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Keep Your Spirits Up: You Can't Help the World When You're Tired and Sad

We must take care of ourselves in a way that ensures our compassion is not drained away.
By Colin Beavan /
Nov 27, 2016
Keep Your Spirits Up: You Can't Help the World When You're Tired and Sad

The terrible predictions of what will happen now that Donald Trump has been elected president—to people of color, to immigrants, to LGBTQ people, to women, and to our planet—are overwhelming. For those of us who care about social or environmental justice, the news is crushing. It can seem, if we are not careful, that all our past work and love has been for naught.

The cliche about the airplane oxygen mask exists for a reason. 

And if our work in the past is for naught, what is the point now and in the future? Why not just move to Canada? Or just hang out on the couch for four years and hope it will end?

It is because of that impulse—the pernicious idea that maybe our work and efforts are meaningless—that part of our job now is finding a way to keep our spirits up. We must take care of ourselves—not in a narcissistic, self-centered way, but in a way that ensures our compassionate intentions are not drained away.

It is axiomatic that you have to take care of yourself to take care of others—the cliche about the airplane oxygen mask exists for a reason. Scientists like Sonja Lyubomirsky have also found that happy people are more able to be of service. For that reason, I have put together some tools I use as an activist, writer, coach, consultant, and as a Zen practitioner.

1. Take care of yourself and be glad to be alive 

Zen Master Seung Sahn, the Korean monk who brought the Kwan Um Zen tradition (which I practice) to the West, would ask his students, “Why do you eat?” The students couldn’t answer. The Zen master would say, “You ask me.” The students asked him why he ate, and he answered, “For you!”

He meant that he maintained his body in order to teach his students and help the world. But we need more than just food. To be really effective, we have to maintain our bodies and minds and hearts and spirits.

Use what privileges you have to help others.

Spend time with friends. Play Frisbee. Meditate. Do yoga. Eat well. Sleep. Rest. Don’t get involved in fruitless arguments. Be grateful to be alive. Use what privileges you have to help others. Tell good jokes. Laugh a lot. Enjoy sex with someone you care for. Embrace life.

If you did these things only for yourself, that might be self-centered. But if you do them in a spirit of “not just for me”—to enjoy, yes, but also to maintain yourself for others—then taking care of yourself becomes taking care of others, and taking care of others becomes taking care of yourself. You will have more energy to live for all people and more joy and satisfaction for yourself.

2. Limit your news exposure to what enables you to help 

Personally, I know I can get caught up in clicking around the internet to find out how bad this is going to be. But we already know that the news about the election and government appointments is bad. The more productive questions are: “How can I help?” and “How can I maintain my spirits in order to be able to help?”

Read the news from a source you trust, just once each day. Spend any other internet time reading about what people and organizations are doing to help, and ask how you can join in. Add to your inspiration, not your despair.

3. Affirm your power and help the vulnerable 

Nothing saps our spirits like the feeling of helplessness. But there are many people who are immediately at risk. If you are one of them, help your community as you help yourself. If you aren’t, find ways to use your privilege to make a difference.

Get prepared to intervene if you see xenophobic or homophobic harassment. 

For example, get prepared to intervene if you see xenophobic or homophobic harassment. Here is a great illustrated guide on what to do. (Basically, go and be physically near the victim and quietly speak to them while ignoring the attacker). If you’re looking for great organizations to support, we’ve listed a few here.

Put yourself on these organizations’ mailing lists and look for opportunities to volunteer. Also, look for grassroots efforts where you live and have meetings with like-minded friends. Look together for ways you can meaningfully help.

4. Know what you stand for 

At a rally in New York City to support the Standing Rock water protectors, I heard one of the speakers say, “You can overcome any obstacle if you know what you stand for.” So what do you stand for? What is the purpose of your life? Or, more aptly, what is the purpose of this part of your life, given the conditions we find ourselves in?

Getting clear about your purpose and intentions in bringing about the world you want is a long-term thing. So, while we need to assist with the emergencies faced by the vulnerable, how can we move ahead in a way that sustains us in the long-term? Here as an exercise I use in workshops that might help you, called “How To Really Know Your Calling.”

5. Learn about how social change happens 

A lot of us are really naive about how change occurs in society. We think we vote once every four years or vote with our dollars, and those are our two ways to make a difference. That view makes us feel unsafe and insecure.

But we have so much more power than that. We get to change our culture by how we live individually and in community every day. We get to change our society by how much pressure we put we put on the institutions—governments, businesses, religions—that form society’s skeleton.

We get to change our culture by how we live individually and in community every day. 

Marriage equality is a great case study in this. Read the book Winning Marriage, whose author, Marc Solomon, is one of the key architects of the marriage equality movement. For a much shorter read, the environmental organization Greenpeace has a great article on how social change happens.

Remember, though, that it happens differently every time. So no one can really predict how change will occur today. There isn’t really a road map—only tools. Learn, and then trust yourself to innovate and find a way.

6. Strengthen your optimism muscle 

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, if you are optimistic about your goals for yourself and the world, then you are more likely to put effort into achieving them. You will also keep trying, even when you perceive the obstacles and setbacks.

This isn’t to say that you can’t be angry or have grief at the same time. Being optimistic is not about painting a rosy picture of the world. It’s about believing in your power to change things.

Being optimistic is not about painting a rosy picture of the world. 

One exercise scientists have shown to enhance optimism is the “best possible selves” diary. I have adapted it and called it the “best possible self and world diary.” Here’s how it works: Sit quietly with a pen and paper for 20 to 30 minutes. Visualize a future in which everything has turned out the way you wanted, both for yourself and for the world in one, five, and 10 years from now. You have worked hard and tried your best, and the world and your life have changed in the ways you worked for. Now write down what you imagine.

It may not come naturally at first, but if you keep this up as a regular practice, studies suggest you will see changes in yourself and in your life. You will also gain insight into your future and your goals for yourself and for the world.

And, yes, you’ll feel more joy too. In the future that’s coming, that’s something you and everyone around you will need.

Colin Beavan wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Colin (aka No Impact Man) 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

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