In Troubled Times: Surviving Exhaustion

In previous posts in this series, I’ve written about emotional sobriety, feeling overwhelmed, and finding a personal sanctuary. Now I’d like to talk more about the concrete things we can do to keep our emotional and spiritual balance during the difficult, terrifying, and outrage-evoking recent months.

For me the first step is always admitting that what I have been doing isn’t working. I can get absorbed in one dreadful news story after the other, and with each round I lose more perspective and calm. My adrenaline levels get progressively higher. Sometimes – often! – it seems as if nothing else is happening in my life except reacting to yet another threat to the people, organizations, and principle that are important to me. Old wounds re-open; the ghosts of family tragedies (like the pogroms my father survived as a boy) re-awaken. I fear for my Jewish family and my queer daughters and sister and my trans daughter-in-law, for my black, Muslim, and Hispanic friends. I despair for the future of the entire planet. In other words, I need help.

Sometimes all that’s necessary is for me to admit that matters have gotten out of hand. Then I can scale back on my news consumption enough to think clearly what actions I would like to take. And especially what would be enough for the moment so that I can leave the topic and focus on other aspects of my life – my family, my writing, my local community, the beautiful redwood forest that cloaks the hills outside my windows. Playing classical music on my mother’s piano. Knitting hats for charities in poor areas of the country and world. Cuddling with the cats.

Recently I have noticed how those times of relative sanity come to a screeching halt. There are always new reasons – excuse me, Reasons. Like a hurricane or three. I’ve seen references to “outrage fatigue” but I suspect what is happening is outrage overlap. There isn’t sufficient time in between to return to balance and stay there, catching our breath, before something new and dreadful reels us in.

A recent article on the American Friends Service Committee blog suggests ways to stay strong “when the news is exhausting.” The folks at AFSC know a thing or two about coming from a place of compassion and peace during difficult times. A Quaker-founded organization, they’ve been around since 1917. After WW I, they set up kitchens to feed hungry children in Germany and Austria. During the 1930s and through World War II, AFSC helped refugees escape from Nazi Germany, provided relief for children on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, and provided relief to refugees in Vichy France. (I had friends who worked in Austria after WW II through AFSC.) They received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. So I’m apt to listen to their suggestions:

  1. Cut back on news. Eliminate or restrict the number of times per day you check social media. This in itself isn’t new, and I’ve done these things successfully, but not the strategy of using printed news instead of internet. Print is slower and often more thoughtful, especially long-form journalism. Someone has had a chance to think what all this means before publishing it. Plus, the delay means an extra buffer between events and reaction. I think of it as an ongoing exercise in faith that if I need to know about what’s going on in the world, I’ll find out.
  2. Focus on the issues that matter most to you. I notice I do this, too, although the reminder is always welcome. I can’t sustain being outraged about every single horrible thing. I do better when I prioritize, picking the top few issues and following them more closely. And it’s not essential that my friends and I have the same top issues. For example, our neighbor is Native American, and the crisis at Standing Rock was very important to him; he knew people who were directly involved. I acted as an ally, while he was less concerned with queer and trans rights, one of my primary issues.
  3. Read something else! I love this suggestion. I would add, Listen to something besides news and talk shows when you’re driving. During the election, I loaded all 6 CDs of the Howard Shore music for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies into the player in my car and listened to them over and over. Although there are dramatic passages, the flowing, narrative quality of the music transported me to, well, Middle Earth. I was a much nicer driver as a result. My current refuge is audio books of Jane Austen novels. I highly recommend a mini-vacation at Pemberley or Mansfield Park. When I return, I am a saner person, too.


What strategies help you get through these days? Books, music, refreshments of the spirit?



In Troubled Times: Surviving Exhaustion — 3 Comments

  1. Oh my, how I understand you! “Outrage overlap” is a perfect description. I’m exhausted, yet still feel that I’m not giving each incidence the level of outrage it deserves. A large part of the problem for us, I think, is that there is so little we can actually DO to affect things. Calling Congress people feeds futility, especially when my own representatives are already saying/doing/voting for the right things. At least I can encourage them, I guess, and goddess knows, they could always do more.

    I like your point about focusing on a few issues rather than shouldering the entire burden. I haven’t yet narrowed my list enough. It needs more thought.

  2. Outrage overlap–excellent description!

    I hope you and those beautiful redwoods are safe, and may rain come soon!

  3. When I reach the point where I absolutely have to stab something I pick up a needlefelting project. Bonus points – needs total concentration otherwise I stab myself! It is remarkable theraputic.