Keeping a Cool Head and Warm Heart During a Crisis

8 min read
Source: Ravi Chandra

Source: Ravi Chandra

The horrifying attacks by Hamas in Israel and the ongoing, decades-long humanitarian crisis in Gaza have far-reaching implications for the region, our world, international relations, domestic policy, and mental and physical health.

As a psychiatrist, I am most concerned that there are individuals and institutions that do not yet have enough distress tolerance, insight, compassion, and relatedness to prevent even worse outcomes.

For example:

  1. A six-year-old Palestinian American boy was murdered in Chicago on October 14, 2023, by his white landlord, according to the Associated Press: “Joseph Czuba was upset over the Israel-Hamas war and attacked them after the boy’s mother proposed they ‘pray for peace.’”
  2. A 19-year-old Sikh American man was attacked in Queens, New York, on October 15, 2023, according to AsAmNews: “The suspect allegedly told the teenager, who was wearing a turban, ‘We don’t wear that in this country.’” Sikhs, some of whom wear turbans as an article of religious faith, have been in America since the late 1800s.
  3. A Berkeley law professor wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal suggesting that firms not hire his supposedly “antisemitic students.” One wishes that the professor and students might have made moves for peace by actually talking empathically with each other over their pain in a spirit of shared humanity, human dignity, and life under siege that needs mutual support and affirmation. It is disappointing that this professor made a move of threat, intimidation, power, and privilege, instead of compassionately extending grace to those with whom he disagreed. And it’s unclear if students were extending compassion and grace to those they disagreed with on complicated matters.
  4. NYU Law student Ryna Workman’s job offer was rescinded after she stated Israel bore “full responsibility” for Hamas’ attacks, according to Clearly, the remarks were highly impolitic, offensive to many, and unempathetic, but the response shows how little room some institutions have for the distress inherent in this decades-long conflict. Workman has been given a life lesson, but we all need to learn a lot more empathy, compassion, and accountability. We also need to hear the voices of the young. (UPDATE 10/19/23: Opinion columnist Dmitri Shumsky of Haaretz, the longest-running Israeli newspaper, reported that the events of October 7, 2023 were the result of not only Hamas’s actions and Israel’s governmental, military, and intelligence failures, but also the longstanding policy of Benjamin Netanyahu to foil peace talks and a potential two-state solution by strengthening Hamas in Gaza at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. So Mx. Workman was impolitic and unempathetic, but she also blamed all of Israel, instead of focusing on the strongman leader and the right wing, all of which have foiled peace prospects for the last 20+ years. See references. I spoke and wrote about strongmen and abusive power as forces in the American and human psyche in my last post, Abusive Power and Megalomania Perpetuate Trauma.)
  5. Progressive Jews in America and around the world are understandably horrified that some vocal liberal activists have seemingly turned against them in the initial response to October 7th. They feel their trauma has been ignored, as liberals look past the atrocities committed against Israeli civilians when protesting the actions of the current Israeli state and its history. Hatred of Jews has no place in our civil discourse – but as before, we all have to tolerate anger in response to powerful manifest forms of abusive power. We have to look under the anger to the unmet basic needs of common and shared humanity. Nonviolent solutions will only emerge from extending goodwill and overcoming hate in all its forms. We must look at the processes, systems, and attitudes that generate abusive power – not blame demographic groups, nationalities, or even, ultimately, individuals for those processes, systems, and attitudes, which I believe are manifestations of society, culture and the human psyche playing out in real-time. Strongmen and abusive power might be seen as signs of distress or even decay of societies. But they are the symptom, and not the ultimate problem, in my humble view. As I say in my talk, we all struggle with power and powerlessness, love and hate, fear and insecurity. Experiences of being abused are pretty much universal – but turning into an abuser in reaction to abuse would be a major error. (Updated 10/20/23 – apologies for being slow on the draw on this point. Honestly, I was more afraid of American racism than anti-Semitism – but they are both the results of abusive power.)

I am worried that as this crisis continues, minority populations in the U.S. and around the world will be impacted with violence and intimidation, similar to what happened to South Asian Americans and Muslim Americans post-9/11.

Here are several concepts to keep in mind to keep a cool head and a warm heart in times of conflict.

1. Violence begets violence.

2. Angry thoughts are natural, not pathological. We have to be able to hear difficult, impassioned words without responding with intimidation and threats. We must be able to receive anger to generate a transitional space capable of transforming trauma. As Americans, we have the right to free speech and vigorous debate.

3. While anger is understandable, escalation to power moves, intimidation, and violence tear the fabric of society. Attorney General Merrick Garland recently said in a 60 Minutes interview,

People can argue with each other as much as they want and as vociferously as they want. The one thing they may not do is use violence and threats of violence to alter the outcome. And one important aspect of this is the American people themselves. The American people must protect each other. [Voice breaks with emotion.] They must ensure that they treat each other with civility and kindness, listen to opposing views, and argue as vociferously as they want but refrain from violence and threats of violence. That’s the only way that this democracy will survive.

4. Not understanding the roots of violence similarly perpetuates violent conflict. Violence stems from unmet needs and ideologies that dehumanize those we deem threatening or responsible for our woes.

5. Many cultures, including ours, tend to create scapegoats to bind communal anxiety. An alternative would be to face our fears with compassion, relationship, and shared humanity.

6. We can relate through love or power, egalitarianism or the “social dominance orientation.” Those who lean towards the social dominance orientation tend to view others as inferior, “bad or wrong,” threats, or tools for their wiles. Whether this is due to trauma, grandiosity, underlying insecurity, cultural myths of superiority or privilege, or some other reason is a matter of continuing debate amongst social psychologists and psychiatrists.

7. We all need belonging and safety. I have repeatedly found in my work that even affects (emotional experiences) need belonging.

8. Underneath the hard emotions of blame and anguish are histories of not being seen, understood, or safe. Underneath blame and anger, there is usually fear, even of annihilation. Violence can spring from these understandable existential fears and traumatic historical experiences. These fears are deeply human, though acting out violently only perpetuates cyclical suffering. As the saying goes, when we point the finger of blame, we forget that three fingers are pointing back at us. Repair requires accountability and validation of our shared human journeys—and that can be a big ask when so many things have gone wrong.

9. Fred Rogers said, “Always look for the helpers.” I recently heard a speaker suggest that in times like this, it’s best to learn and act with compassion instead of blame, self-righteousness, or fear. We can be right or related, right or happy. If we start to understand and relate to people we disagree with, we can amplify the possibilities for happiness and peace in the future.

10. We all must strengthen our capacities to make peace when we feel personally or communally threatened or when those we care about are threatened. The situation in Israel and Gaza challenges us to become a more responsible community, accountable for creating compassion and insight among us.

We can’t just “pick sides” like this is a schoolyard fight. We can’t split the parties into “all-good” and “all-bad” factions, which would only perpetuate the conflict and our own misunderstanding.

While we advocate for protecting life and safety, we must support the peacemakers and empower the process of peacemaking within ourselves. Peter Beinart, a noted progressive Jewish journalist, has written about this in the New York Times. Palestinian Mustafa Barghouti has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and recently spoke about the need for nonviolence despite his extremely distressing history for the PBS NewsHour.

There have been many others and movements for peace on all sides of this conflict. We can support them by supporting peace and nonviolence in our own minds and hearts, using all means at our disposal, including going on a media diet when we feel overwhelmed. We can choose what we want to “eat,” so to speak.

Take gentle care of yourselves, and look out for each other too. Let’s help each other grow our cool heads and warm hearts.

You might also like my video on “Active Compassion.”

© 2023 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

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