How to Keep Going Through Dark Times

Because we need much more than hope.

Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash

The closest thing I have to religion is a deep-seated belief in the innate goodness of the human animal, despite much ongoing evidence to the contrary.

Given the chance to help, most humans will step up to the plate, even in a country as staunchly individualistic as America. Unfortunately, this self-reliant mindset means many of us shy away from admitting we can’t always go it alone. As a result, we gladly volunteer help but struggle to ask for it, and accept it when it is offered.

But no one exists in a vacuum, humans are pack animals. Much as you’d like to, you can’t deal with everything on your own. No matter how capable we may be, we all need a hand every now and then, and there’s no shame in acknowledging our own limitations.

For example, illness is humbling, ditto unexpected family catastrophes that call for extreme and immediate resourcefulness. This is where I’m at right now, and no amount of hope can either heal my stepmom, cheer my dad up, or get me across the Atlantic so I can be with them. But oncology, love, and hard work can.

That’s why I’ve reverted back to my old makeshift mantra of kindness and common sense. Even in the midst of adversity, it has never failed me. When life slaps you in the face, stop, breathe, gather yourself.

Then take action because there’s always something you can do, even when you feel hard done by. Please resist the urge to wallow in self-pity unless you want to become the prisoner of a dark, sticky cloud of doom — I’ve been dealing with depression for the last five years, and feeling sorry for myself is a shortcut to allowing the disease to eat me alive. When that happens, I need to step away from my own misery and find some kindness.

Because kindness is an immediately actionable choice.

And there is always an opportunity to be kind, especially right now. Kindness is the measure of a person, the ability to set yourself aside for a moment and direct your attention elsewhere.

People who have pets know. Upon finding out my best friend had died, I turned to my cats. Giving them love begets more love. They make tragedy fuzzy, warm, and endurable by reminding me that life goes on even when grief short-circuits my brain.

Depending on what critter(s) share your life, your mileage may vary. I’m not sure how one goes about bonding with a goldfish for example, but it must be possible. (I had one as a kid and I tried to give it love in my own clumsy, six-year old way. I thought my piscine companion’s impassible face was an expression of sadness because his water wasn’t blue, unlike in all my books and at the seaside. So I took it upon myself to remedy the situation by dipping a turquoise felt tip pen in his tank. The fish survived, thanks to the all-seeing eye of my mom.)

Kindness is to hope what hard work, for example, is to one’s self-esteem: fuel.

As the ability to envisage an alternative to what is, hope is essential to getting through life. However, hope isn’t dogma, it isn’t a standalone monolith you can gaze upon when the going gets tough. Hope is a living organism that feeds on your ability to mentally override current predicaments and project yourself into the future.

Meanwhile, you still have to deal with a present you can’t wish away.

If hope can show you the way forward, kindness is the first practical step.

Being secular and far from having attained enlightenment yet, I still apply kindness in a discerning way. This means I can’t find the moral wherewithal to go hug Nazis, or reason with aggressive Trumpers or Brexiters intent on belittling me. They exist and they happen but I’m not duty-bound to validate their existence with my time and attention. While interaction is unavoidable, I actively try not to engage if at all possible.

Respect is something that is earned, not owed, and kindness — in my mind — works along the same lines. Thankfully, much like bigotry, decency tends to show. While some people go out of their way to be assholes and put a lot of effort into projecting unpleasantness, the average person is self-aware enough to go about their business in a friendly, non-confrontational manner.

Also, kindness is universal and within everyone’s power. And for those of us who enjoy the occasional stroll along the path of least resistance, it’s a lot easier to be kind than the opposite. Asking what you can do for another living being is a good place to start, and if you temporarily can’t stand people (let’s be honest, it happens, doesn’t it?), nature always needs love. Whether it’s a hug, a word of encouragement, an offer of help, or a seed, go plant some kindness today and watch it bloom.

Destruction takes no time; change happens through incremental progress. Neither hope nor kindness are abstract concepts, they’re who we are as thinking animals, what makes us, how we behave, and what we do.

Like anybody else, my emotions often get the better of me, and I fail at being kind when I give in to annoyance or fear. Painfully aware that what little security I’ve been able to achieve could disappear in a heartbeat, I tend to get nostalgic for things I haven’t lost yet. Sometimes I’m snippy and I whinge because I’m not impervious to frustration.

If I frequently have great difficulty in surrendering to hope, it’s because I’m afraid of being blindsided. Common sense demands that I remain vigilant and eschew magical thinking while doing whatever I can to transition from a current state of personal and political anxiety to one of greater ease, not just for myself, but for anyone around me, that is to say loved ones and strangers alike, yes, including you person on the internet.

None of us are ever in control of everything, but we can control what message we put out into the world. Will it be signal, or will it be more noise?

You can almost always alter your perception to embrace kindness, be it only for a moment.

Your choice.

I’m a French-American freelancer based in the Pacific Northwest. If you like cats, find me on Instagram. To continue the conversation, come ride the elephant with me. For everything else, deets in bio.