I am feeling overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world compared to my ability to affect change in it.
I feel the weight when I hear news of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, when I see Ukrainians hunkering down in basements and empty subway tunnels as they seek safety, and when I see racism rear its ugly head against Black and brown people seeking refuge and empathy around the world.
I feel the weight when, in my own country, state governments roll back voting access, and women’s reproductive rights, when they criminalize parents and medical teams helping youth affirm their gender identity, and when they try to use legislation to forbid teachers from mentioning gender fluidity and sexual orientation.
Hearing about these battles taking place on so many fronts, I feel small, ineffectual, and powerless. I feel tempted to do nothing, to detach myself from the news and focus on my own little family in our own little pocket of the world.
This is what despair can do. It robs us of the imagination needed to work for a better world. It strips away our drive to take steps toward that better world and lures us into inaction.
Hope does the opposite.
Hope beckons us toward a better future – one that we feel inspired to work for even if we aren’t guaranteed to see it. Hope reminds us that it is not foolhardy to imagine a better future. Hope remembers anti-colonialism movements, those who resisted Nazi rule in Europe during World War II, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the many environmentalist and justice movements around the world being led by children, women, poor people, and others that society discounts. The people in these movements believed that their actions could make a difference. Seeing their steadfastness, it feels sillier to despair than to hope.
Through these stories, hope tells us that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable causes, we do have power as individuals, and we have even more as a collective.
Hope is both a noun and a verb. That means hope is something we can have, and it is also something we can do. I often remind myself that when I can’t hold hope in my hands, I can will it into existence through sheer determination and will.
When I hope, I do what I can as an individual. I vote. I contribute to candidates who advocate for the change I wish to see. I call and write my elected officials. I try to stay informed. I use my blog and social media spaces to elevate voices, ideas, and movements that I think need greater attention.
I also lend my individual voice, dollars, and actions to the power of the collective. I join efforts that are much bigger than me, and that are run by people with more time, training, and knowledge than I have. I donate to organizations that work to maintain first amendment freedoms, voting rights, and the rights of the marginalized, including asylum seekers. I give to causes that support teen mothers and organizations that lobby for sensible gun legislation. Through my church, I contribute to organizations that care for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as for local people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.
There is a privilege that comes with looking away – of pretending the world is a safe and happy place for all those who live in it because I don’t want to admit how tenuous security can be. Therapist Esther Perel, whose parents survived the Holocaust, calls this state “Empathic distress,” which she defines as “a strong aversion to the suffering of others, that may cause you to withdraw in order to protect yourself from excessive negative feelings, based on your inability to accept your own.”
So, here I am, accepting my feelings of overwhelm and despair. Here I am, doing what I can and learning how I can do more. Who knows what effect my actions will have? I sure don’t. But what I do know is that I have the privilege of choosing whether I do nothing or whether I do something. I might as well do something.
I might as well hope.