There was a movie a few years back called “What women want”. Mel Gibson was the lead, an ad man. He took a series of womens’ products home to test drive them and, in the process, accidentally electrocuted himself. When he woke up, he had the uncanny ability to hear womens’ thoughts. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story here. The movie doesn’t explain the connection between electrocution and mind reading, and why he could only hear women’s thoughts. And you have to get past the sexist stereotypes that men are clueless and the only way men can understand women is through mind reading.
But apart from all that, it’s a fun plot. At first, it’s a boon for Gibson in his advertising job. He can literally read women’s minds to know how to pitch products to them. But when a large group of women run past him in the park, the noise is almost deafening. And when he overhears the morose and withdrawn office worker contemplating suicide in her mind, he doesn’t know how to handle his new awareness. He desperately wants to turn off the voices.
Now, think about the same concept in relation to your awareness of what’s going on in the world. We get bombarded with pain and suffering, whether it’s from watching the news, or reading the body language of people around us. We know too much because we see it all around us. There’s not enough room in the world to hold all the pain. Or so it seems. We need to know in order to be responsible citizens. But how do we stop our knowledge from tipping into overwhelm? Sometimes you wish you could turn off your intuition. The noise is too loud and the solutions too remote.
It happened to me the other night. I turned on the local news, and was overwhelmed by the long list of tragedies and this was just in West Michigan. There were shootings, accidents, kidnappings, bankruptcies, unemployment numbers, domestic disputes…… It was SOOO depressing and left me feeling paralyzed. Some days I can barely cope with my own petty challenges. I try to do my best for my family’s needs. But taking on the needs of West Michigan, let alone thinking about kids in Africa who are starving, feels like too much. If Oprah and Bono can’t solve the problems of the world, what can I possibly do?
The overriding feeling that many, many people have now is being overwhelmed. Anxiety has overtaken depression as the leading mental health issue in America today. Around 20% of American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and its starting earlier and earlier. Psychologist Robert Leahy points out: “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
Where am I heading with this? Last week I wrote about taking responsibility. I mentioned responsibility’s mantra, IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME. When you see something that needs to be done, get in and take responsibility. But is there such a thing as taking too much responsibility? What happens when you feel overwhelmed by the needs of the world? How do you persevere when it feels like you’re running backwards into a stiff headwind? These are some of the questions I want to address this week. I will offer practical ways to remove unhealthy burdens from your life and live with calm urgency. I will look at feeling the pain of others without letting it destroy you. Most importantly, I will point you inwards where you intuitively know the balance between responsibility and equanimity.
What is equanimity? You may have seen the tongue in cheek sign in stores; a phrase co-opted by grandparents everywhere- ALL care, NO responsibility. Reframe the sign so that it reads- ALL care, ALL responsibility and ALL acceptance. All at the same time, all held in careful balance. This is equanimity.
Here are 10 indicators that you may have a responsibility imbalance.
You need to fill conversational silences.
You apologize for things you had nothing to do with.
You take on the blame for events and circumstances that are beyond your control.
You make excuses for people who are behaving badly.
Your first inkling is to rescue people.
You feel paralyzed by the size of challenges.
You lose sleep, worrying about world problems.
You feel like you always have to be the life of the party.
You deprive yourself of basic rights because others are missing out.
You struggle with guilt.
You hear about many veterans who feel guilty for having survived while fellow soldiers died. It’s almost las if they feel they have no right to move on when so many others didnt have that opportunity. Can you relate to the burden of guilt or being overwhelmed by responsibility in some way in your life?
The alternative to being overwhelmed is not inaction. The good news is that there is a way to feel the pain of others, without letting it destroy you. There is a way to take responsibility for the problems of the world without being crushed by the burden. There is a way to take practical steps toward change without needing to know the end point or the timing to get there. This is the balance between responsibility and acceptance.
In the words of Lao Tzu, “Do what you can, and then step back.”
Do what you can, with the wisdom and energy you currently have, and then accept that this is enough. For now.
Create the space for others to take ownership of their lives, and accept where they are. For now.
Find your passion, and be the change you want to see in the world, and accept that the world is becoming all it needs to be. For now.
I just added this one, after a helpful comment from Ara (below). Think globally, and act locally. In other words, balance a large perspective with sustainable actions.
It’s like the balance between ripples and a pond. Create ripples of change and action in your life and in the world around you. But do so out of a place of inner stillness that resides beneath the surface where all is calm and in no hurry. Trust that everyone and everything is unfolding in the exact time and way it needs to, including you.