On Overwhelm: What Am I to Do but Know These Things?

by David Keplinger

John Milton’s “Sonnet 19: When I consider how my life is spent,” written 350 years ago, captures for me the overwhelm we feel at great distances from disaster. We struggle to know what to do or how to stand beneath the crush of world events we witness via posts and news and video. Overwhelm is considered a “near enemy” of the Buddhist notion of karuna, compassion, because it reflects the undigestible intake of the afflictions and suffering of others when we have no power to reach it or relieve it. I have come to read a growing overwhelm—all rising within the last eight or nine years, but especially since the Pandemic—in the faces and frozenness of my students and my colleagues at the university. There is a feeling of exhaustion in the room where there once was excitement, collegiality, and curiosity. “Research is mourning,” Rick Barot’s citation reads in The Galleons. It does seem true that the more we know, the more we fold into a pose of mourning.

Milton (1608-1674) composed his sonnet in the 1650s during the years of the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell, whom he supported as a civil servant, translating texts and doing other works for the new Puritan government after the overthrow of the Crown. The poem wasn’t published until 1673, nearly fifteen years after the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne. But when it was written, he was standing on a historical shoreline as the waters shifted. King Charles I had been executed for Treason in 1649, five years earlier. The world these people had known was suddenly, universally changed. Milton mourns the failure of his sight, since it will someday close the door on his one way to offer relief from sadness and confusion—that one “Talent” he speaks of—which was to write and translate. We often speak of that “Talent” as poetry, but it’s all his writing; it’s the sum of all his contributions to the world in words.

Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent
When I consider how my light is spent,
  Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
  And that one Talent which is death to hide
  Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
  My true account, lest he returning chide;
  “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
  I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
  Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
  Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
  And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
  They also serve who only stand and wait.”

What do we do when we can do nothing? A dear friend, a poet now approaching ninety, said to me once at dinner, speaking of the powerlessness she feels in the mire of world events, “What is an aging person to do but know these things?” She was speaking of the responsibility she felt to follow the news, but also of the depth of her sorrow in knowing what she knows. Research is mourning. We seek to know and know, and the attendant overwhelm exhausts our ability to be compassionate within the moment. Pema Chödrön advises we train in compassion by starting small—focusing on small opportunities within our grasp, every day, in traffic, or at the grocery store, or just holding open doors—and to put our attention on the other person rather than how they treat you in return or whether they even see your effort unfolding. I would add a third way, which connects me back to Milton’s sentiment. It is a matter of trust that others, though they don’t make the news, are joining these efforts along with me.  And there are still others who simply do no harm: “They also serve who only sit and wait.” Let’s be kind and forgive ourselves for doing “only” what’s within our power, each within the parameters of our particular circumstances.

Though our meditations at MIAU (The Mindfulness Initiative at American University, which I founded in 2022) are designed to be a reprieve from the frenetic and constant news cycle, it felt important, in talking about this poem in the early weeks of October 2023, to dedicate our practice to the countless in Israel and Gaza whose worlds have been left destroyed and uprooted, and especially to the thousands, at this writing, whose lives came to a sudden, brutal end in the previous week. Wars affect the innocent the most directly. We practice to offer a gentle, feather-like intention to wend the enormous forces of history. To everyone across the hurting planet and to the people of our sangha, may inner peace lead one day to outer peace in the world.

The morning of 9/11/01, my 33rd birthday, I was living in Colorado having just completed my first year of teaching at my first tenure-track job. On my way into the building where I was to hold my class on Hamlet, a colleague of mine, smoking a cigarette and leaning against the metal door, told me the news in a rather emotionless voice. Inside, everyone was listening to reports on the radio and CNN, watching the footage over and over, but even then, it hadn’t sunk in. After a while, I walked to my class, where everyone had shown up on time. We sat in a circle and spoke about what was happening, just as it was happening, and then, as if in a trance, we turned our attention to Hamlet’s madness. Maybe that dramatized madness was a salve against a real madness changing everything outside; things would never be the same again. But I’m still surprised, these 22 years later, that the students and I shared a similar reaction. By God, we ought to do something, if only to pretend that everything was going to go forward as planned. In the wake of the trauma, we would come to our senses: classes were canceled, flights grounded. We would have to learn to stand and wait.

I’m overwhelmed. It is hard to have compassion for myself. Unless I learn how to sit and wait, I make myself sick with remorse and self-blame and unworthiness. I cast arrows into myself as a way of doing something. The poetry, this poem, reminds me to be kind to me. Serve in a way that’s feasible. Trust in some higher power. Remember that others are serving too.

A Meditation Tool: RAIN Practice

One of the most powerful self-care practices I know of is the RAIN meditation, developed by Michele McDonald in the 1980s and made well known by Mindfulness teacher Tara Brach in such books as Radical Acceptance (2003) and Radical Compassion (2020). The meditation works as follows:

  1. Recognize where the pain or discomfort is in your body. Maybe even put your hand there to acknowledge it.
  2. Allow for this pain. Kshanti, the Buddhist notion of inclusiveness, urges us to widen our inner world from water glass to lake, so that no matter how much salt is poured in, your interior lake will never get “salty.”
  3. Investigate its nature and root causes by naming the pain: overwhelm, overwhelm. Mourning, mourning.
  4. And then just to Nurture that awareness with the most spiritually activating words we have in the English language: “I’m sorry”; “thank you”; “I forgive you”; “I love you.”

Friday Morning Meditations at MIAU on Zoom

Our meditations are for everyone: please feel free to use the contact form to sign up: http://eepurl.com/ilpwh9. I update my contact list on a weekly basis and send the Zoom link to subscribers. From 9 am (EST) we sit for a half hour, mostly in silence, with some guided support, and I give a little talk around the poem intermittently. When you arrive in the room, please keep your microphone off to respect the silence for others.  An archive of meditations are available at my website. Here follows a link to our meditation on Milton’s poem, held on Friday morning, October 13, 2023:

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