You can’t tell people what to feel

These days, I’m reminded of this important lesson from my counseling training: You can’t tell people how they ought to feel.
Emotion is neither good nor bad. Emotion is part of how we respond to the world around us. Emotion is information about our internal states. If someone feels joyful, that is part of their internal state. If someone feels sad, that is part of their internal state. In many ways, emotion happens spontaneously. We hear some news or experience an event and feel a gut response.
Whatever a person is feeling, I am not in a position to say, “You shouldn’t be feeling that way”.
What I can do is have a conversation about the ideas underlying that emotion. For example, I like the grocery store chain Trader Joe’s; I appreciate that there’s a Trader Joe’s near my apartment. I could hear that Trader Joe’s is closing all of their stores, and feel really sad. If someone came to me and said, “You shouldn’t be sad that Trader Joe’s is closing down”, I would respond by saying, “Who are you to tell me how I should feel? Trader Joe’s meant a lot to me and my family. Maybe it seems silly to you, but it was important to me, so leave me alone.”
But the person can say to me “Hey, Trader Joe’s is not actually closing down”, and then I won’t be sad anymore. The helpful person is not challenging my emotion, but providing new information and challenging the ideas that undergird the emotion.
Some may disagree. Some may say that I should tell people how they ought to feel, that I should tell people “Be joyful, not sad!” or “Don’t be happy, be upset!” I would like to ask those folks a simple question: How is that working out for you? When you tell people that they are experiencing the wrong emotions, do they listen to you? And if they listen to you, what do they say in response?
We can talk about the ideas undergirding emotions. We can talk about how to respond to our emotions. We can talk about how to channel our emotions, and not be ruled by our emotional lives. But I, at least, think that’s a bad idea to tell people to deny that their emotions exist or what they are feeling.
So for those who feel the need to mourn, let them mourn. For those who feel the need to rejoice, let them rejoice. Maybe the two groups should give each other some space, because trying to have a wedding and a funeral in the same venue is awkward. And then maybe we can come back and work on things together.

Dream from last Wednesday

On Wednesday night, I had a dream.
In the dream, I was washing my hands. I looked up into the mirror, and was horrified by what I saw.
Half of my face was the same as it always was. But the other half had dramatically changed. My skin had ripped apart, showing the disease underneath. Green lines of toxic tissue oozed fluid and pulsed with every heartbeat. Part of my flesh had torn off, and all I could see underneath was utter darkness, a deep and dense void. I felt visceral disgust at my appearance. I don’t remember which was worse, my rotting face or the emptiness underneath. Someone had smashed my face in, and revealed the ugliness within.
I told a friend about my dream, and she pointed out that it carried parallels with our current political climate. The election punched a hole in our body politic, revealing the hatred, violence, and destruction within. Those things are not new; they have been there for a long time. Those things were not made known only in this election; other events have revealed these factors before. But this election was a particularly powerful blow to our image of ourselves.
People say that we’ve never been this divided. But I don’t know if that’s true. I wonder if we’ve always been this divided, but now we’re being honest.
There’s a saying I heard from my counseling class: “You can’t heal what you can’t feel.” I know the rhyming is cheesy, but it’s easy to remember. Until healing can begin, you need to recognize that the hurt exists. Maybe this is just that kind of moment.

My work week

As part of my job, I’ve been making to do lists to keep me organized. Last week, I started marking off the things that I accomplished and saving the old lists so that I know what I got done. I use Microsoft OneNote, and it’s pretty intuitive. Looking over my week, here are some things that I got done:
– Interviewed applicants for jobs with our office.
– Met with clients at the GLIDE Legal Clinic and helped provide legal advice. One of the clients came with really awful conditions problems in his apartment (mold and roaches and filth). I referred him to a few organizations that could provide specialized help.
– Inputted client data into our internal database.
– Provided input at the semiannual Clinic check-in meeting about how to improve our Legal Clinic. As part of improving our services, I will be meeting with different groups at GLIDE (such as the addiction recovery group and the domestic violence support group) to hear about what legal services they might need.
– Answered questions for a client worried about housing discrimination.
– Attended an internship fair at Berkeley Law to pitch our organization to interested students.
– Did some data work for a monthly report on the Legal Clinic.
– Met with a legal services partner to talk through best practices. We’re going to Traffic Court this Wednesday to see how citations and tickets are being handled, since we are working with a coalition to make these citations less onerous for homeless individuals.
– Helped a client who had his home destroyed by San Francisco figure out next steps in pursuing a claim against the City. We have helped a number of homeless individuals who had their tents/tiny homes/structures cleared out or demolished by the City.
Most of what I did isn’t really “legal work.” I haven’t opened up Lexis or Westlaw (legal research databases) in a while. I haven’t written many memos or briefs.
But I am learning a lot about what advocacy looks like at the very start of a case, of how to answer legal questions and point people in the right direction. A lot of this kind of lawyering is listening to people’s stories, helping them figure out what’s going on, and directing them to resources to advocate for themselves or organizations that will help them.
And reporting. Always got to be reporting to the funders. As the saying goes, “In God we trust. All others bring data.”