Mindful Politics

Lessons of Being Poisoned

As you may have heard, a hazardous chemical was leaked into a river in Charleston, West Virginia last week – poisoning the water supply for 300,000 residents.

What you may not know is that I am one of them.

And I am angry.

I’m angry that something this dangerous to public health was stored next to a major water treatment plant in tanks that hadn’t been inspected in 24 years.

I’m angry that, rather than report the spill to authorities, the company responsible chose to “contain” it with a 50-pound bag of sand and a cement block.

I’m angry that, even after lax oversight caused our area to come {{{this close}}} to the very same accident that killed thousands in India, there have been no new chemical safety regulations. None.

I’m also angry this water was given to children including my own and, believe me, I could go on.

I know I just wrote about anger last week but I want to address it again because experiences like this go well beyond how to handle a colleague who dropped the ball.

This is about outrage.

This is about what to do when you’re so shaken you’ll never return to “the way it was before” again.

I see this outrage all around me now.

I see it in the town hall meetings.

On Facebook.

At the grocery store.

In myself.

When you’re caught in an intense and challenging situation – whether it’s a community crisis, the sudden loss of a loved one, a frightening diagnosis, etc. – it’s easy to get lost in the accompanying flood of emotions.

This is a natural first reaction of course, but there’s a certain helplessness in it – and helplessness is deeply unsatisfying.

So the trick becomes moving through the outrage while at the same time harnessing what is inherently motivating about it.

Easier said than done I know.

And yet… there is a certain mental resilience you can cultivate with some practice, allowing you to handle any of life’s trials with grace.

It looks like this: awareness, acceptance, and action.

Awareness is the realization that, regardless of how terrifying a situation is, it’s far worse to go through it in permanent panic mode.  It’s recognizing that the first step to emerging from a negative thought spiral is to notice when you’re in it at all.

Questions to find awareness: How am I reacting in the presence of this anger? What am I not facing that is causing me to think this way?

Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over. It means acknowledging the truth of what happened versus getting stuck in “why me.”

Questions to find acceptance: Can I make room for what I’m feeling without reacting to it? What is the lesson here?

Action is the empowered choice to overcome a problem by participating in the solution. Frankly, this is the only way to heal.

Questions to find action: What’s the next right action? What are my available options in this moment?

There’s obviously no single way to handle a crisis or perfect response to outrage. These are deep and nuanced feelings that can take a long time to unwind and resolve. The idea is simply to provide a tool that can easily frame up difficult emotions while lighting the way to a productive next step. I hope it serves you as it’s served me.