Ofosu recently had to recalibrate his perspective after a global headline impacted him directly. He and Leah talk with journalist Wajahat Ali about what it's like when the news hits home and how we can use those experiences to increase our compassion.
To stay up to date with "Well Balanced," follow us on your favorite podcast app. Share your feedback with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And check out Wajahat’s work at wajali.com. His book, Go Back to Where You Came From, is available starting January 25.
[Effect — Singing bowl]
OFOSU: Hey, what's up. I'm a Ofosu Jones-Quartey
LEAH: and I'm Leah Santa Cruz. We're the meditation coaches on Balance. And this is our weekly show Well Balanced.
OFOSU: Yeah. So Leah, um, today I wanted to share a recording that I made a little while ago. And, uh, I got some pretty upsetting news. Um, it felt like all of this stuff that I had been reading and hearing about that was happening outside in the world had found its way to my own doorstep and in my household in a really personal way.
And this happened over the holidays and, um, I recorded myself as I was first processing all this. And I actually invited a guest here to help us work through it all. But first I want to play that recording and get your thoughts.
LEAH: Okay, well, let's hear it.
OFOSU: All right. Here we go.
OFOSU: So I have tested positive for COVID. I am double VAX and I was gonna get my booster this weekend, but I wasn't feeling well.
And I guess this is why. And yesterday I was just feeling very, very bad and I had a fever and so I tried to get tested, but everyone everywhere is so backed up. So I went this morning and it turns out that I came back positive and physically I'm just, I'm feeling really, really out of it. It's like having the worst flu ever.
And, um, I'm just worried about having passed it. I went to visit my parents the other day and, you know, I share a bed with my wife and our kids come into the bed at night, usually. So, uh, lots of implications that I'm concerned with, luckily, you know, all the big people in the house are vaccinated and hopefully that means we'll be okay. Um, I don't know what this means for the next coming days. You know, everyone's going to go get tested obviously, and it just sucks, but it's life. It is what it is, but it's not having a terrible effect on my state of mind. So what can you do?
LEAH: Oh, man, that's a tough one. I'm so sorry that you had to deal with that over the holidays, especially.
OFOSU: That really sucked. I am remembering the, the me who that was a few weeks back and it was definitely a rough, a super rough time.
LEAH: Well, I'm just glad you're okay. And how did your family fair?
OFOSU: Um, some of us, okay.
Some of us not so okay. But everyone right now is okay, but definitely in this house, most of us ended up with it. We also had some false negatives while people were not feeling good and they got the rapid test and they came back negative. But then we found out that this particular variant was pretty dodgy when it came to rapid testing.
So then folks went back around and got the more in-depth tests and yeah then positives started popping up. So mentally it was really stressful. Um, physically, it was pretty terrible. And then emotionally it got pretty heavy, also just dealing with all the uncertainty. And, um, initially the isolation for me was, uh, was a little tough.
It was abrupt. Then we had to essentially shut Christmas down in terms of how we had mapped it out. We were gonna go travel afterwards to be with more family. That was obviously shut down then more family from, you know, more extended family were coming down with COVID. So it was just rough and, and it, it was so sudden it was surreal to say something that was happening to me that I had been hearing happening to so many other people on the news.
It was like, I just remembered this, like, am I even in reality right now? Like, wow, this is, this is happening to me.
LEAH: I think it's very easy to disassociate from the experience when it's not happening to you. And to kind of not realize the severity or how impacted others are by it until it happens to you.
Even if it happens lightly, even if you are a fortunate one to not experience a lot of the heavy symptoms like I had COVID, uh, last year and I was fortunate that I, I just had the sniffles that wasn't a big deal physically for me, but it did come with that mental, you know, an angst of, oh no. Who did I, who was I around?
How's it going to impact them and the fear about that and changing of plans. And so it, I think it's interesting when it does happen in your world to recognize like, wow, this is happening on a global scale. And people are dealing with this on a daily basis and sometimes more than once, and to really have compassion for what people are going through, others are going through.
OFOSU: I wonder if there's a mechanism that's happening in our brains that helps us compartmentalize abstract information so that we don't get too bogged down or that so that we can be productive or not too afraid or whatever, because I mean, I've had family members who passed away from COVID in the, in the first wave of it.
So it's something that was close enough to me, for me to know it was a reality. But I think perhaps being vaccinated and taking all the precautions, you know, I just felt a little more insulated and then I remember texting my mom, like I have COVID it just was so strange. Um, yeah, so it's a weird way of feeling connected to the world that what's happening out there is also entirely possible for it to happen in here.
It has happened in here.
LEAH: Yeah and I know there definitely is that part of the brain that you were just talking about that recognizes the others who are like us, and we can feel more empathy and compassion for others when our brain says that, oh, there's something about them that, that is like me, when we can identify and see ourselves and others, then we tend to be more empathetic towards them.
But what about when we don't feel there's something similar about us to another, or we don't see the similarities. Like how can we have that same level of compassion for others, even when we're not going through what they're going through? I think there's a deeper question here.
OFOSU: I agree. There's just so much happening in the world, whether it's conflicts abroad or something political or whatever the case may be.
I think the way the news comes to us speaking for myself, I just feel a bit conditioned to just let the information pass through and to not necessarily see myself as being a part of the story. But if there is a COVID story on multiple levels, I'm a part of that story now. And so are you. And, but the thing is, we were a part of that story before we thought we were.
So it's like, how do we connect with our shared humanity? When stories that are happening outside, feel abstract or seem like they're not at our doorstep. [LEAH: that's a great question.] So I think our guests today can help us out with this a little bit. We are bringing back a friend of the show, Wajahat Ali.
He's a writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, The Atlantic and the Washington Post among lots of other publications and his memoir, “Go Back to Where You Came From’, comes out tomorrow queue the applause button. Yeah [clapping.] And, uh, I think his experience on the other side of news stories will give us a good perspective here.
Welcome back, Wajahat,
WAJAHAT: Thank you. Thank you guys for having me. I appreciate it.
OFOSU: Well, congratulations on your book. That's a huge accomplishment, man.
WAJAHAT: I feel good about it. You were giving me a nice pep talk right before we started recording. Cause we were talking about like, you know, the book's coming out during the Omicron variant, everyone's exhausted.
And uh, you spend a year and a half, you know, birthing this, uh, if I may use that analogy as a man, uh, and you're like, okay, That's all, you know, and you just don't know, like, this is the calm before the storm. You don't know, will it just be forgotten? Will people engage with it? Will people destroy it? And you just, there's an odd anti-climactic peace right now.
Yeah. That might change.
OFOSU: That's right. It can always change. And my advice to you was to just be proud of yourself and be in this moment and then we'll see what happens. But I have a good feeling that your book is going to be very well received. I'm certain it's beautifully written just knowing that it's coming from you.
So I want to jump in because you just mentioned the big, O, and I'm not talking about myself. Um, you know, well done. Well, we're talking about Omicron and, you know, talking about that, I'm definitely part of the Omicon story now. And even though it felt a little abstract at first, now that big narrative I'm personally connected to it.
Um, and I'm curious, have you had moments over the past few years when the constantly updated pandemic news hit home for you and it's sounding like it's hitting home for you right now? I’m wondering if this is the time where there've been other times, et cetera.
WAJAHAT: No, it's been non-stop you know, for me, uh, the reason why it's been nonstop is my daughter who's now five was diagnosed with stage four cancer, right before she turned three, about two and a half years ago.
Oh, well three, almost three years ago now. Right? Like April. So for us before anyone even knew anything about COVID we’re already doing hand sanitizers, you know, staying in, uh, you know, locked down because she was immunosuppressed due to chemotherapy. And then she got a full liver transplant. And then finally, uh, it was almost a year, uh, two years now where she rang the bell.
For those of you who don't know ringing the bell means that's when you ring the bell symbolically when you're cancer-free [ both react oh my gosh], and she got a full liver transplant right, cancer-free so far she's doing really well, but my wife and I, after enduring this trauma and anyone who has been a cancer survivor or, you know, taken care of someone with cancer, you realize is just cancer plays for all the marbles.
Right. So we were sitting there exhaling and we're like, well, the last nine months of her life was this, what are we going to do? And right then COVID hit. And so in a strange way, I and my family were able to ease into COVID because we had the training. This is like dark humor here. We had the training of my daughter's cancer, but at the same time, it doesn't matter whether it’s Omicron or Delta, or God knows what Greek alphabet I hope to God doesn't come. Since our daughter is immunosuppressed, even when America had this moment and some America still has this mode of just not caring and not wearing masks and not getting vaccinated and not doing anything, right. Like not doing social distancing.
We're like we can't afford to do that. Cause we got immunosuppressed kid. And so for us, We can't hang out with anyone, stay at home. I have to be careful. My wife has to be careful. My poor son who's seven has done virtual schooling to protect his sister. She has to do virtual schooling.
And so for us, it's been a constant and in that constant, you have to find a way to be calm, peaceful, present, and joyful. You asked me a simple question. But I gave you our unique story.
OFOSU: It's profound and it doesn't get more hit home than that. Yeah.
WAJAHAT: But there is something about this pandemic that you realize that you're connected, you realize that even though, as we, as people in this modern society are more and more lonely and isolated, despite being so connected via phone and internet, what you do resonates and your actions resonate.
LEAH: Yeah. It makes me think about the news in general too. Like when I read a news story, if it's about the pandemic or something else, I can feel so distant to it. It's headlines, paragraphs and words. And I think that's why it can be hard to connect with sometimes and easy to tune out or disregard that I'm connected to others.
But. As we as individuals and people on the path of meditation and looking to empathize more deeply with others, even when the news doesn't impact us directly, I think it might be helpful to hear from you more about like what goes into making those words. Would you mind to share about a story maybe you reported on.
What was involved, who you might've talked to..
WAJAHAT: Yeah. So I'll just give you an example. I just turned in a, um, article based upon this hostage crisis that happened last week in Texas, you know, where this man is 44 year old British man came in, uh, and decided to hold four Jewish, uh, worshippers hostage in Texas to demand the release of a Muslim national.
It’s as atrocious as it is stupid, terrible, right? Because anti-Semitism is the oldest hatred. And it is dangerous and it is fueling white supremacy here. So fueling a violent Muslim extremists abroad. And so someone might sit there and go, well, why should I care? I'm not Jewish. And I'll tell you how it hits home really quick.
As soon as the identity of the man was released to be a British Muslim man, all of a sudden that antisemitic incident was used to launder Islamophobia. And people said see he was a Muslim. All of them are like this. So now some of those same forces use that incident to hit Muslims. Do you see what I'm saying? And it's one of those situations where you could sit there and go like, well, this doesn't affect me.
I don't care. Two things. I would say. Macro is in this country that we're living in the United States of America. The number one, domestic terror is white supremacy and people say, oh, it doesn't affect me. But what we've seen is it fuels other forms of bigotry and we should care and empathize because even if you don't think it affects you, it does affect you.
Synagogues, mosques, sick Americans. You see what I'm saying? These people are connected by a conspiracy theory that blames one group. And that conspiracy theory then is used to attack all of our groups and it hits home. That's one on a macro level. Now you're sitting here listening to this and you have to take it personal.
Suppose you're Jewish suppose you're Muslim suppose you’re Latinos suppose you're black. You're like I gotta tune out, man. This is just too much stuff. And I feel like there is the balance here with empathy and being connected and caring about those communities that might not be your community at the same time, processing this onslaught of information in a way that doesn't overwhelm you.
And it's okay to take a pause. It's okay to breathe. It's okay. To talk to someone about it. Even though this synagogue story was happening in Texas, many Jewish Americans around the country were traumatized by it. So to check in with folks and also to check in with yourself, don't completely tap out. We need you. Do what you can to make sure that you can check in in a way that your most healthy and joyful.
OFOSU: When you're reporting that story and you are talking to people who are affected either directly or indirectly. What's that like for you emotionally as a reporter?
WAJAHAT: Yeah. I'm glad you asked, because even with this article that I wrote about that came out, like I got hit, my sentiment was widely shared and appreciated, but you can imagine some people with their political agendas pounced on it.
So now I'm being attacked for the last two days. Yeah. So a part of you then says, I'm a reporter and I write, and I'm a commentator, but I'm also a human being and I'm also Muslim. And somehow I also get sucked into the story. Like I said, it can only control my own intentions. I can only control my own actions.
I have my energy out there in the world. I have my work out there in the world. People will believe what they want to believe. I can't allow these forces to silence me. And hopefully you have to faith in the universe that people will see my intention and my actions. And I know that these tweets in this article I wrote are speaking to a bigger connected level.
OFOSU: Yo, Wajahat. Thank you so much. I mean, there's so much in what you've shared and so much depth of feeling and honesty and truth. And personally I'm walking away, you know, feeling like I've got just some reminders on how to navigate when the news hits home. And just these crazy times, I want to congratulate you on your new book. It's a wonderful accomplishment. Thank you. You should be proud of yourself. And I want everybody that's listening to go read it. Tell them again what the title of your book is.
WAJAHAT: ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’. Those are helpful recommendations on how to become American. Uh, it's it's out tomorrow. I really hope people like it. And it does talk about self care and it does talk about mental health. And it does talk about the very real problems that we're facing as a country and especially marginalized communities and how you can find a way to move forward with joy.
And I'm very proud that the book ends on hope.
OFOSU: Absolutely. Wajahat thank you so much.
WAJAHAT: Thank you guys. Stay well.
OFOSU: I think Wajahat’s experience is very unique, but it's kind of like an extreme example of, of, uh, you know, with what happened with his daughter and her scare and protecting her from COVID and then what he faces in real time as a general journalist.
And all of that entails and still trying to find a place where you don't hide from your connection with humanity. You don't hide from the truth, you don't disassociate, but you still try to operate with a sense of self care through it all in. In a way all of the news hits home. Whether we admit it or not, it's we, because we are an interconnected world.
And it's really our choice to say that this doesn't affect me. This has nothing to do with me. And just kind of pretend and live in a bubble until, you know, the news inevitably does have something to do with you. You know, I'm sure many of us have experience with COVID. It's almost like this kind of magical wishful thinking that like, you know, if I don’t absorb too much of that news or if I keep it at arms bay mentally, then it won't really affect me. And I think the real vulnerability, you know, when you're connecting with the news is recognizing that this could happen to me. I could be directly affected by this. And that's a, it's a scary thought.
LEAH: It's just a reminder to tell us, be vigilant to some degree, to be aware, you know, be mindful of the world that's happening around you.
And the choices that you make every day, but what do I stand for and how do I use my voice in a way that matters and how do I care for others in a way that helps shape the world that I'm in. And maybe I can't change the whole world as one person, but I can change my little section of it.
OFOSU: Yeah. Yeah.
Let's not close our eyes, but we can also be kind to ourselves.
LEAH: Well, thanks for joining us and thanks to Wajahat Ali. If you want to read his work, you can go to his site, wajali.com. That's w a J a L i.com. His book, ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ will be available starting tomorrow, January 25th.
OFOSU: Yes. Yes. Yes. Congrats again, Wajahat and always, uh, great talking with you, Leah. And for you listener, if you like what we're doing here, please tell your friends.
LEAH: and make sure to follow our podcasts. They can get notified when the episodes are added.
OFOSU: All right, y’all take care. Be kind to yourself and we'll see you again soon.