I find that so far, my 2017 has had a lot of moments that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable. I’ve had to remind myself to keep thinking, because it’s important to distinguish those feelings from what is actually a problem: when I’ve crossed the line into a situation when I’m unsafe.
Why does this matter so much to me? Because I proudly call myself a U.S citizen and a social justice activist, and both of these roles require two qualities: a commitment to changing my country for the better, and also a commitment to changing myself for the better. For years I tried changing other people more than myself, before I landed on a balance of wanting to change both the outer world and my inner world.
It turns out that to have the impact I want to have, I have to not only be aware of the world, but my place in it, and my best opportunities to change it. When these opportunities present themselves, it’s essential that I be clear on my state of mind. Especially because many of the best opportunities for change can involve being either:
Unfamiliar or Uncomfortable.
But it’s easy to lump them in with feeling:
Many of us who are doing social change work use “unsafe” when I think we are describing what is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. And that makes changing ourselves or our communities or our country harder.
For example, when we’re exposed to stereotypes about a group of people we don’t see regularly, we may feel unsafe when actually, we’re just somewhere unfamiliar. Or when people say or do hurtful things, we are uncomfortable, but not necessarily unsafe.
Unsafe means that our minds move into fear mode and shut down. As so many important discussions about change are unfolding right now, I see people describe feeling unsafe, and become reactionary in their thinking and actions. But the skill-set of noticing and responding to what is unfamiliar or uncomfortable can actually be much more useful.
Okay, if you are alive and lucky enough not to have a boring life, unfamiliar things will happen all the time. We live in a time where human experience and change is happening at a pace probably never seen before — definitely not seen before in recorded history. But for many adults, unfamiliar is well… yucky. We don’t like it. We prefer what is known, we prefer what is familiar to us. Even sometimes, when things are actually improving, we can experience it as unfamiliar and therefore undesirable.
I’ve learned about this particular state of mind by being a student of the Alexander Technique, a practice of learning how to use my body well. I’m used to slouching so much that when I am not slouching, it almost feels like I’m leaning backward. But I’m not. If I look at in the mirror, I can see that I’m just standing up. Weird, because it feels unfamiliar.
As part of my study of Alexander Technique, I practice the quality of noticing that something is unfamiliar, and noticing without judgment. It’s not a question of whether it’s “good” or “bad” to slouch — there are times to slouch and times not to slouch. But slouching has become familiar, so when I’m not slouching, it can feel like something is wrong. Instead, I can notice that what I’m doing is either familiar or unfamiliar, and then decide what I actually want to be doing.
Unfamiliar is something that can come up often in the context of racism, because the places where our lives are segregated can mean that we are struggling internally with the unfamiliar when we encounter people who we have mostly learned about via stereotype. This happens for me sometimes when I don’t conform to someone’s stereotypes of who I should be as a Latina. It happens for me sometimes when I encounter people from other communities that I have not spent as much time around.
Things that are unfamiliar can also lead to feeling uncomfortable. For example, my wife is Jewish, and although I have taken many steps to know and understand Jewish culture, everyone once in a while she’ll point out a way that I talk about religion or spiritual practice in ways that is noticeably Christian (I was raised Catholic). When she points out to me that I’m saying something that might be rooted in anti-Semitism, that’s uncomfortable. Sometimes anti-Jewish oppression takes the form of acting like Jews don’t exist or are “a little odd.” These moments are very uncomfortable. I don’t like it when she points this out.
Sometimes I can notice the physical feeling of being uncomfortable. And of course, like most people, my thought is “How soon can I return to feeling comfortable?” But looking for the straight line — the quickest exit from an uncomfortable feeling — isn’t a real solution.
For this, I take a lesson from when I’m exercising and I start to get out of breath. Not being able to breathe feels very uncomfortable. But I’ve found if I can stay calm, and focus on noticing my breath go in and out, my breath will return and then I can think about what I want to do next. It can’t just be about ending the discomfort, though.
It comes back to thinking, “wait, what do I really want to be doing here?” Then pointing myself in that direction. Sometimes, it means bearing the uncomfortable feeling. That might feel like it is emotionally unsafe, but that doesn’t mean we have to avoid it at all costs.
And sometimes, our health or life might be in danger. For example, we’re in a car being operated by an intoxicated person, or someone is angry and armed. There are times when the chances of someone getting seriously injured or killed actually exists.
I know that for me, there are situations that feel unsafe because they are places that I’ve been before. I’ve been there before, and bad things happened, so now I get extra fearful when those things might happen again. But just because I have that memory and that feeling doesn’t mean that the same thing is happening again.
The challenge for me is to pause and ask myself, “am I actually unsafe right now, or am I feeling unsafe because it reminds me of something?” This doesn’t have to take hours of reflection: I likely have to make a fairly quick decision. But it’s an important question to pause and ask myself. Then I can proceed more deliberately.
When I’m actually in physical danger, most often I’ve found that the best next move is to head towards people, especially people who can think clearly and accurately assess whether what’s happening is actually a result of being unfamiliar, uncomfortable or unsafe.
Acting like these three states of mind are basically the same leads to unhelpful next steps that don’t address what is really going on. Responding as if what’s unsafe is “just” discomfort can be reckless, and responding to what’s uncomfortable as if our safety is at stake can be limiting, and lead to worse outcomes for everyone involved. Because as the postcard I found shows, where the magic happens is generally outside our comfort zone.
Over the years I’ve largely developed the habit of asking myself, “is this unfamiliar?” Instead of just falling into the groove of, “I don’t like this,” or the groove of “this is uncomfortable, so it must be unsafe.” I raise these distinctions here to encourage my friends and allies to work on this practice as well – for the sake of ourselves, our communities, and our movements. It’s more important than ever that we turn ourselves towards thoughtful, caring change, and not just change for the sake of being less uncomfortable.