How to be Fearless (and even Happy) in Frightening Times

For decades I’ve worked to shift the world toward peace and environmental harmony. It’s uphill work, and this past year I’ve seen the biggest setbacks yet. So, I created what I needed: a list of strategies for overcoming compassion-resistance fatigue.

1. Be thankful. That you are here on the planet at this time, that this challenge has been given you. My mother used to say that God won’t give you more than you can handle. I’m not so sure about that, but I’m sure there’s only two choices: try to handle it as best I can, or give up. I’ll choose the former every time. As Rumi said, Overcome any bitterness that arises because you are not up to the pain that was entrusted to you.

2. Link arms. Have people you can vent to, and they to you, about your anger, fear, despair. Create safe space to say anything without judgement or criticism or correction. You’re not asking them to fix things, make you feel better, tell you what to do. You’re asking them to listen with a caring ear. Then you can go out into the world with a smile. That way, you don’t, as Pema Chodron says, add to the violence in the world.

3. Face your fears. Don’t be afraid of the dark, says Joanna Macey. The only thing to fear is fear itself, said FDR. The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one, wrote Elbert Hubbard. Rather than run from your fears, face them down like monsters under the bed. Or like the teachers they are. Learn from them, learn you can handle whatever darkness the future may hold.

4. Act your age. Remember you’re part of a collection of particles that have been spinning through space for a very long time. Find solace in the ancient Earth. Hang out with some rock that’s been around longer than us. Recall your human ancestors, too, that have gone before you, lighting the way.

5. Pick your priorities. Right now it feels like everything needs our attention all at once; everything is at risk. But one person can’t effectively work on all issues; pick a few you feel most passionate about, most knowledgeable about, most willing to take on for the long haul. Then do it.

6. Trust others. Trust that others are taking care of the issues you haven’t chosen. Find ways—articles, talks, community events, etc—to be reminded of this, so that you can rest assured these issues aren’t being forgotten, and you can get back to your own good work.

7. Have a Home Base. Have a place, and a time, every day, to disconnect from news, social media, conversation. Take time out. Put your smartphone on airplane mode, close the laptop, set aside the newspaper. Make it a regular part of every day. First thing in the morning, or the hour before dinner. But regular. Every day.

8. Do something physical. Sing, hum, dance, run, do cartwheels. Jumping up and down for a few minutes has been proven to improve mood. Humming can reduce stress, increase levels of serotonin and dopamine. Yoga, too: my yoga teacher said, no one can feel bad when their arms are raised over their heads. So do mountain pose, warrior pose, or just throw up your arms and stretch.

9. Get out in nature. Stand outside and feel rain or snow falling on your face, wind across your skin. Walk in the woods. Go to a stream or shoreline and watch water. It’s a big and diverse and complex world, and there’s more going on than we humans will ever know. Find solace in that not-knowing. Find solace in the forces of the natural world which continue no matter what we humans do. Talk to a rock.

10. Take a vacation. Take a longer break once or twice a year, or quarterly, whatever you need. Get off the grid and pretend everything is great. Trust that everyone else is continuing the good work. It won’t all fall apart just because you take a two-week vacation. But do put boundaries on your vacation from activism, a start date and an end date, so you don’t just drift away.

11. Remember that things can change quickly. My mother again: This, too, shall pass. Impermanence can be a good thing. What we hold dear, and what we despise, are equally impermanent. What seems intractable right now is not only impermanent, but can also change quickly. There are other people working it, other forces at work, and sometimes, after years of struggle with little apparent progress—change comes sweeping through all at once.

12. Love what remains. Rather than always noticing what’s gone, or leaving, or at risk, notice what still remains, and savor it. As Thomas Berry said, The purpose of life is existence, and self-delight in existence. Every morning, count your blessings. Count ten things you’re thankful for. It will help you get out of bed, promise.