Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a reader’s concern with specific thoughts on regaining and protecting their own sense of joy, even against the backdrop of so much turmoil.
Do you have any advice for remaining positive in dark times? All my life, no matter what was coming at me, I have been a glass half-full kind of guy. Lately, not so much. At best, things feel overwhelming and confusing. At worse, kind of hopeless.
It’s not my personal circumstances that have me down. It’s the world at large. Things in my own life are pretty solid, but with the constant barrage of bad news—with all the dysfunction, violence and horrific disasters out there—it feels difficult, and deeply wrong, to bask in my own good fortune. My old sunny outlook feels clouded by guilt and aimless concern. Even on my best days, I can’t help but wonder why I should be so lucky, while so many others are struggling.
Do you have any ideas on how I can recover my sense of hope and joy? And do I even have a right to want that in our current environment?
Feeling the Weight of the World
Dear Feeling the Weight of the World,
I feel your pain! So many of us feel overwhelmed and confused—not to mention disgusted and distraught—by the current state of play in the world. What other decent reaction is there, when we are bombarded 24/7 by the heinous headlines and disturbing images that constitute the daily news?
You have articulated the question weighing on so many hearts and minds: What is a caring, compassionate person to do in these difficult times? How can we be informed and responsible citizens without feeling personally drained and utterly wrecked?
I have a few specific thoughts on regaining and protecting your own sense of joy, even against the backdrop of so much turmoil. Before we get there, however, I’d like to address your second question first, because getting back your hope and joy will only be possible if you fully embrace your right to do so.
In my humble opinion, YES. You absolutely have the right to desire both hope and joy, in this or any environment. We are Americans after all, widely considered the most optimistic people in history. Our founders declared “the pursuit of happiness” to be an “unalienable” right, right up there with life and liberty!
My question for you is, why are you doubting your right to happiness?
Personally, I subscribe to the oxygen mask theory of life. Secure your own safety and well-being first, otherwise you are useless to everyone else. I also believe that “first do no harm” is as important for the rest of us as it is for our doctors. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone, I say, do what you need to do to keep your own boat afloat. If you want nothing more than to get back your own joy and continue to live your own best life—without a shred of interest in serving the public—that is FINE. BY. ME.
Implicit in your post, however, are some deep existential questions: Why is there so much suffering and injustice in the world? Why are some people so fortunate, while others are not?
This column is not the place to wax philosophical or resolve age old questions about the meaning of life. I would, however, invite you to explore these deeper issues on your own, or in the company of some caring, thoughtful friends. Or feel free to call me, I would happily meet you for a cup of coffee to discuss it all myself.
In the meantime, I would ask you to reflect upon the benefits of your “old sunny outlook” (personal and otherwise), as compared to the detriments of your newfound guilt. I say, guilt is only as useful as your alarm clock. It signals you that it’s time to wake up, but if you allowed it to blare away at you all day, it would be pretty hard to get anything done.
You are, of course, welcome to keep you guilt if you like. I am not here to take it away from you. But tell me, how is it serving you? How is it serving anyone else?
The world you are so rightly concerned about needs people like you. You strike me as resilient, resourceful and empathetic. Try not to be defeated by your impulse to care. Compassion can be destructive or productive. It can deplete you or motivate you. Sometimes it does a little bit of both, but my invitation to you is to choose the latter.
With that said, here are a few tools to help you reclaim your OWN joy (and maybe even spread some in the process):
Get Grateful: Get a head start on Thanksgiving, and consider adopting a gratitude practice. Spend a few minutes each day scanning your environment for the positive—anything from sunshine to the perfect parking spot to a smile from a stranger—and make a note of it. Do this first thing in the morning or just before drifting off to sleep (I do both), and notice how much better you feel.
As human beings, we all have a negativity bias. Our brains are hardwired to survey our surroundings for danger. We look at the world around us and instinctively hone in on the scary stuff. The brain is, however, capable of rewiring. By practicing gratitude, you can train your brain to look at the world in a more positive light, which has been shown to make people more optimistic, enthusiastic, energetic and even joyful. Focusing on the positive by regularly and intentionally noting the things for which you are grateful can improve your mood, your physical and psychological health, your productivity and your overall sense of happiness.
Serve and Score: Multiple studies show that serving others, whether by volunteering or through charitable donations, benefits the giver as much as the recipient. Possibly even more so. Charitable giving is associated with higher levels of both health and happiness. It has also been linked with increased prosperity and a stronger sense of community. By getting involved in any way that feels meaningful to you, by being generous—with your time, money or spirit—you are doing yourself and others the ultimate service. Talk about a WIN WIN!
Think Small, Assume Control: When we think about tackling the overwhelming, it tends to induce paralysis. When we tell ourselves a situation is beyond our control, a heavy hopelessness sets in. You may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but you are not powerless. Whether your objective is world peace or cleaning out your garage, try taking just one small step at a time. Remind yourself that every little bit counts, that great change can result from the acts of a few and that opportunities to spread light in a dark world abound. Find those that feel meaningful to you, no matter how teeny-tiny, and take action. As Anne Frank once said, “How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly changing the world.”
Get Still: I suggest meditation to every client (and in almost every column) for a reason. Stack up its benefits one on top of the other and you just might reach the sky. Regular meditation can help increase your capacity for joy, as well as your sense of compassion and empathy. At the same time, it strengthens your ability to detach and let go. Put these all together, Feeling the Weight of the World, and you have your recipe for getting back your joy, your hope and your old optimistic self.
Speaking of meditation, if you are feeling extra ambitious, you might try Tonglen. This is a specific meditation practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. During Tonglen, you are asked to breathe in the suffering of others, then breathe out something comforting or supportive (such as recognition, compassion or healing). The idea is not to burden yourself with all of the misery in the world, but rather to acknowledge and accept it, so that you can respond more effectively. This practice is I have tried it myself, and have found it to be surprisingly uplifting.
Your question is both timely and timeless, and I sincerely hope I have been helpful. I truly appreciate the opportunity to have grappled with all of the above.
I wish you the best of luck in recapturing your sunny outlook. If I may, I want to leave you with a few words by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She is a poet, post-trauma specialist, Jungian psychoanalyst and author. In her widely quoted letter We Were Made For These Times, she says everything I hope to have conveyed in this column, only far more beautifully than I ever could.
My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times.…
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there….
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely….
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.