How are you doing during these dark times in the world?
I don’t need to tell you how heavy things are feeling across the globe right now.
Like most of you, I’ve been watching disaster unfold in Israel and Gaza from a privileged position of security and safety.
In this era of the 24-hour news cycle and the ability to document and share our every movement in real-time, we’ve been flooded with images of human beings much like ourselves and children much like our own undergoing unimaginable suffering.
We’ve been experiencing crisis after crisis after crisis: the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, total chaos in the American political system, not to mention the catastrophic consequences of climate change.
People are worn out.
I’m writing this on the heels of yet another senseless mass shooting in the United States where the killer is still at large and towns are on lockdown.
Depending on when you listen to this, you may not have any clue which one I’m talking about, there have been so many!
It can all start to feel hopeless.
These lines from the poem “Invitation” by Mary Oliver, has been circulating lately and feels deeply resonant to the current state of the world:
“It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world.”
When times are bleak, it’s normal and natural to question everything, including the value of your own work.
I mean, when innocent people are being killed and oppressed, when children are starving, it can feel indulgent—even pointless—to work on an article or a book that’s meant to be read mostly by other scholars.
So how do we maintain equilibrium and move forward with our daily lives and routines in the face of so much tragedy?
I’m going to give you a few ideas on ways to get through the day in one piece.
I’m doing this episode just as much for me as for you!
What We Can Do to Stay Afloat Right Now
So, for me, there are two really important things you can do when trying to stay afloat in a world that feels like it’s falling apart.
The first is to consciously maintain compassion and empathy for yourself and others, especially those you disagree with.
The second is to focus most of your attention on what’s in your immediate control, which is your own thoughts and actions.
This leads us into three pieces of advice I want to share for anyone having a hard time reconciling their own daily lives with the enormity of the world’s problems.
#1: Limit media consumption to the amount where your sense of compassion is deepened but your mental and emotional health does not suffer.
One of the things I’m prone to doing during any kind of major global crisis is to consume everything that’s out there.
I want to understand the situation. I want to know what’s happening.
All of this comes out of a desire to control what’s going on, which is obviously impossible.
I did this at the beginning of the pandemic, where I would systematically track the number of Covid cases and deaths.
I’ve since learned that although it’s important to stay informed, constantly consuming distressing news is overwhelming to the system.
It’s also counterproductive to producing any kind of meaningful change.
So, if you haven’t yet, set boundaries on the amount and type of news you consume.
For me, this means that I am primarily reading only headlines rather than doing deep dives into the details.
I want to stay informed but I know that visual images, in particular, will derail me, so I’m engaging with those sparingly.
#2: Help locally rather than getting lost in suffering.
This leads us into the second point of finding ways to help locally rather than getting stuck in suffering.
There’s a real difference between feeling compassion and empathy for others and getting caught in suffering that’s not necessarily yours.
I wanted to give a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh.
He was a well-known Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist who was one of the first to teach mindfulness to Western audiences.
In his book The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation, he wrote:
Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us…
Worrying does not accomplish anything.
Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world.
In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse.
Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so.
If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone.”
The truth is that feeling pain for others doesn’t actually do anything to relieve their pain.
However, taking action based on compassion and empathy does.
So focus on what you can do to help that’s within your immediate control.
This could include donating to or volunteering for organizations that are doing work you believe in.
There’s also a practice you could try of consciously doing something kind for someone else for 30 days straight.
Author Shaunti Feldhahn calls this the “30 Day Kindness Challenge.”
You can either do this in a general way or pick a specific person to do this for.
On her website, she writes that “89% of relationships improve if you pick a person with whom you want a better relationship; then for 30 days:
- Say nothing negative about that person – either to them or about them to anyone else.
- Each day find one positive thing you can praise or affirm about that person and tell them and tell someone else.
- Each day, do one small act of kindness or generosity for them.
You can see how different our relationships would be, both individually and on a global level, if we were to take this approach to resolving conflict!
3) Cultivate both/and thinking
So this gets us to the third piece of advice I have for moving forward in bleak times.
Something I see as a prevalent cause of human suffering, regardless of circumstance, is people holding onto black or white views of themselves and each other.
You’re either right or you’re wrong.
A person is either bad or they’re good.
You’re either with us or you’re against us.
This is “either/or” thinking.
This type of thinking is very effective in creating in-groups and out-groups; it strengthens loyalty and binds people on each side closer together.
The problem is that it leaves no room for nuance, shades of gray, or recognizing our shared humanity.
This manifests on a personal level as well, too, as you’ve probably experienced.
A lot of my work as a coach is in helping people to accept that they can hold conflicting beliefs or emotions at the same time.
For example, you can feel immense sadness about what’s going on in the world as well as extremely happy that one of your articles just got accepted for publication.
These don’t cancel each other out!
You can feel existential dread about the impending effects of climate change and still experience a sense of wonder and awe at the changing fall leaves, as I’ve been doing lately.
You don’t need to align with just one or to judge yourself for feeling things that are seemingly contradictory.
Both can be true at the same time.
The goal is to find some balance by holding everything lightly and not seeing one as more valid than the other.
I wanted to recount a well-known parable that’s often credited to the Cherokee that’s about the duality of human nature.
It’s the story of two wolves, which you may have heard.
An old grandfather was teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
The dark one is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The light one is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.
The boy asked: “Which wolf will win?”
The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
That’s the story that most people know.
However, I found out that there’s actually an additional part of the story that complicates this idea that humans always need to fight an internal battle between good and evil.
The story goes on:
“If you feed them right, they both win,” the grandfather says.
You see, if I choose to only feed the Light wolf, the Dark wolf will be hiding around every corner waiting for me to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention he craves.
He will always be angry and will always fight the Light wolf.
But if I acknowledge him, he is happy and the light wolf is happy and we all win.
For the dark wolf has many qualities — tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong-will and strategic thinking–that I need at times.
These are the very things the light wolf lacks.
But the light wolf has compassion, caring, strength and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all.
You see, the two wolves need each other. Feeding only one and starving the other will eventually make both uncontrollable.
Caring for both allows them both to serve you, so that you can do something greater, something good with your time on earth.
Feed them both and you will quiet their internal struggle for your attention.
And, when there is no battle inside, you can then hear the voices of deeper knowledge that will guide you in choosing the right path in every circumstance
How you choose to treat the opposing forces within you will ultimately determine how you live.”
I like this full perspective much more because it’s not asking us to deny parts of ourselves.
Instead, it’s about harnessing the most positive qualities about each part.
We can’t be happy and light and love all the time. That’s toxic positivity.
But neither are we completely hateful, greedy, and egotistical all the time.
Are we some of the time? Yes, and that’s what makes us human.
In my coaching work I often help people recognize the good intent that underlies their most negative, demotivating inner critic thoughts.
So what does this look like in real life?
I think, like everything, it comes down to cultivating compassion for yourself for being a complex being as well as especially for those who don’t agree with you.
Refer back to the 30-day challenge if you want to put this into action.
In the end, it’s about recognizing that we are all capable of both good and bad and everything in-between, but we also have choices in how we enact all of these things.
Summing It All Up
When it comes down to it, the vast majority of us cannot really control much about happens in the world.
It’s too big to try to heal ourselves or even to fully understand.
But what we can do is take stock of our own thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs and choose how we act or react.
We can try to stay present and focus on what’s directly in front of us, on the one task before us.
We can ground ourselves in our core values and the internal motivations for doing the work we do.
We can recognize impermanence and see that this, too, shall pass.
And all of these tiny shifts reverberate back out into your environment.
So being kind to yourself and those you come into contact with radiates out and changes your little corner of the world for the better.
I want to end with a quote from Pema Chodron, who I’m sure many of you know well.
She’s a revered Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher who has also been pivotal in introducing Western audiences to mindfulness.
In her incredible book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, she writes:
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing.
We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved.
They come together and they fall apart.
Then they come together again and fall apart again.
It’s just like that.
The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
I’m sending you all immense amounts of good energy this week and ask that you treat yourself and others gently.
We need more softness in the world.
I’ll talk to you again soon.