There is a heated conversation in some activist circles that goes like this: Should our work draw strength from fear and anger or from a place of love and compassion? I have heard people say that if we stop being angry and start being loving, we would be letting the culprits off the hook. We would be blinding ourselves to the bad things happening and—in indulging our nice feelings—forget to help those endangered.
In workshops I give to help activists and concerned citizens cope, there’s an experiment I use that addresses this. It goes like this:
Conjure up all the fear and anger you have about the world and the politicians from the other side and the scandals and the targeting of those least able to defend themselves. Probably you’ll get a physical sensation. Where is that sensation? For most people it is in the throat and top of the chest. Now, imagine that you are powering your voice from there and that you are shouting at a march or speaking to an elected official. Try speaking from there right now, out loud. How long could you sustain it? Do you get the sense that before long you would go hoarse?
Next, imagine the love you feel for nature and the compassion you feel for those who need help. Now ask yourself where in your body the physical sensation is. For many, the feeling is located just below the naval. Now try to power your voice from that place, speaking out loud again. How long could that energy last?
If you are anything like me, you might get the feeling you could go forever.
And that is the thing about fear and anger versus love. Regardless of whether the other side “deserves” anger, we must sustain ourselves for the work ahead. Can we actually go on forever with a blaming mentality, or will our work be better served by love? Our vision for the world is more likely to be achieved if it is grounded in compassion and love.
Recently, because so many people in my community were anxious and exhausted after the election, I held a workshop called “The Long Haul: Wisdom for Activists and Concerned Citizens.” The goal was to search for an attitude that would help us continue to work steadfastly toward a fair, compassionate, just, safe world without burning out.
There were nearly 40 of us. Some were seasoned activists alarmed by the bottom dropping out of all they thought they had achieved. Others were formerly disengaged citizens woken up by the election. Others were just concerned citizens, tired of being isolated behind their computer screens with all that worried them.
Here are three exercises we did.
Witnessing each other’s good work and giving thanks
We walked around the room introducing ourselves to each other, briefly recounting actions we had taken, like visiting elected officials or going on marches. Each of us attempted to really listen, then offered heartfelt thanks and hugged or touched each other’s shoulders or squeezed each other’s hands. This exercise helps change our view of the world from a dangerous, hate-filled place to a loving, hope-filled place. Keeping our focus on the good in the world helps many of us sustain our work.
Owning our complicity in the world’s problems
In groups of four, we each owned aspects of our own personal responsibility for the problems in the world. We talked about how we used fossil fuels even as we condemned the fossil fuel industry. We talked about how we had never bothered to take note of the 3 million to 4 million deportations that happened each year prior to Trump.
Bringing the world’s problems home and owning our part in them allows us to dissolve the imaginary monsters we see in Trump voters and people whose ideas differ from ours. Owning our complicity allows us to see ourselves in and have compassion for those we blame. We get to see that all of us—all of us—get caught up in deluded thinking and actions.
Create a positive vision rather than react to negative events
Next, we took turns in pairs telling each other our visions for the world. We each talked not about what we wanted to resist but about what we wanted to create. We talked about the clean air and water that comes with renewable energy. We talked about the resilient communities that come with racial and economic justice. We talked about the capable children that come with good schools. This provided us with a sense of agency and defined the good things we wanted for the world.
After the workshop, I was heartened to see how the energy in the room had lightened. People seemed inspired to carry on. “I realize I have been clinging to my anger and my need to make someone else wrong with more energy than I have been trying to figure out how I can do what’s right,” someone said.
The point of this kind of work is simply not to let ourselves sink so deeply into our own despair that we can no longer act to combat the suffering of others. Caring people need to take care. We may have to find ways to put aside our unsustainable anger and fear in favor of our endless reserves of love and compassion.
Colin Beavan helps people and organizations to live and operate in ways that have a meaningful impact on the world. His most recent book is “How To Be Alive,” and he blogs at ColinBeavan.com. Besides YES! Magazine, his articles have appeared in Esquire, Atlantic, and the New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.