― Jelani Clay
Since I posted my blog last month, war has erupted in the Middle East and thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost. We are inundated with information and images chronicling the atrocities by and through all forms of media day in and day out. Some of us may feel a sense of responsibility to ingest large amounts of this information and imagery for various reasons. We may want to show solidarity or bear witness to the events from a remote location. And in addition to the events happening in other parts of the world, in the United States, we continue to navigate our own tragedies, many of which have become commonplace: alarmingly high rates of homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide and and all manner of homicides. For many, hope seems elusive, to say the least.
Though I am not a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a therapist, I am a human who has been able to navigate adversity with my sense of hope intact. People often ask me how I have been able to retain a positive outlook despite having to walk through some very difficult moments and experiences, some intensely personal and private, and some collective and shared.
The answer is mindset management. In addition to holding tightly to my faith, I vigilantly guard my mind. Just as we are what we eat, what we ingest is what we become. What we put into our hearts and minds matters. The media that we consume, the books that we read, the people with whom we choose to spend our time, the music to which we listen, all have tremendous impact on our sense of emotional well-being. This is not to say that we should not remain aware of world events and extend love and show empathy toward our fellow humans. Quite the contrary. I believe that it is our responsibility to show care toward other humans who are navigating tragedy--both directly and indirectly. And if we are able to lend a helping hand, it is our duty to do so. However, we cannot expect that constant inundation with negativity will bode well for our mental well-being over time. It will eventually take its toll. I believe this is especially true for young people.
I encourage you to guard your heart and your mind. Be intentional about the time you spend ingesting difficult and/or tragic events. Give yourself the space and grace to rest, both physically and mentally. Allow yourself to experience joy and celebrate the good in the world and in your life.
― Henry Cloud
As a professional woman, a mother, a friend and community member, I can personally attest that boundary-setting is at the heart of my self-care and self-preservation regime. As much as people do not like to hear the word “no,” the reality is that sometimes, the answer is simply “no.”
No chaser. No explanation. No justification. Just, “no.”
I posit that a well-timed “no” is appropriate and effective in a variety of circumstances and relationships.
Parents must become adept at utilizing the word “no" as it pertains to their children. Children may posture as though they want their parents to say “yes” to their every command, but in truth, they crave boundaries. In addition, despite their often brazen approach, many of them are fearful that their parents might actually say “yes” to some of their more outlandish requests. Children need parents who are willing to stand for what is right and draw lines in the sand when a request or proposition violates set boundaries or values. I believe that the lack of boundaries in our society has significantly contributed to the deterioration of mental health observed among children and young people over the past three years. At the onset of the pandemic, many parents and educators were so focused on appeasing children and keeping the peace, that many of them completely abandoned boundaries and rules. It is well-established in the child development field that children need rules and boundaries to feel safe and that includes hearing the adults in their lives sometimes tell them “no.”
Working professionals need to learn the art of utilizing the word “no” in the workplace as well. Employers and companies are focused on their bottom line which has to do with productivity and efficiency. They are not in the business of ensuring the well-being of their employees. As a result, it is imperative that each individual is intentional about setting the boundaries needed to maintain their own work-life balance. That will sometimes mean declining a new project or assignment, especially in situations where we can sense that one additional responsibility will tip us over into unwellness.
We must also learn to set boundaries with our loved ones and friends. It’s never easy to tell someone who wants to spend time with us socially or who enjoys the pleasure of our company that we are not available. However, if acquiescing to the request would disrupt or derail sacred time that we have set aside for ourselves for our self-care or mindfulness practice, or even conflicts with a set obligation such as church, or a child’s soccer game, which may seem mundane to others, but is really important to us, we should feel free to decline without hesitation or guilt.
Sometimes saying “no” will be unpopular. And yes, sometimes people will engage in judgment and unfounded conjecture because they may feel rejected. However, “no'' is just sometimes imperative. Not only is answering every request in the affirmative unhealthy and not sustainable, it is grounded in “people pleasing,” a practice that never ends well for the people pleaser. We know that the same people who are making the demands of us to relentlessly give of ourselves until we have nothing left will be nowhere to be found when we are internally gutted, emotionally rattled, and in some cases, physically incapacitated.
We must say “no” for the sake of our own well-being, and, often, for that of others.
The same people who today are demanding a “yes,” will respect you more tomorrow after you have said “no.” Moreover, they will benefit from a better, more fruitful relationship with a healthier, happier, more rested and grounded you.
As it is said, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
by the good people.”
― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is easy to get so caught up in the rigmarole and routine of life that we miss and ignore human suffering all around us. Many of us have become desensitized to horrific events because we are inundated with them on a daily basis through our smart phone news feeds, social media and 30-second sound bites on the evening news. We are so surrounded by negativity, that it can be appealing to tune it all out. In some instances, ignoring it may feel like an act of self-preservation.
I am a proponent of boundaries and mental wellness, but we have to know when and where to really tune in to what is happening (or what has happened) around us. Every so often I will have a moment when the gravity of the suffering of other humans stops me in my tracks. I had several of those such moments during a recent visit to Charleston, South Carolina.
While I was there, I learned that between 40 to 55% of Africans who were brought to America during the transatlantic slave trade were brought through the Port of Charleston. At the recently opened International African American Museum, my family and I viewed an exhibit that demonstrated how the bodies of the captured Africans who were being transported to the Americas were subhumanly arranged in the bowels of ships during the Middle Passage.
While I was there, I was also able to see and touch the forever-immortalized fingerprint impressions made by enslaved toddlers, who were forced to turn freshly formed bricks in the hot southern sun, so that they would dry properly, while their mothers labored alongside them.
I was able to visit auction blocks where countless ancestors of African American people were bought and sold like horses, mules and other chattel.
I was able to visit the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the United States, long known as a center for civil rights organizing, which was the location of a 2015 mass shooting by a White supremacist who killed nine African American parishioners.
On an intellectual level, I am well aware of the existence of slavery, racism, race-based hatred and oppression in the United States. I grew up with the awareness that my great-grandparents were born into slavery, and that the condition of their slavery had long-term generational repercussions on our family. My own father, who was born in 1950 in Arkansas under the heavy thumb of Jim Crow laws and policies, grew up picking cotton along with his mother and siblings to make ends meet.
I knew all of this, but when I experienced and visited the locations where many of our ancestors were forcibly arranged side by side, shackled together while lying in human excrement and breathing in the stench of death, the places where enslaved toddlers were forced to form and turn bricks in the heat, and the church where nine innocent people were killed while studying the Bible and engaging in worship--essentially places and circumstances where human beings were subjected to tremendous suffering, all because they were Black--it felt different. My heart broke (again) for what my people had been through. The emotions that I knew they had to have experienced felt palpable. Fear, bewilderment, intense anger and helplessness, all ran through me at different points during my time in Charleston.
After all of the stirring I felt in my soul settled down, I realized a quiet truth: those people, my people, had never lost hope. They kept fighting. They kept standing. They continued to live their lives with resilience and determination. After surviving unimaginable atrocities, they continued to soldier on. They did not stop. They did not lie down. And because of their resistance and defiant will to survive in the hopes of a brighter day for their descendants, their stories and their legacies live on through those of us who benefit from their sacrifice.
Our World Changer of the Month, Septima Clark, a native of Charleston, whose father had been born into slavery, is the quintessential example of that resilient defiance. Despite growing up in abject poverty, and being actively prevented from accessing an education for herself and from educating others, she not only secured her own high school, baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate degrees, she created opportunities and schools for African Americans so that they would not only have access to education, but would be able to access their right to vote. She did all of this with minimal resources while navigating racism, sexism and oppression with grace; never with anger. Known for her perseverance and steadfast nature, she was quoted as saying,“I never felt that getting angry would do you any good other than hurt your own digestion, keep you from eating, which I liked to do.”
So what now for us when we see human suffering, oppression and injustice happening all around us? How are we charged with responding?
Do we close our eyes and try to ignore it? Do we steel our hearts and intentionally desensitize ourselves to it? Do we create a story in our minds to justify the behavior? Or do we take action in a way that is true to ourselves, honors our history and calls us higher?
I know in my heart what the right answer is for me. The right answer for you is a personal matter, but I will leave you with this quote from Septima Clark as final food for thought:
“I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”