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10 Tips on Disarming Despair

If we believe something is essential—as in fixing our broken democracy and confronting the climate crisis—we’ve shown over and over throughout our long history that we can indeed do whatever it takes.

Originally Published on Common Dreams, November 20, 2019

“Despair is humanity’s worst enemy.” Now, that’s a declaration I make often, which might imply that I’ve conquered it. But, having spent recent weeks with eyes locked on climate-catastrophe reports, this morning despair started closing in on me.

Whoa, I thought to myself… “Your twitter ID is “’hope monger.’ You’d better get a grip.”

So, okay…how do we disarm this powerful enemy?

Well, here’s my attempt at an answer: ten realizations that over the years have slowly taken shape in me, and I hope are helpful to you. Please note their grounding premise: Despair lives in isolation, while useful hope arises in connection.

1. Appreciate a surprising truth: The only choice we don’t have is whether to change the world. In a universe in which all is connected—and in continuous change—even a choice not to act has reverberations we can never measure. In our interconnected world “there are no parts, only participants,” the late German physicist Hans Peter Duerr once reminded me. No one is utterly powerless.

2. Dig deep to energize a sense of purpose. If we can see how our life choices touch the root causes of our global crises, even our small acts seem worth the effort.

And, how do we get to the root? My short answer: We never stop asking “the question behind the question.” In 1971, a series of questions started me on my way to write Diet for a Small Planet. At the time, humanity was near panic as experts reported the world was running out of food. So, I asked, really? Is hunger the result of scarcity? Question after question drew me along a path, until I got to the one question that holds my attention right now: Why are we together creating a world that as individuals none of us would choose?

This huge question continues to energize me because part of my answer is that we are where we are because our belief systems can serve as blinders. One often hears “seeing is believing,” but I’ve learned the reverse is truer, “Believing is seeing.” So, if we don’t believe deep change is possible, we won’t see opportunities all around for us to grab. And, of course, this ah-ha has led to a string of new questions calling me.

3. Keep in sight the “bucket” our “drops” are filling. Too often the lament “Oh, I’m just a drop in the bucket” is just another way of saying “I really don’t count.” But, think about it. On a rainy night, buckets fill up fast; so, being a mere drop may not be a problem at all. Knowing we’re a drop can feel glorious if we can see the vessel we are filling. In this moment, for example, I’m deeply distressed by our democracy’s daily battering, but I stay sane when I see the “bucket” my drops can fill in the growing Democracy Movement, now progressing in numerous states and cities. And, it feels great. Just one example? Automatic Voter Registration--proven to increase voting--has now spread to sixteen states and D.C.

4.Act now. Act often.

When despair hovers, I try to recall the best advice of my philosophical teachers: More than thoughts alone, action redoes our mental and emotional lives. So, we can preach to ourselves all we want but remain blue and overwhelmed. Whereas choosing to act in itself immediately signals our brains that we’re not powerless.

5. Act not from guilt (“I should”) but to fulfill our deeply human need to experience power (“I can!”) The Latin root of power is posse “to be able.” Our shared need is not “power over others” but having a voice that’s heard in common problem solving. We can learn to celebrate it.

6. Align everyday action with aspiration. Every choice we make that affirms our values makes us more convincing to ourselves and thus to others. Whether it’s voting or shifting to public transport, we know our individual acts in themselves aren’t enough. Public action—changing rules and norms—is essential. Yet, to believe “the world can change” it sure helps if we experience ourselves as capable of change.

7. Risk what scares us. Making deep, despair-disarming change requires more than shifting one’s eating habits or adding solar panels. It requires courage: doing what scares us—whether it’s speaking out when we know others won’t agree or volunteering for the first time in a political campaign. It’s doing what we thought we could not do. Though scary, the rewards can be huge—unexpected bonding with strangers, deep learning, and letting go of feelings of powerlessness. And a reward we may never see? Our courage is contagious. Someone is always watching.

8. Choose our companions with care. Because humans are not just self-seeking atoms but are shaped moment to moment by connection with all we touch—especially those closest to us—whom we become depends greatly on others’ approval. So, to become more courageous, hang out with courage! We can seek out those gutsier than we are and…we can’t help it…we’ll become more like them.

9. Keep handy a mental list of surprises. Think of big, positive turns in our common life that you’d have given virtually zero chance of ever happening…until they did. Review regularly! An example for me? Growing up in Texas, I’d have said, nah, Lyndon Johnson would never lead on civil rights, as he’d voted against every single piece of related legislation for decades. Never, until he did, even introducing the 1965 Voting Rights Bill with the Civil Rights’ refrain—“We shall overcome.” Or, in more recent times: In 2006, what probability would you have given our having an African American president two years later? Probably slim.

Bottom line? Humility is in order. We can’t know what might be the next surprise.

10. Seek out and share solutions stories. Unfortunately, major media specialize in fear and shock. They rarely bring us stories of progress. Did you know for example, that if Texas were a country, it would be world’s fifth biggest producer of wind energy? And several other red states are leading the way in renewable energy. Sharing such stories, we open others to possibility. It is truly a revolutionary act we can do daily.

Finally, please note: We needn’t be optimists to disarm despair. Optimism suggests confidence of positive outcomes, and that’s hard for me to come by. But, fortunately, humans don’t require certainty in order to act. If we believe something is essential—as in fixing our broken democracy and confronting the climate crisis—we’ve shown over and over throughout our long history that we can indeed do whatever it takes.

Right now, for many of us, confronting three crises—climate chaos, the assault on democracy, and extreme economic unfairness—feels essential; and to jump in, all we need is a sense that there’s a possibility our acts can make a difference.

That’s why I think of myself as “possibilist,” enabling me to remain—most of the time—an unapologetic “hope monger.” And it works.

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