The world can be a cruel place. It can often seem like everywhere you look, there are signs of people and animals being mistreated, abused or forgotten. The news is full of stories of tragedy and loss, and a system that can’t or won’t support the most vulnerable populations among us.
When I initially set out to write this post, I intended for it to be written specifically toward those in the helping professions. Therapists, caretakers, doctors…we spend a majority of our days listening to or supporting people who have been impacted by unfairness, heartbreak or struggle in some form. Working with these populations can be trying, to be sure. But as I began to think about the post, it occurred to me that it applies to much more than just the helpers among us. Especially with the current political climate, I hear more and more about how difficult it is for us all to see the injustices that happen in our own backyards, and how powerless so many of us feel against it.
It’s really uncomfortable to feel helpless. For me, it’s multi-faceted. On the one hand, I just don’t like feeling that the things I do (calling my elected officials, voting, volunteering with organizations I believe in, offering my services at free and reduced rates) are just a drop in the bucket when you look at the big picture of pain and suffering in the world. There’s also a strong feeling of guilt for the privileged life I lead, one that has included an education, political representation and freedom. Can you really care about starving children across the world while accepting seconds at your own dinner table? This line of thinking has typically brought about uneasiness in my stomach.
One of the most important ways to deal with the cruelty of the world is to acknowledge it. Don’t pretend not to see or notice the injustices happening all around us. This is important information and you will need to be knowledgeable before dedicating your energy righting the wrongs you perceive. Working to make an impact and change an injustice in our world (however small) is, for me, the key to also finding peace.
I’m often asked how can one enjoy herself in any capacity, knowing there are people (and/or animals) suffering? The answer is, you take a break and contribute to your own wellness and wellbeing because it is the right thing to do. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage you can’t pour from an empty cup. It’s absolutely true. If you are truly committed to ending gun violence, saving the elephants or getting equal rights for all, then you will take the time to take care of yourself. Another burnt out warrior with good intentions is not of much use to the resistance. It’s imperative that we lean on our fellow activists when we need to so that we get the rest and rejuvenation that we need. Imagine a choir of 100 people singing one note all together. It will sound loud and impressive. If everyone sings until they’re out of air, the sound will slowly die out until nobody is able to sing any longer. Similarly, if everyone takes a breath at the same time the sound will abruptly stop. However, if everyone takes a breath on their own as needed, typically no two people will be resting at the exact same time. Thus, the sound of the choir will have a continual sound and volume, and can continue in perpetuity. It’s each choir member’s responsibility to notice and attend to his or her own needs, and to have faith that the choir can withstand the momentary loss of one voice.
Being healthy and whole is imperative if you are going to be of service to others, and it’s the most important part of attending to the cruelty we see on a daily basis. So take care of yourself, by practicing mindfulness, going to therapy, eating right, working out and enjoying community with the ones you love.
It’s also important to remember our brains are wired to notice the negative first. This is a hugely important survival tactic that has contributed to our species’ ability to thrive in a variety of different environments and scenarios. You only have to learn once, for example, that the stove is hot. But this negativity bias can also get in our way at times. It makes it easy to forget the good and positive aspects of our lives. To combat this in our work against cruelty in our world, I recommend practicing “compassion satisfaction.” Which, basically, is setting time aside to make note of the positive changes you have helped make, no matter how small. I spend a bit of each day reflecting on the improvements my clients have made, or the changes I have felt since starting to work with a local nonprofit. Make it a part of your habitual routine to turn toward the positive experiences in your life, so you don’t get tunnel-vision on the negative.
By doing these things, we haven’t rid the world of cruelty. We haven’t changed the fact that there is suffering all around us. All we can do is improve our own capacity to hold the discomfort, to sit with those in need, and to help as well as we can. If we can all become better equipped to handle the tragedy we see, we will increase resilience across our communities and the world.
One of the ways I try to help the world is to keep the helpers going. If you’re a physician, nurse, caretaker, therapist or animal care worker and you’re struggling with burnout or compassion fatigue, contact me for an intake session today.
How do you make an impact on our world and support others in the community? And how do you take care of yourself while doing that work? I’d love to hear what you’re up to in the comments!