Politically Appalled and Emotionally Overwhelmed: Self-Care for Activists

I have felt overwhelmed lately. I think you probably have, too. We are in one of the most politically tumultuous periods in recent history, and it can be completely overwhelming.  Most days when I read the news, I will admit that my first reaction is generally, “What fresh hell is this?”[1] (I’ve started taking periodic breaks from the news for my mental health). I was talking with a friend the other day, and she said, “Every day I feel both appalled and powerless. I cannot ignore what is going on but I don’t even know how to help.” I can definitely sympathize with these feelings.

One of the beautiful side effects of all the current political turmoil is that it has catalyzed increased democratic engagement, concern for human rights, and solidarity in resistance. Nevertheless, I think that many of us are in danger of compassion and protest exhaustion. I think we are in danger of caring and worrying so much that we deplete crucial reserves in ourselves that we desperately need in order to keep fighting the good fight. I have been concerned about this for myself, as well as for my friends. I have been thinking a lot about how we can love and nurture ourselves in order to strengthen ourselves for the work ahead of us.

In a time of such political turmoil, it may seem selfish to spend time nurturing yourself, but I believe it is essential. Resisting hate and dehumanization requires consistent love, wisdom, and perseverance. But we cannot show love to the world if we do not show love to ourselves. We cannot combat ignorance if we do not take time to cultivate wisdom. We cannot persevere if we do not take time to rebuild our inner reserves. So I have been thinking about self-love practices for me and for you.

One of the most important things you can do to nurture yourself is to send yourself consistent messages of love and encouragement. The reason that we resist dehumanization in the world is that that everyone in the world contains a sacred light that deserves to be honored and cherished. You may think of this sacredness as the image of God. You may think of it as our shared  humanity—a humanity that has almost unlimited capacity for growth in in compassion, in wisdom, and in beauty. Whatever way you think of it, it is essential to realize that you contain this sacred light, too. It is beautiful, original, and invaluable and deserves to be honored. One of the ways I honor my light is to make sure that I say loving things to myself consistently every day. I have written more about how we can think loving things to ourselves here, but this is an example of some of the things I say to myself on a regular basis:

       You are wise and strong, and you can figure out a solution to any problem.

        You are learning excellent things every day.

         You are capable, and you give beautiful things to the world every day.

          You only have to handle this moment right now, and you are doing great.

When I consistently send loving messages to myself, it allows me to focus on my sacred light in order to keep growing in love and wisdom. This also helps me to remember the sacred light in everyone else, even the people with whom I have significant disagreements. I encourage you to get into the habit of saying loving things to yourself because when you do, you enable yourself to see hope in the midst of despair. That is what we all need right now.

pefect-coach-and-parent

To be politically strong, we need to be personally strong, and we do this by consistently acting as our own nurturing teacher, coach, parent, and friend. If you would like to read more how to do this, you can read about showing yourself love and compassion here, here, and here.  You can also read about self-love questions and practices here.

In order to nurture yourself, you also need to take time regularly to be silent, to meditate, to practice loving visualization, or to pray, even if it is just for one or two minutes. Several summers ago, I was teaching Asian philosophy course at a local university, and we were reading about the Buddhist practice of meditation. One of my students asked me what the purpose of meditation was. To be honest, at that time, I really did not know how to answer this question. I had tried to practice meditation in the past, and I had been relatively unsuccessful.  But as I thought about my student’s question for several days, I suddenly realized that the purpose of meditation and all contemplative practices is to create a space for wisdom, compassion, and for the Divine to show itself in our lives. Our lives are incredibly stressful, and quite often, we rush through our day filled with worry, with fear, with anger. In this mindset, we are not able to face the challenges in our life in a productive way. In order to release negative emotions that cloud our thinking and to replace them with love and wisdom, we must give ourselves time to let these feelings go and to look at the world and people in a different way. When we engage in any kind of contemplative practice, we give ourselves this chance.

Right now in our political life, we face serious problems. We are struggling to dialogue with one another in a productive way, and we are struggling to know how to solve some profoundly difficult social problems. We cannot solve these problems wisely if we operate out of worry, fear, and anger. We need to tap into our collective wisdom and the wisdom of the Divine (if we believe in the Divine). One of the ways we do this is by giving ourselves space for contemplative silence.

Over the years, I have practiced various forms of contemplative silence. Recently, I have begun practicing something I call “loving world visualization”. I want a world in which every single person has dignity and respect and in which every single person has food, shelter, and their basic needs met. I want a world in which every single person has love and the opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills and to pursue their unique purpose. I want a world in which people treat each other and the earth with respect and work together to create a more just, beautiful, and equal world. At night as I am falling asleep, I have begun visualizing this kind of world.  Now I know we have a long way to go to achieve such a world. I also know that merely thinking about such a world will not bring it about, but here is what I have noticed. When I visualize a world like this, it fills me with a deep sense of peace. I know that because I can imagine it and dream about it, such a world actually exists out there somewhere, even if it is only in potentiality. Visualizing such a world takes my focus off the things that fill me with anxiety and dread, and it focuses me on the potential that exists. When I begin focusing on potential, I begin thinking about concrete steps I can take to bring about a better world, and this fills me with more hope. It creates a positive upward spiral, and it helps me to interact with others in a more loving way. We give ourselves this same opportunity whenever we practice contemplative silence.

visualize-world-peace

It turns out that the old saying, “Visualize world peace” is actually pretty good advice.

Lastly, as you go about your political activism, please nurture yourself by focusing on the love all around you and by focusing on this moment. You are not required to solve all of the problems in our society by yourself. The human race is full of profound wisdom that we have not yet fully realized. We do not have to have all of the solutions to our problems right now. You are wise and loving, and there are wise and loving people all around you. We are going to figure out our problems through talking, loving, and working together. In addition, you do not have to know right now how everything is going to work out four years from now, next month, or even in an hour. All you have to do is be in this moment and seek the love and the wisdom that is around you and in side of you. As you take it a step at a time, you are going to figure out beautiful things to do that create a better world.

Thich Naht Hanh, world-renowned Buddhist monk and author, writes, “Someone asked me, ‘Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?’ I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, ‘What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If your heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.'” It is by focusing on each moment with compassion and love that we learn how to help.

If you are like me, it is really difficult for you to look around in the world and see suffering. If you are like me, you often feel like the world is a dangerous place, and you feel like you have to do anything possible to stop the suffering. When you feel like this, it is important to remember that the best thing you can do to cultivate a safe and loving world is to be present right now with yourself in this moment and ask, “What can I do right now to show more love to myself and the world?” When you ask this, sometimes the answer will be that you need to rest in order to build your strength for tomorrow. Sometimes the answer will be that you need to call your representative. Sometimes the answer will be that you need to protest. Sometimes the answer will be that you need to pray or send love into the world. When you are present with yourself, you are safe, and you give yourself the opportunity to respond to the world from a place of wisdom and compassion rather than fear and hate. What the world needs is more wisdom and compassion.
safe

When we are present with ourselves, and when we seek the wisdom and love inside and around us, we create safety for ourselves. You can read more here about being present with yourself here.

The other day, I was having a really hard time, and I was talking to my friend, Lisa. I said, “To be honest, I am having problems connecting with God’s love right now because of all of the political garbage. I feel a lot of anger with the way people are acting, and I don’t know what to do with my anger.” Lisa is really wise in the ways of love, and she said, “People who are acting hatefully are acting out of fear, but we don’t have to act that way. We can remain in love, and we can act from a place of love. We are all one.” She reminded me that it is fear that separates, destroys, and creates dehumanizing practices. Love is the force that calls us to our better selves, that reminds us of the sacred light in all of us, and allows us to find the solutions to our problems. Love makes us whole again. We do not have to have all the answer right now. We need to nurture ourselves, and this will help us understand how to nurture the world. This will helps us understand how we can resist hate and call everyone to our better, sacred selves. This will enable us to create the kind of world of which we all dream.

If you would like to read more ideas about this issue, some folks at FindingSteadyGround have put together an incredibly helpful list of tools we can use to empower ourselves in these difficult times.

[1] This quote is attributed to the late American writer and critic, Dorothy Parker.

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