The events that have unfolded since the election continue to stimulate a huge amount of fear in me and those around me. I’ve had many sleepless nights since November, stemming from my children wondering if Trump’s election meant half the country did not like people of color, from colleagues applying preemptively for Canadian visas, and from my observations of what appears to be a systematic dismantling of the already limited protections for our environment and our social programs. I’ve been wondering how to respond, and how to help my children and those around me respond, to these uncertain times.
I believe any response will need to attend to one of two areas. I’m sure there are more, but here are the two where I am choosing to put my energy. First, I want to find ways to understand and make sense of what’s happening, and from that understanding, to choose a powerful, compassionate response. After the current political crisis has shifted, I want to have a greater sense of agency, to have grown my capacity to speak up and effect change. Next, while thinking of ways to increase my impact, I also want to find ways to care for myself, to manage the degree of stress and anxiety I feel. I worry that as I take in the endless revelations about decisions that impact so many, as I frantically choose which item to respond to, which cause to support, I will be so overwhelmed that I’ll withdraw and stop responding at all. These urgent times often result in a demand to do ever more, leading to burnout and despair.
So, how can we fortify ourselves so we can do the needed work in a powerful and sustainable way? Here are some tips.
- Little actions add up.
In November, a friend and I went to Nevada to campaign on behalf of Democratic candidates. Even though I only left town for a day, it was stressful! I came back to a full email box, many tasks, and a sense of overwhelm at having to “catch up.” I can imagine that others who dedicated weeks, not days, to the campaign came back to even larger stacks of work. While I certainly see myself making the choice to campaign again, it’s important to remember that the little actions, taken collectively, also add up. If you have just an hour, you can phone bank for an environmental cause. If you have five minutes, you can call your senators and leave a message in support of an issue you care about. We’re building a log house with our efforts – the big logs are essential for the frame we want to have, but so are the little bits of moss and other materials that make the log house an efficient protection from the elements outside. Give yourself permission to assess your energy, to truly account for all the other pieces you continue to hold (family responsibilities, work responsibilities, self-care), and choose to do what you can, when you can. If we are all interdependent, each contributing a little at a time, we will have an impact.
- Choose carefully.
This spring, I invited a group of folks to support me in clarifying where I want to focus my energy. Before that meeting, I was doing so many things – working a 30 hours a week job, serving as BayNVC’s ED, planning several week-long retreats, offering workshops around the country, trying to take action to respond to the unfolding political crises, serving on various international and local committees, and trying to be a parent and a partner. I found myself ignoring friendships and loved ones, getting less than five hours sleep nightly, and judging myself for doing many things with less than the full attention and care I wanted to give them. I needed to choose where I could put my energy most effectively and sustainably, rather than attempt to respond to all the urgent things that were in front of me. I, like many others, benefit from taking periodic stock of where I’m putting my energy. If you want to be more effective in your actions, take some time to list all the things that are important to you. What are the needs of your family and what will you prioritize? What community issues are you interested in? Which of the many things that are happening in our country are you especially moved by? Take some time with friends to both connect deeply to the needs you are hoping to meet, and to mourn the loss of involvement and contribution in areas you might choose to let go. Once you’ve identified an area that really speaks to you, while allowing you to offer the quality of care for yourself and your family that you would like, think of how you can deepen your involvement in that area. As you think of how to deepen, don’t forget the message of the first tip. Deepen a little more than you are currently doing. Set a stretch goal – just a little more action than you’ve done before. Resist the urge to fill any time you’ve cleared with more and more involvement in your chosen activity. And, maybe you can join with others in that area, whether by finding an organization, an online community, or a group of friends to take action with, to maximize the impact of each of your sustainably sized actions.
- Practice is key.
Have you had the experience of hearing someone say something you strongly disagree with, and you just freeze in response? An African-American friend of mine had just that experience: another mom told my friend how much safer she felt when she realized her son’s new college only had a few Black people. My friend shared how she just sat there, completely wordless. We empathized with her feelings of shock and pain, and then practiced some responses she could make the next time something like this happens. You can prepare for the interactions you’ll have with people who hold completely different viewpoints from you. If you’re going to a community meeting, practice with some friends until you have your needs-based talking points that you want to share. Have a friend pretend to give you the kind of response you’re most afraid of getting from someone, and practice how you’ll respond. If you’re really stuck in coming up with a response, then find an empathy coach. You can role-play the other person, exactly how you’re afraid they’ll treat you. Ask your empathy coach to respond as you. As you see how your coach responds, you’ll learn new strategies, and maybe feel more compassion for both you and the person who’s hard for you to embrace.
- Take time for self-care.
My son is currently playing volleyball quite competitively. The athletes learn to work intensely, but also take breaks. They learn to slow down, stretch, do cool-down exercises to let their muscles recover, get proper nourishment and sufficient sleep. His team is competing in the Nationals in July, and they know they won’t bring their best game to the competition if they don’t take care of their bodies in these months leading up to the tournament. Those of us trying to impact our world need to give our bodies and our spirits the same care that athletes do when they are preparing to give their best. If you’re out there trying to change what is happening in our country, you’re working at that significant level of exertion. What are you doing to recover from your exertions, to let your body, mind and soul recharge? If you’re not getting sufficient sleep or eating healthy meals, what’s blocking you? If you keep stuffing feelings of anger or despair, focusing instead on what to do next, think of the athlete who ignores overworked muscles, thinking it’s a sign of strength, until she learns otherwise when her muscles catastrophically fail when she is counting on them the most. Having a regular practice of NVC empathy can help you attend to those feelings before they build and lead you to give up on the work altogether.
As I talk to friends around the country, this sense of both overwhelm and an urge to act is clear. Try these tips and see how they help empower your response. If you want even more tips and a supportive community, consider joining me this July 30 – August 6 at the West Coast Intensive in NVC.
Janey Skinner, a participant last year, noted, “The West Coast Intensive supported me in deepening my practice of self-care, while also stepping into radical empathy and action in the world. I met a number of people who inspired me with their dedication to creating change in their communities, and I left with an extra oomph in my step, a greater willingness to act.”
If this appeals to you, come join us. At this year’s West Coast Intensive, we’ll be focusing on understanding ourselves and building skills to create a restorative community that’s grounded in Interdependence, Resilience, and Creativity.