“First, you cry” is the title of Betty Rollins memoir about her breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy. If someone had asked me how I felt after watching the killing of George Floyd, I wouldn’t have known how to answer. I knew I felt rage towards the policeman and deep grief about Mr. Floyd’s family. And I felt both emotions at the same time. If someone asked me how I felt watching the police shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters, I would have answered the same way; rage at the injustice people of color live and have with and sadness that our country was burning in so many different ways.
The other day when I was meditating, those images returned to my consciousness. I saw the murder, the protests and police response all at the same time. Knowing there is an inextricable relationship between thoughts and emotions, I looked at what I was experiencing at that moment. What I felt was sick in my stomach. Very sick. I know that emotions don’t last very long, but the sickness did. There are techniques we use in meditation to help us tolerate an emotion better, but nothing worked and the sickness stayed. There is an odd way in which I almost wanted it to stay, which didn’t make any sense to me at the time.
And then I realized. I was feeling the sickness in the world. I’m sickened by the lethal virus that has killed so many innocent people. And I am sickened by the almost unfathomable injustice people of color live with in this country. Years ago I was invited to give a talk to a middle school class in Kensington. I told the teacher I would be happy to give a talk if I could take some time and just hang out with the kids for a while. When I listened to some of the stories they told me, I felt the same emotions: deep sadness and anger which lasted for months. One girl said that she has difficulty falling asleep because the gunshots are so close. “But it’s okay”, she said. She didn’t even know that it’s not okay. She didn’t know that her life expectancy is shortened because she is black. She didn’t know that many of the boys in her seventh grade class would wind up in prison. She didn’t know that it’s not okay. It makes me angry and sad that a mother worries when their son or husband steps out the door, not knowing if they will be arrested. And I am sickened by our lack of moral leadership.
And all of that sickness engulfed my body that day in my living room. And while I was so angry, scared, confused and helpless, I didn’t realize how much I was suffering. My eyes welled up with tears of self compassion. And then I was no longer confused about my emotions. I realized I was feeling compassion for those who are suffering. I don’t know yet what I will do to try to help, but I will do something. And when I do, I will do it as an act of compassion-even love for all of us who suffer.
Betty Rollin wasn’t the first one to realize that we must cry first. A Sufi once said “when the heart weeps for what it’s lost, the soul rejoices for what it’s found.” And may we all find the compassion we need to change the world.