Op-Ed: Wishing Giuliani well just because he has COVID-19 is a form of crazed self-censorship
In early October, when the soon-to-be-former POTUS announced he had COVID-19, my Twitter feed exploded with hundreds of posts saying different versions of the same thing: I don’t like his politics, but I wish him a speedy recovery.
Now, with the news that President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has also been admitted to the hospital with COVID, I am bracing for more of the same — a deluge of messages from people who feel inexplicably compelled to clarify that they don’t wish for anything bad to happen to Giuliani.
To this I say: Nothing.
Why? Because I don’t need to say anything, and neither do you. Choosing to shove a potato in your emotional exhaust pipe is a form of crazed self-censorship — and can actually make your negative feelings more toxic. These negative feelings don’t rule out the possibility that you are still a good person. Instead of scrambling to make your emotions more palatable, spend that energy learning to reprogram how you process them.
For the last several years, I’ve been teaching mindfulness to other doctors. Mindfulness is often defined as a moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of the present unfolding of experience. It can also mean observing our thoughts and feelings without ascribing value to them. I think of it as peering into the darkness, instead of shooing it away — and learning to accept what we see.
Mindfulness has altered my life in powerful ways. It’s made me comfortable with the fact that sometimes my feelings about other people aren’t very nice. Sometimes I don’t like other people. Sometimes I feel downright hatred for them. Sometimes I catch myself mid-wish, and it doesn’t exactly read like a letter to Santa.
For much of my life, I wasn’t comfortable with these storm-cloud emotions. I thought of myself as a good person, a nice person, and often my feelings weren’t “nice” enough. So I had a list of ways to compensate for them, including being extra nice, and saying things like, “I don’t wish anything bad on (insert name of extremely evil colleague or serial killer)” which, in retrospect, was code for, “I am choking on the fumes of my hatred, but look, is that a pony?”
What’s the difference between censoring your feelings and not judging them? Some practitioners call it non-identification — experiencing and naming our feelings as opposed to being our feelings. Feelings come and go; we don’t control them. But having passive thoughts about an individual coming to harm versus setting aside time to plot their demise are different propositions. What we do control is how we respond to our feelings.
Some people posting their “good wishes” on Twitter — whether aimed at Giuliani or the latest “villain” to get COVID — are simply virtue signaling. But many others make such posts because they are uncomfortable with their own negative emotions. We like to think of ourselves in certain lights, and it’s normal to struggle when we encounter cognitive dissonance.
Growing up in a family with problems, my lifeline became Alan Alda’s Hawkeye on “MASH.” As a doctor fighting COVID-19, I channel his humor and rage.
But perhaps the best reason to avoid clinging to those negative feelings is actually the effect it has on the wisher.
Last year I was at a retreat with other physicians who practice mindfulness. We paired off to talk about places we were “stuck.” I told my partner I was in a rut with a difficult situation I had faced at work. He asked why. I said I was still struggling to forgive someone who had seriously wronged me.
My partner gently asked what it would be like to let go of those feelings. I looked at him with a sense of bewilderment, suddenly hearing that question for the first time. What would it be like? In that moment, I noticed everything that was flowing through me. The unfairness of how I’d been treated, how I’d suffered as a result, the intensity of my pain and anger. And I suddenly understood a simple but profound truth: I’d have to let it all go. I said that to him, through unexpected and blinding tears.
He nodded yes and said, “Because otherwise it blackens the heart.”
That phrase was a gift, and it has stayed with me. I am finding it especially useful at this moment in time. Healthcare workers have very specific things to be angry about right now, and some days my mind still gets stuck in an endless loop of rage and grief, especially when I think about the scale of the harm inflicted by people like Trump and Giuliani.
But there is a difference between having those emotions and becoming them. The latter will only bring more pain and suffering.
So here is my prescription for dealing with these situations: Skip the good wishes. It isn’t immoral to be personally ambivalent about the fate of an individual whose values are an affront to your own, and it’s entirely normal to feel hatred and an assortment of other strong feelings for all kinds of people in our lives. Notice what you feel, and leave it at that, because the fire that consumes us also disfigures us. There is power in knowing that in this much, at least, we still have a choice.
Jillian Horton is an internist in Canada and author of the forthcoming memoir “We Are All Perfectly Fine.” @jillianhortonMD
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