One recent Saturday afternoon I made a quick trip to a drugstore, squeezing it in between a couple projects I had planned for the afternoon. It was a November day, and the cold misty rain had a welcome freshness about it. The bright flames of autumn colors reminded me of cozy childhood memories of football games and fireplaces and neighborhood parties during the fall months. I was glad I got to see the array of golds and oranges this one last time since the sudden cold snap meant that the leaves would quickly fall.
I was heading out to pick up a mineral supplement which the drugstore had run out of the week before. An empty parking spot right near the overhang was waiting just for me. I'll be in and out — this is what I told myself, hoping that what I needed would be in stock this time.
Noticing a gentleman stocking the shelves in the vitamin section, I went around the aisle to the other side so as not to disturb him. There is a certain joy that comes when thinking of others, even in small ways. I had just arrived at the shelf and bent down to the bottom shelf, when Peter — the employee stocking the shelves — asked if he could help me find what I was looking for. Again an act of kindness, this time received, and I noticed a smile in my heart. Right where it was supposed to be was the magnesium I was looking for and a bold yellow tag announced: Buy one, get one free.
"Is this true?" I asked him, not daring to believe such good luck.
"It certainly is. Actually the sale starts tomorrow, but you tell the person at the register that Peter said to give you the second bottle free. They'll take care of you."
Waiting in line at the front of the store I listened to the cheerful, proactive and respectful way the three people running the check out counters greeted the customers. It made me feel special and important. I thanked the woman who helped me, giving her the message from Peter. "Peter is always helpful like that, making sure people get the best deal for what they need," she said.
My experience that morning helped me realize that exposure to the toxic and even hateful language that is becoming more common on the internet and in news media lately had been affecting me more than I had recognized. The smile, the warmth, the joy had been gradually replaced with feelings of threat, suspicion and depression. I realized I hadn't been conscious of the "toxic" communication around me, and I didn't like the way it was leading me to think and feel.
Everything around us — conversations, situations, even just certain people walking in the room, things we hear on television, radio or see on the internet — reverberates within us physically and emotionally to some degree. It is sort of like being on a plane. When the atmosphere changes, the plane begins to react differently. That's when the pilot comes on the intercom and tells everyone to go back to their seats. Until that point, the passengers hadn't been paying attention to the ride and were engrossed in a movie, a book, conversation or a nap. After the announcement, everyone's attention is focused on following instructions, and their awareness of what is happening is heightened. They notice not only how the plane is flying, but also how it is affecting the way they feel. Maybe they are a little nervous or maybe they brush it off. In either case, they note their reaction regarding the turbulence, and they succumb to feelings that are natural to them or they decide they are not going to let it bother them. (Maybe they even say a prayer!)
In the same way, the communication around us — toxic or pleasing — is like an atmosphere. When we are in a toxic "atmosphere," our hearts, minds and spirits react differently than when we are in a pleasing communicative "atmosphere." Remembering to be aware and to observe our reaction to the way others around us are communicating personally or via the media is like the pilot announcing on the intercom: "We're encountering a little turbulence. Please go back to your seats and pay attention to any further instructions."
So below are some "further instructions" for when you notice that the toxicity around you is unfavorably affecting the way you think, feel, and respond.
1. Have a favorite Scripture-related image that you can visualize at these moments. Choose one with an image in which you can participate. For example, "I hold you in the palm of my hands" (Isiah 49:16). What do you experience on all levels of your being when you picture yourself asleep in the palm of God's hand? Or, "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and mine know me" (John 10:14). What is it like to be known, to be seen with such love and protection?
2. Try to hold together both the toxic situation that is disturbing you and the peaceful comfort of the Scriptural image. We often make the mistake of trying to "delete" the unwanted situation and feeling in order to "replace" it with another. This only adds to the difficulty, because we move from one to another without realizing that we are both: We are disturbed by the situation and the feelings, and we are safe in the faith of God's presence and tender love. Holding both of these realities together requires awareness and a huge act of faith right in the midst of the difficulty.
3. This third step is very freeing. The strength of your reaction to the toxic situation reflects the strength of your not wanting it to be that way. You may have any number of reasons for wanting the situation or the communicative "atmosphere" to be different, but it all boils down to the same thing: I want things to be different than what they are. God, however, has put you precisely in the situation just as it is, and you, you alone, can be the one that can bring the presence of God into the situation just as it is. Change your inner stance to being a co-partner with God, a channel of God's kindness, Jesus' hands, feet and heart in the world today. Hold the unpleasant and unwanted situation with tenderness, knowing that God can bless it through your patience and love. It can help you to simply smile.
These days I want to feel our connectedness to each other, the wondrous way in which we all are living and breathing as one in the Living Breathing God whose love knits together the universe and every inch of life that fills it. Woven together we realize that we are one much more than we are many separate competing individuals, unless of course we want to emphasize our beliefs and judgments and projects over against the others. It brings more warmth and satisfaction to surprise, to respect, to make another happy. It is up to me, and to you, to choose this path of joy, to quietly yet firmly close the doors to toxic communication and to choose instead the simple humility of sending a smile to another's heart.
[Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Kathryn James Hermes is the author of the best-selling book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach as well as a number of other titles. She works with individuals online at pauline.org/heartwork, and her newsletter can be found at pauline.org/sisterkathryn.]