how beating myself up for past mistakes doesn’t do anyone any good (it just makes fear stronger, and ups the ante for perfectionism, who will then surely say, “You fucked it up, before, so now you need to make SURE that you get it right!”).

Listen. Educate yourself. Make apologies and amends where necessary. And give—give all that you can.

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