Border horror — is there anything positive here?

Border horror — is there anything positive here?
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The visuals and audio of the children, toddlers and babies separated from their families at U.S. borders is affecting many Americans in a profound way. It prompted President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE to sign an executive order, citing how upset his wife and daughter were about the separations.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow choked up in tears as she attempted to read breaking news. Even lawmakers who normally are reluctant to go against the Trump administration policies were moved to speak up and asked Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump, Christie met to discuss chief of staff job: report Chief justice of California Supreme Court leaves GOP over Kavanaugh confirmation Trump attorney general pick a prolific donor to GOP candidates, groups: report MORE to end the crisis of separating families.

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Beyond journalists and policymakers, for most Americans and observers around the world, the tragedy is difficult to comprehend, especially with 24/7 news cycle updates. The constant exposure can result in exhaustion and hopelessness and often leads people to disengage, as efforts to affect change seem futile.

 

As an expert on stress and emotion, I study how people cope with serious life stress. My team has learned that even in the darkest of times, people can and do experience positive emotions like hope, awe and inspiration.

These positive emotions in the midst of stress help people cope better and maintain their well-being, even in the most enduringly difficult circumstances.

For instance, in our research, bereaved AIDS caregivers whose partners had recently died still reported positive emotions such as gratitude, pride, and relief. These positive emotions arose from finding something good in an inarguably awful situation of the partner’s often prolonged, painful death — gratitude that they had good friends supporting them, pride that they had been able to care for their partner at home, and relief that the partner was no longer suffering.

Although the caregivers were experiencing extreme grief, sadness, depression and fear for the future, they were also able to experience positive emotions that helped them bear up through the stress and pain.

For many Americans, witnessing the latest in the immigration crisis on top of months of challenging political situations constitutes enduring stress. It likely gives rise to frustration, anger, shame and sadness. Even in the constant barrage of negative news, however, it is still possible to find something positive in the situation.

There are guideposts now who are also offering solace. In the new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fred Rogers provides one such role model for finding the positive even in dark times.

He said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’" He added, “To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.’"

What is sustaining me and others now with hope is all the people who are engaging, standing up, expressing their outrage and helping in any way they can. Elected officials are hearing from their constituents and it is making a difference.

Although the crisis continues, the recently signed presidential executive order to incarcerate families together may be a sign that speaking up has made a difference.

To be sure, finding the positive can become dishonest spin to the point of ignoring or denying the problem. Reappraise the detention centers as “summer camps,” as Fox News’ Laura Ingraham did, or downplay the similarity to Nazi concentration camps as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did, re not effective.

Of course, most of us are not directly affected by the inhumanity we are witnessing seeing the government treat people so heartlessly. Like driving past a fatal car crash on the highway, we have the luxury to continue on our way, with no impact on our lives, despite the horrors we have just passed.

In many ways, this is adaptive — if we reacted to every crisis as if it were happening directly to us, we would be immobilized with fear and sadness. But simply looking the other way in order to avoid feeling bad, is the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction?

By finding the moments of positivity while still acknowledging the enormity of the stress and negative emotions associated with the ongoing humanitarian crisis, we can find the balance to stay engaged and work for change. Finding the positive alongside the negative can help to sustain and restore us for continued good work.

Judith Tedlie Moskowitz is a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.