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Tips for Mediators Feeling the Heat of Hysteria

by Katherine Triantafillou
January 2016 Katherine Triantafillou

If you are a peacebuilder at heart — and face it, most of us mediators see ourselves as making the world more peaceful by our work — then the recent spate of Trump inspired controversy following bombings in Paris and San Bernardino is troubling to your core.

In the midst of the turmoil, I was on a conference call with my colleagues from Mediators Beyond Borders International lamenting my inability to “do” anything, feeling the heat of hysteria floating in the cyber cosmos immobilize my normal activist self. “The only thing I can think to do,” I screeched, is “to finish cleaning my house,” more specifically, to scrub and wax the floors. Ken Cloke, his voice as calm as usual, with a tinge of twinkle, responded “that seems like the perfect thing to do right now.”

I didn’t get it at the time, but the more I recalled our conversation, it was the perfect thing to do. The repetitive motion of gathering dirt first with a broom and then getting on my hands and knees, moving the scrub rag in symmetrical arcs back and forth, into the bucket and out, filled with hot, soapy water, actually calmed me down. I could not stop the violence or immediately change anyone’s biased rantings, but I could have the cleanest floor in West Tisbury! I could regain control of my own emotions that were flying toward the abyss through a form of mindfulness I’m sure Rumi had in mind when talked about doing everyday tasks with intention. The centering process I engaged in was important for many reasons, not the least of which is that our clients, in addition to the usual stresses of daily living are also reading, listening and hearing the voices of doom and destruction all around and are incorporating the fear into their beings, bringing it into the room when we mediate. It is hard to be creative when one feels the gloom of catastrophe around every corner. In order to provide a safe container for all those emotions it is imperative for each of us to be centered, even if our clients never bring up the Islamic State, Mr. Trump or the latest news of the day. This self-centering process is even more vital when it feels as if the world is spinning out of control. Perhaps scrubbing the floors is not your cup of tea, but I’m sure there are other daily tasks that can provide the same emotional grounding that cleaning did for me. (I’m the daughter of Greek immigrants and my childhood lessons include the “cleanliness is Godliness” mantra!) It is not so much the activity as it is the focus and intention that enables one to shut out the troubling, hateful voices. Whatever allows you to do that, do more of it whether it is walks in the woods, long drives with a loved one, craft-making, cooking, shooting hoops in the driveway or swinging a club at a driving range. Take a break from reading/listening to the news. Do more of whatever allows you to experience the joy of living.

In addition, there really are things that all peacemakers can do to help the world right now. Recently I read an article that reflected some of the ideas I have been thinking of as a result of my own reaction to current events and it begins with the heart stopping first sentence I wish I could claim as my own: “One of the most difficult experiences of democracy is to watch your country going crazy, and feel responsible.”[1]  The reason I thought this so noteworthy is that the author captures a truth so obvious we frequently miss it when we discuss our discomfort with the current public dialogue. The essential premise is that we are a democracy and as such, all of us contribute to the body politic. And further, that “[p]oliticians really do respond to certain kinds of public opinion, sometimes to our shame.” What this means on a larger scale is that we need to participate in our public dialogues now, more than ever, so that more calm reasonable voices can be heard and magnified. Muder listed “six things that ordinary people can do to restore sanity”[2] and I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety as it includes some useful tips for responding to social media extremist views.  The very first one is a variation on centering; “don’t make things worse.” In other words, calm down and don’t add to the hysteria by running off in the other direction.

I would add a couple more things sensible people can do.  Reach out to your Muslim friends. If the rhetoric is hurtful to you, imagine what it must feel like to be a Muslim in this country right now, worried that your children will be assaulted or your businesses vandalized. Write your congressman or woman, the ones who voted to increase the already difficult two year process it takes be vetted before coming to this country as a refugee. Connect more with your friends. Don’t just commiserate about how awful things are, although that sort of venting has its place. Connect in person with other human beings so that you aren’t alone with your feelings; reinforce the goodness in the world, give voice to your gratitude that you are in this journey together and avoid the paranoia that the Third Reich is right around the corner. Write letters to your local newspaper or respond to a blog post, congratulate the politicians who haven’t “let…the panic sweep them away.” Recently the Chief Justice Ralph A. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts invited himself to speak at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center following afternoon prayers and said among other things that:

             “I am here to assure you that you do not stand alone…

             You have a constitution and laws to protect your right

             to practice your religion, to protect you from discrimi-

             nation and to protect you from acts of violence that

             may be committed against you because of your

             religion or your nation of origin.”[3]

What Judge Gants did is all the more significant when viewed in light of neuroscientific studies on the origins of genocide. A PBS documentary on the brain by David Eagelman highlighted the finding that many of us understand: we are social creatures and brain health depends on connection with other humans. Eagelman, though, was interested in finding out why people who knew each other as neighbors could ultimately turn on each other in a massacre like the one that took place in Bosnia at Srebrenica where 8,000  Bosniacs were slaughtered by Serbians in ten days.

When people interact with similar people (your “in group”) the medial pre-frontal cortex is active; with dissimilar people or people we perceive as “other,” our medial pre-frontal cortex is less active. The study Eagelman drew attention to in the documentary involved showing test subjects pictures of people being stuck with a needle so that the viewer’s pain (and empathy) center would be activated. Interestingly, if the person in the photograph being stuck with a needle was from a different class, race, ethnicity or a disheveled homeless street person, the brain basically shut down so that the viewer didn’t care or feel any empathy toward the “victim.” Under the right circumstances, this “not caring” by humans transforms into the type of dehumanization that on a massive scale can lead to neighbors killing neighbors for no “apparent” reason.  Thus, when people are bombarded with distorted news information as they were in Bosnia right before the war (e.g. claims that Muslims were feeding children to the lions at zoos) they are more prone to a critical reduction of brain activity resulting in a dangerous “group contagion.”

 While more research needs to be undertaken about genocide, Eagelman’s primary point is that our connected digital age could exacerbate what is already known about the brain and group behavior.

Our social media connectivity is mirrored in our connected brain function which can influence people to act inappropriately or contrary to the moral rules that we usually ascribe to as a civilized society. It is therefore up to us — you and me — to calmly short-circuit the potential for reprehensible acts by speaking up and cooling down the heat of hysteria.

 

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[1] Doug Muder, In Times of Hysteria (November 23, 2015), http://www.theweeklysift.com,last accessed December 22, 2015.

[2] “Don’t make it worse; disrupt the spread of rumors; make fantasies confront reality; call out distractions; make sensible points; look for unlikely allies and quote them.” Sound familiar?

[3] Lisa Wangsness, SJC Chief justice assures Muslims of protections, Boston Globe, December 19, 2015, at A.3

Biography


Katherine Triantafillou is a lawyer/mediator in Boston and Edgartown, Massachusetts, diversity trainer and volunteer with Mediators Beyond Borders International Dialogue Process Project.



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