Facebook right now is a beautiful, heartening, optimistic stream of photos of children moving on through milestones. Graduations, moving up celebrations, or simply the joy of surviving another year of school and excitement over having 2 months to sleep, sit around, splash around, and forget everything they learned for tests.
But for many people, each of these posts is a reminder that falls into one or several of these categories: 1) “life goes on for others, even when our own life has unraveled;” 2) “I will never see my child graduate/go to Prom;” 3) “summer is hard for me because it brings memories of how much our family enjoyed summer before our devastating loss;” 4) “I am a completely inadequate mom because the thought of having my kids home all day, without structure, makes me panic;” 5) I wish I could afford to give my family a better summer… Etc.
Social media is wonderful because of the connections it fosters. We are able to stay in touch with people easily, we become closer to people we may never even have met, we have access to as much information as we have time to read and watch, and we can make a difference by sharing enriching links and original content. But it also has its downside, since depending on where we are in our life, and how we are feeling about our life and ourselves, a glance at our Facebook feed can send us reeling.
Because I have been on both sides of the coin, posting happy updates and at other times, reacting with resentment and envy when my friends posted photos of themselves having fun with their moms, who unlike mine, are alive and well, I try to always be intentional in my posting. I have created the following list, through which I filter my own postings and thought may be helpful to you, whether you are posting updates or warily going through your media feed.
Before posting, ask yourself the following questions:
1. “Is this boastful?” If the intention is to show friends and family who are out of town, how much the kids have grown or how happy they look, or something like “hey, our life is CRAZY with Sam’s football schedule and I’m proving it by posting pictures of him at practice every day, which explains why I never call you” – then that is perhaps different from regularly telling everyone how amazingly accomplished your kids are. You can share all the stuff that doesn’t pass your Nonboastful Filter with a more select list of Facebook friends by creating lists (adding people to Family, Close Friends, or create a new list).
2. “Am I complaining? And is my pity party in order to elicit attention, or do I really think people may be able to help me?” Life is filled with situations we find frustrating, fearful, annoying. But do we need to share them with the world? I am not saying we need to paint a superficial, glossy picture of our lives (I definitely do NOT support that – that’s another blog entry though). I choose not to post stuff like how annoying my kids can be, or when they aren’t feeling well, or when I have a Really Shitty Mom Day – because I know that if I do that, I am a) being insensitive to people who don’t have the privilege of having annoying or sniffly kids and b) increasing the negative energy because now people will feel bad for me. I rather people feel good. If I need help, I will text or call friends. If whatever the challenge was is worth posting about because of the lessons learned, or the gratitude it grew, then I will post AFTER the problem is resolved. #dramafree
3. Every time I post something that shows me or my family or friends in a positive light – we have achieved a milestone or won an award, or we look beautiful, or we are traveling somewhere really cool, or we are in some way doing something that others may not have the privilege to do because they can’t afford it, or they lack the health, or their life situation for whatever reason isn’t conducive to their being able to do this themselves – when I write it and I hit the Post button, I say a prayer for others that goes like this: “Please understand that my intention for posting this is that I am so very grateful to be in this place at this very moment, especially as I know that it is a privilege and that nothing is permanent. As I post this, I send out love and hugs to my friends who are not in this place with me.”
I don’t think it’s necessary to edit everything we post and share. It’s not about changing who we are or suppressing our joy over the many triumphs and delights in our lives. Also, we cannot control others’ reactions nor can we possibly know or keep track of everyone’s triggers. I think the key is to be mindful of the fact that everything we do, say, and yes, post, has an impact on those around us. So let us be intentional. And compassionate. Compassionately intentional.
My most popular blog posts have been the ones where I hit some kind of nerve in people, such as when I opened up about my devastation over a loved one’s suicide, or when I spoke of how I have figured out what mindfulness means in this chaotic, imperfect life of an entrepreneurial mom. I think the reason people can relate is because you get it – you have experienced grief, or you fear the hold depression can have on you or someone you love, or you feel like life is so crazy busy that while you know you need to slow down and pay attention, and cut down on your stress, you figure it is an unattainable goal for the next 10-30 years. You relate to some of my fears and pain. You can empathize.
Empathy is the feeling we have when we can imagine being in someone else’s shoes. You think, “gosh, that is really rough, I’d be a basket case.” Something about that person’s situation struck a chord with you. It is a valuable, and in terms of social emotional learning, mature response, as it gives us the opportunity to take the next step, which would be to feel compassion. Compassion is when we take that empathy and actually act on it. Empathy is passive, whereas compassion is when we say, “gosh, that really sucks, I’d be a total mess, and I’m going to do something to help them feel less alone.”
Wouldn’t it be totally awesome if our kids not only learned empathy but also became compassion warriors?
On a Wednesday last month (May), I was invited to be a guest (spectator) at an incredible event at a middle school in Montvale, NJ, called the Three R’s: Respect, Reflect & Remember. For a full school day, the entire school body listened to 35 speakers who had experienced tragedy and injustice of the worst kind imaginable, and had found the strength to not only survive the pain but to now address audiences in an effort to educate them about respect, compassion, resilience. Mark Barden, whose son was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting; Haider Mamza, who grew up in Iraq in the midst of the war and is now a journalist working on humanizing war; Eliot Hermon, who fought during WWII and whose troop suddenly came upon a Nazi concentration camp and liberated the Jews; David Kaczynski, who ended up realizing that his brother, whom he had always admired and loved, may be the “Unabomber,” and ended up turning him in to the FBI; Allyson Pereira, who stupidly texted her ex-boyfriend a topless photo of herself, in the hopes that he would like her again, only to have it spread like wildfire, leading to horrible bullying which led to her suicide attempt; Joseph Sebarenzi, whose parents, siblings, and most friends and extended family were massacred during the Rwanda genocide; Arno Michaelis, who for 7 years spread hate as a white supremacist and now writes and teaches love and acceptance… These were just some of the people I met and listened to as they kept middle schoolers riveted with their stories of desperation, and eventually, hope.
Mr. Hermon passionately and angrily spoke of the devastation and cruelty of war, and bluntly told the students that if they ever think there is anything glorious or heroic about war, they were being stupid and naïve, that it is to be avoided at all costs. He then described what it was like when he and his fellow soldiers came upon a concentration camp and the horrors they saw, the lack of humanity and the realization that people could be so sub-human in their treatment of others. Tears pouring down my own face, watching this man relive, before our eyes, something that he had experienced over 70 years ago, I watched the reactions of the kids. There was not a dry eye in the room. Boys were reaching for tissues.
When Arno talked about his childhood as the bus bully and the power he felt from it, his apathy toward any punishment from the principal, eventually becoming a leader in hatred toward anyone who wasn’t white, male, heterosexual and Christian, and eventually what led to his transformation and the way he now looks back on those difficult years – the kids were really paying attention. They will probably never forget the lessons of that day, and even if they forget the specifics in the stories, they will not forget the emotion behind each story, and within their own reactions.
This is a news story on the event if you’re curious:
So I write about this today because since then, I have been reminded several times, either because of the Facebook posts I see about celebrities crossing to another gender, or posts about political candidates standing for certain controversial policies, or because I have heard of kids at school (elementary through high school) making comments about classmates, celebrities, and politicians, who are not like them (Caucasian, presumably heterosexual, presumably Christian or at least not Jewish, etc.).
The thing is, that it is easy to coast in life, to be in autopilot and stay there until there is a crisis. The crisis could be personal (heart attack) or in the relationship (affair) or in the family (addiction) or in the community (school shooting) or in the country (recession). It’s human nature to keep the status quo, because that is the easier path. Unfortunately, though, whether we are dealing with our individual, family, relationship, community, societal health – if we are not proactive in prevention, then we are by default falling into disease.
If, as parents and adults in the community, we are not intentionally working toward modeling empathy and compassion for our children, and placing an emphasis on valuing kindness toward others, we are effectively leading our children into apathy, intolerance, and even hatred. It is not good enough to merely refrain from disparaging other cultures, races or religions. We cannot assume that our kids will be accepting of others just because we don’t make racist jokes. We need to go further than that and urge them to learn about other cultures, to think about what it may be like to be the only child in the grade with dark skin, or what it may be like to grow up knowing that you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, or how hard it must be when your parents are unable to buy you most of what your friends are wearing or driving. We need to be mindful of how we are discussing our political and religious views, and perhaps even ask ourselves why we believe this way, and are we encouraging our children to think for themselves?
Let’s do this before another crisis.
P.S. Unbeknownst to me, while I was finishing up this post, my friend and colleague was writing her own. Please read this. The fact that we both posted on the same day and had no idea we were writing about the same subject tells me the status quo needs to be shifted.
When I heard that a relative I loved very much had died by suicide, my first impulse was to change into running clothes and go for a run. I don’t think I had ever run so fast, certainly not up that challenging hill by my house. I didn’t slow down until the sobbing overtook me as my grief and pounding heart collided and I gasped for breath. The only reason I made my way home when I did, after 4 or 5 miles, was that my husband was following behind me and I didn’t think he’d appreciate if I pulled a Forrest Gump run on him. But that was what I wanted to do. I felt a primal urge to keep on running, pounding out the bewilderment, shock, anger, and deep loss with every step.
The moment I heard the awful news, which came out of nowhere because I hadn’t known she was even struggling with depression, my reaction was a very physical one. It was a year ago, but I still remember the sensation in my body that was, I now recognize, the typical Fight/Flight response as my body was intensely restless and before going for the run, I stood in my kitchen and realized I had no idea what to do. And my next thought was,
I have to RUN.
When it comes to brain health and emotional wellbeing, it’s pretty common knowledge (I hope!) by now that exercise is extremely effective in preventing, and as part of a treatment plan, for depression, anxiety, and most if not all other forms of brain health issues. I honestly never understood why OB/GYN’s would prescribe sedentary recovery for 6 weeks post-partum, because this to me seemed like a guaranteed way to become afflicted with Post-Partum Depression.
“Exercise is as effective as certain medications for treating anxiety and depression.”
Unfortunately, because of our culture’s focus on 8-pack abs and size 2 clothing, most people miss the mark on exercise. In the mindfulness program, Inside Out U, which I am teaching with my colleague Beth Rosen, RD, we emphasize the importance of considering exercise as a daily, throughout-the-day, series of movements. Not because we want to help you get those impossible abs you saw on Facebook or Pinterest, but because if you don’t move throughout the day, and have bursts of high intensity exercise throughout the week, your body becomes wracked by inflammation and your brain becomes unhappy, unfocused, uncreative, and essentially, like your body, begins to atrophy.
Recently, a dear friend of mine, Nelba, texted me: “Are you going for a run this morning?” This was one of those texts that took my breath away. You see, Nelba had bought a pair of running shoes a few weeks before but had no concrete plans to start using them. Her daughter Ana Grace had been murdered along with Avielle and their 18 classmates and 6 educators on Dec. 14, 2012, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Nelba had plunged into a depression and self-care was not even a thought, but rather, “How do I go on?” On this Monday morning when Nelba texted me, it was pouring rain and I had been relieved that I wasn’t going to feel compelled to go for a run since I was sore from an intense weekend of working out. And then Nelba texted me. I immediately replied, Yes. We arranged to meet within half an hour (I was afraid she’d change her mind). Nelba shared with me as we made our slow walk/jog trek through the rain, that this was the first time she had run since she ran on that horrible day just over 2 years ago, to the Sandy Hook firehouse to find out if her beautiful 6-year-old Ana was OK.
My first run with Nelba was six weeks ago today, and since then, she hasn’t stopped. In fact, she has roped in other survivors and we meet almost every day, this group of people who have survived trauma, abuse, divorce, great loss. We run, some run/walk, some walk. Some in the group are in the grips of brain health issues, either personally or closely related to someone who is struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, suicidation, addiction. We call ourselves the Smilepacers after the term I trademarked several years ago when I first started doing triathlons and I decided that I wanted to pace myself based on the smile on my face, not the time on the watch. I have frequently heard from them about how much this group is helping them, as they are finally motivated to move and take better care of themselves, and the regular exercise is helping them sleep better, make better food choices, and establish boundaries with friends and family members.
“What it means is that you have the power to change your brain. All you have to do is lace up your running shoes.”
One of the most powerful benefits of moving, is that whether we exercise in private, in public, alone or in a group or with a buddy, we are establishing connection. We connect with our body. Through experiencing trauma, or because we believe messages we hear from the media and the people around us, or because we are too busy to tune in and listen to our body, we at some point realize that we are no longer giving our body and brain the food, rest, play, meaningful social interactions and movement that we need in order to thrive. Exercising can help us reconnect to what our body and brain need. Recognizing how tired we feel when we don’t drink enough water, how much better we feel when we get to bed well before midnight, how much more creative and focused we feel after an intense run or a yoga class, how satisfied we feel after sweating with our friends – this is much more profound than any meme on social networking sites could ever convey.
Now, when I run, bike, swim, and do Poga (the yoga + pilates class I teach), I am mindful of the fact that I do this as much for my brain as for my heart, lungs, liver, and other organs. I participate in events wearing a green tutu, green for brain health, for The Avielle Foundation, because I want people to realize that I am not running because I am chasing a PR, I am running to increase connection, to build awareness that pursuing an active lifestyle is directly beneficial to brain health, and to stress that we all have a brain so let’s start talking about this and leave stigma aside.
Please visit The Ana Grace Project to learn more about how Ana Grace's passion for life continues through work that promotes love, community and connection.
Please visit The Avielle Foundation to learn more about how Avielle's parents are working to prevent further violence and suffering by building compassion with a neuroscientific approach.
*Please note that I am not advocating exercise in place of other forms of treatment, or medication. Everyone is unique and there is no one-approach-fits all.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.