Courage in uncertain times

It’s a new year. Phew? Many people were relieved to farewell 2016 the worst year ever. But now, looking back from 2017 — as comedian Alanta Colley writes — “remember good old 2016 when Trump wasn’t actually president?”

It’s clear — these are complex and uncertain times in all aspects of human and non-human life. They have been for a while. The stakes seem excruciatingly high. The heat is being incrementally turned up. Some of us and our loved ones are being brutally impacted. Some of us and our loved ones have the privilege to choose to witness, take action or turn away.

Upheaval, suffering, disasters, confusion, disruption and anxiety. It’s the new norm. It’s overwhelming and I certainly struggle with despair, and how to make sense of the complexity and cognitive dissonance that goes along with living in the world today.

But each of us has a voice. Each of us has power. And together that power magnifies. Focusing and taking action on what impacts and matters to you, where and however you can is important. As is sustaining courage. When it all feels too much what helps you draw strength and maintain courage? Here are ideas I’ve come across that have helped me:

Make your art. Tom Hart nails it, “Some of us need to make art. Some of us need to tell stories. Why? To connect to bigger, more beautiful forces. To create empathy. To tell the truth. To say “here I am.” To reach people. To help us become better at being us. Paint, write and draw your hearts out. And learn to do it better, and reach out to a community doing the same. Listen to each others’ hearts through stories.”

Look for the helpers. Fred Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This comment was echoed by Henry Dow a man caught up in the violent incident in Melbourne CBD last week “there was no evil on Bourke street yesterday; one sick young man did a terrible thing, and hundreds responded with the love and sense of community that makes Melbourne such a beautiful city. There was only kindness in the voices of the police who came to relieve us. I felt only love when an older man hugged me, having just told a father he had lost a daughter.”

Stand up for facts. Be aware, as Leela Corman puts it, that “facts don’t matter to fascists or to their supporters, but they matter to the rest of us, so keep being honest and speaking truth to each other. It matters. Truth is a rope and a raft.” Check your sources, counter misinformation. Maria Popova gets right to the point, “our leaders have devolved from half-truths to “alternative facts” — that is, to whole untruths that fail the ultimate criterion for truth: correspondence with reality.”

Take a page form the Stoics. “If you’re going through hell, keep going. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Their teachings are dark and sobering yet at the same time, profoundly consoling and at points even rather funny.

Be a realistic radical. Make activism empowering. You don’t have to compound your struggle by exhausting yourself to make a difference. Focus on what you can do, one or two issues at a time. Connect with community. Organise and resist. Be aware of the emotional labour involved with your intense engagement. Take care of yourself and those alongside you. We’re not robots.

Temper despair. Know that people in every age have found reasons to believe that they were living in “end times” lamenting corruption, decline, despair. Change and disruption is scary.

Get perspective. Over the past two centuries there have been huge global improvements in poverty, literacy, health, freedom, population and education. Knowing this can help you stay strong in the face of despair — it’s worth resisting and fighting the good fight even if it’s a bumpy ride.

Remember, the media machine doesn’t benefit from telling us how the world is improving, but rather what is going wrong. Even the smallest shifts in ratings or traffic can cause media outlets to substantially alter their news focus and reporting. Psychologically, we humans are wired for negativity — called the negativity bias. It’s helped us survive, but also makes us negative media junkies.

The essential role of science in democracy. Applying a scientific way of thinking to everyday life refines our intellectual and moral integrity. Karl Popper said “we have made great mistakes — all living creatures make mistakes. It is indeed impossible to foresee all the unintended consequences of our actions. Here science is our greatest hope: its method is the correction of error”. Carl Sagan follows on with, “science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge… It can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.”

Action takes many forms. You can be an activist on the front lines. You can be a leader. You can be an allay. You can plant trees. You can donate money. Use your position and privilege to speak out and assist. Be an advocate. Connect with community. Share stories. Call out discrimination. Have compassion. Raise awareness. Change your consumption and habits. Distribute flyers. Make your own media. Get creative. Every effort is valuable.

‘Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.’ — George Saunders