Still True: Seeking Emotional Sobriety in Troubled Times

Back in 2016, I wrote a series of essays following the presidential election, entitled “In Troubled Times.” Some of these strike me as valid now, “In Tumultuous Times” as then. This one is on “Emotional Sobriety.”

Most of us who drink alcohol have sooner or later imbibed too much of it. Setting aside the embarrassing and unhealthful effect of such overindulgence, we then got to experience nature’s own payback: a hangover. Not only do we feel wretched, we grapple with the fact that we inflicted this misery on ourselves by our own choices.

Recently I’ve noticed behaviors (other than drinking) that leave me with a feeling of emotional or spiritual malaise. Not “What was I drinking?” but “What was I thinking?”

When I take note of the symptoms of “spiritual or emotional” hangover, I become aware of the situations, topics, or even people that lead me to abandon my center. While it is undoubtedly theoretically true that no one can make me feel or behave in ways I will regret, in practice my will power needs help.

When I am already anxious, distracted, confused, or all the other things I have been feeling since the election, I’m not at my best. My judgment can be unreliable. Ditto my self-control. If I put myself in compromising situations, I am likely to say things I will regret. The regret stems not so much from external consequences but from how I then feel about myself. No matter how I value kindness, I can behave in harsh, unkind ways when I’m in over my head. Over the years I’ve gotten very good at admitting error and making things right, to the point that I would much rather avoid acting badly to begin with.

Many of us have remarked how social media is both addictive and inflammatory. In a fit of irritation or self-righteousness, we zip off a caustic comment and push ENTER. Then we keep coming back for another dose. It’s an engraved invitation to insanity. Very few of us are capable of going cold turkey, and I’m not sure that’s really a solution. When we return to social media, as most of us will, we will be in exactly the same state in which we left it. We won’t be any more skillful in detaching ourselves or of passing by the temptation to be cruel or snarky. We won’t be any closer to finding communities, people, topics, or environments that help us to feel calmer, kinder, and more hopeful. We’ll be like alcoholics who stop drinking but never address the underlying issues or the consequences.

In addition to being careful about situations that may provoke me to things I’ll regret, I can ask myself what keeps me coming back. Is it the illusion that news (including gossip) will somehow make me safe? Or popular? Or smart? What do I get from visiting those sites (maybe there is something positive)? Is there a grey area in which the positive benefits become negative, and if so, how can I better discern it?

What situations leave me with heart lifted and spirits mended? Who or what gives me hope? In what settings do I act my best? Who brings out the qualities in me that I value? How do I seek out such encounters?

4 thoughts on “Still True: Seeking Emotional Sobriety in Troubled Times

  1. Since last Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol, I have found myself in the quandary of wanting information and therefore checking Twitter (since information shows up faster there than on news sites) and realizing that many people who I appreciate in calmer times are prone to share their freak out reactions on Twitter, which is harmful to my sanity. The comparison to over-drinking is very apt.

    BTW, my senryu today is also on point:
    Act from your center,
    not your fear or your anger.
    Don’t forget to love.

    1. I love the senryu, Nancy.

      A suggestion: something I’ve been working on shifting in my own words/thoughts: Instead of saying “don’t forget to” I say “remember to.” Seems like a slight shift, but that “don’t” is just an emotional full-stop for me. “Remember to” seems more like a gentle, encouraging nudge.

      It has the advantage of having the same rhythm, for poetic purposes. 😉

      1. That’s a good thought. I think there is research that shows people often forget the negative words like “not” in such sentences so that it has the opposite effect.

        But there are times when the subtle difference between those two things matters to me in a poem. I think I will question it each time now.

  2. “Harmful to my sanity” is so true! I remind myself of the airplane oxygen mask analogy. If I am to be a force of good in the world, I must first tend to my inner equilibrium. Far too many have loud voices but fractured mental health. I may agree with them, but I do not wish for the same chaos in my life.

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