The hardest task of all: whole-heartedly show-up ready to offer our best.
This article first appeared on The Refresh and has been republished with permission.
For many of us, it is impossible to turn on the news without feeling a strong response to many of the events unfolding in our world. Having informed citizens is vital for a functioning republic — it allows us to hold our elected leaders accountable for their actions and policies that have tangible, real-life impacts in the global community. Nowhere does this apply more than how the most vulnerable in society are treated. But what happens when the 24/7 stream of sad news becomes too much to bear?
In my twenties, I facilitated support groups for chronically ill women for six years. Living with Lyme disease and its effects, I had had personal experience with suffering. As a person sensitive to the pain of others, I soon found myself feeling both called to do the work I was doing, but also depleted by it. Over time, I learned the importance of setting boundaries whenever I was in the position to do so.
If you have been feeling sluggish or emotionally drained, consider this a permission slip to step away from the stream of media (and I say this as someone who works in media) for hours or days or however long you need to recharge. Remaining in “fight or flight” mode even when you have other options only primes your nervous system to flood your body with chemicals that are great for helping you escape tigers in the wild, but not so at great keeping you clear-headed, energetic and emotionally calm. Matters of social justice will always be a marathon, not a sprint.
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Here are some tips for how to retain and regain your energy. They are not solutions, but ideas– though this list is far from complete. I am purposely omitting tips for activism because that is a topic that deserves its own space. There are many great articles that offer concrete tips, like this one that addresses the crisis surrounding the separation of migrant families and children.
Notice the sky
Wherever you are, take a moment and look up at the sky. A few weeks ago I was deeply immersed in work when all of the sudden, I glanced out the window and saw the purple, red and orange shades of a sunset layered across a vast and momentary canvas. It took my breath away for a moment and I found myself returning to my work with a renewed perspective.
Connect with that which is bigger than us
If you practice a faith, either privately or aloud, say the prayers that are meaningful to you. If you don’t know any or can’t remember, use whatever words come to mind—it is the intention, not the words that matter. If you don’t feel called to a particular spiritual tradition, find time and space to get quiet and meditate on the connectedness of the human family.
Our differing beliefs don’t change our singular fate — we all share the same planet. It is in our best interest to get along. When I was a kid and my brother and I fought in the back seat, my mom threatened that if we didn’t stop, she was going to pull the car over. No one ever knew would happen if she actually did that, but even at a young age, we had a pretty solid understanding that it was better that we didn’t find out. No matter what our differences were, we had the good sense to make sure that my mom kept that car in motion.
Appreciate and participate in the arts
Once when I was really sick, my dad asked if he could get me anything at the store. I responded with one request: colored pencils. I was completely a grown woman when this happened, but I was ecstatic when I saw that he got me the pack of 20 instead of the ten pack. Sometimes, you really do need light blue and navy blue. I wanted to draw. As much as I love drawing, my nephew is better it at than I am. And, I am not referring to the nephew who is an eight-year-old art prodigy — I’m referring to the three-year-old preschooler. But, I enjoy it and it is fun for me.
On so many occasions, whenever I had the day off in NYC, I would go to MoMA, The Met or The Frick or to the many galleries throughout the city and wander around. As a photographer, I was drawn to exploring what made an image compelling. But, even more so, I was pulled in by my appreciation for what the artists shared — their way of seeing the world — a way that I may never have thought of on my own. In turn, it made me want to see and photograph my piece of the world in new ways.
The time spent savoring or participating in the arts is never wasted. Attend a play or dance performance, go to the movies or to a concert — the options are endless. Summer is a great time because many cities and towns have free outdoor events. If ability or geography prevents you, you can tour many museums virtually online or look up live concerts by your favorite singer or band on YouTube.
Move your body
To whatever degree possible, move your body. Hit the gym, go for a walk or run, hop on a bicycle, practice yoga or simply stand up and stretch. If you have an injury, illness or disability that makes this difficult or impossible, do whatever movements you safely and comfortably can do. If you are in the middle of a workday at the office, take a quick break and head into the bathroom. Do some shoulder and neck rolls, shake your arms and hands at your side and stretch your legs. Climb back into your own skin.
Read for fun
Everyone in my family is a big reader, so it is no surprise that I gained a love of reading at an early age. For a holiday a few months ago, I sent my 93-year-old grandmother a book. When I called to make sure she received it, she had already finished all 400 pages of it. In three days. There is something magical about getting lost in a story — either real or imagined. I can say with pretty much 100% certainty that there is a book written about whatever interests you. A local library card will eliminate any barriers to the expense.
If you have vision issues or don’t have time to sit with a book/e-book, there are a plethora of great audiobooks. I recently finished David McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers which was read by the author. (Did you know the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics in Ohio and that their work in that field helped them to understand how planes could be balanced in the air? And, that their ideas about flight weren’t really taken seriously for a long time? I hadn’t!)
As a person who almost always would rather be awake than asleep, but who needs more sleep than the average bear (a hibernating bear, that is), my relationship with sleep is… complicated. But, sleep is essential. Everything is better and brighter when I have had a good night’s sleep. If something wakes me up repeatedly (I’m looking at you, adorable, yet chirpy bird who likes to start singing at 4:32 AM outside of my bedroom window), I will feel sluggish throughout my entire day and maybe a tad cranky.
When faced with emotionally draining news and daily life problems, rest allows us to gather up our strength to face whatever comes. It is not selfish or lazy to need to go to bed. And, no one gets a prize for being able to go on four or five hours of rest. Unless you are a biological outlier, aim for a solid seven to nine hours.
Talk to someone
Fun, interesting, meaningful conversations are rejuvenating. If the person you’re talking to is a chronic complainer, redirect the topic — there is a difference between venting and talking about the same thing over and over. Talk to the people in your world with whom you can share good old-fashioned belly laughs. Even in times of distress, there is always a place for humor. It is a tool for lightening the load of our burdens.
Spend time with animal friends
Sometimes, dealing with other humans just feels like too much. Pets can be a great source of comfort, fun and unconditional love. If you’re not allergic, spending time with an animal can be a great stress reliever and balm for the soul. Interacting with my cat is often the highlight of my day. Her cuteness, innocence and sense of perpetual wonder at all things great and small (including her fascination with bugs that mystifies me) brings me joy. If you’re not a pet parent, ask a friend who has a friendly dog or cat if you can visit. Maybe there is an elderly person who would appreciate you taking their dog for a quick stroll. And, if real-life animal interaction just isn’t possible or desirable in your situation, I hear the internet may have a funny cat video or two. . .
All things pass. It doesn’t mean that being complacent is ever an answer — it rarely is. History tells us that apathy only serves oppressors and often, events call on us to find the courage to advocate for those who cannot do so for themselves. One of the most important guiding factors in my life has been an ideal instilled in me by my parents very early on through their words and example: use your gifts and talents to be useful.
Because the work of looking out for each other and all who inhabit this magnificent globe we call home is forever ongoing, it is not self-centered to do things that preserve and rejuvenate your strength. It’s self-sustaining. It is what allows us to be steadfast and consistent and to do what can be the hardest task of all: whole-heartedly show-up ready to offer our best.