The activist’s guide to finding hope in a downright sh*tty world
Dear Comrade in Suffering,
You don’t need me to tell you that the world is shitty. If you clicked on this article, you already know that it is. Your reasons why may be different from mine, but we share common ground in that the planet we’re standing on feels like a pile of flaming garbage all the time. (And I’m not even talking about climate change or what’s going on in California, but if you’re currently there, bonus misery points to you!)
As much as we’d all like to be a little more positive and maintain a rosier view on life, there’s no denying that right now totally sucks. We can’t attend happy hour with friends after a day at the office or take Tinder dates to the movies, and that’s not even the worst part of what we’re currently dealing with. Instead, our emotional reserves are dedicated to the fact that our country is divided and increasingly hostile; the election we’re desperately awaiting may very well be rigged; things as simple as our mail and our right to peacefully exist are in danger; and virtually anyone who isn’t an upper-class, straight, white, cisgender male is at risk of becoming tomorrow’s top news story. We can probably all agree that regardless of gender, sexuality, race, socio-economic class, location, and other demographic factors, this year has been difficult — and that it’s certainly been extra difficult for some of us because of those things. It’s no wonder therapists are currently in high demand and experiencing extreme stress themselves.
This even sucks for those of us who simply had dreams and goals before “2020” (as we all have apparently agreed to call this mess) started. Whether you planned on starting a business, going back to school, getting married, traveling, or something else far too specific to name here, chances are you’ve had to alter either your plans or your expectations over the last several months. Right now, it seems the only untouchable aspirations are to become a TikTok star or Zoom evangelist, and I think—*checks notes*—approximately three of us had that in mind.
This is my long-winded way of saying it’s difficult to find hope right now.
Some say a lack of hope is the product of “activist fatigue,” excessive empathy, or a diagnosable mental illness like depression. But especially now, I disagree with this. I don’t think you have to be a depressed, petition-waving empath to feel like the world is a crappy place. You just have to be human.
But if you do call yourself an activist (as I do), you’ve probably trudged through the better part of this year feeling like you’re unable to do “enough.” No amount of calling or writing your representatives, re-posting useful information online, and reminding your friends to register to vote is enough to create immediate, widespread relief, and that’s hard when what we’ve faced all year is constant, widespread pain.
True, we’ve never had more (and quicker) access to information than we have today. True, the news and social media force our awareness of unfortunate events more than, say, our parents or grandparents had to deal with back in the day. But that doesn’t change the fact that the bad stuff is happening — and always has been. It only changes that we know about it.
So how do I — we — maintain faith that suffering through all of this crap is “worth it”? How do we maintain hope that better days and better things lie ahead?
I don’t claim that my solutions-in-progress are foolproof, but they’ve helped me survive (on the worst days) and enjoy what I can during a time many of us have found to be exceptionally difficult.
Fill your life with change-makers. It’s no surprise that as an activist, one of my major sources of hope is other activists. Ever since I followed Amanda Nguyễn on Instagram, I’m reminded every time I think of the prevalence of sexual violence in America that someone out there is fighting for survivors’ rights. Reading Deray McKesson’s memoir gave me all the more reason to believe that there’s an immense amount of grace, wisdom, and strength in this new generation of activists. For every cruelty this world faces, there’s at least one person striving for justice in that same vertical. Personally, it’s important that I remind myself of this in a concrete way.
Stay in your lane. While you can and should take steps to improve the world in a range of areas (regardless of whether you consider yourself an activist), focusing on what you’re good at — and what you really know — will allow you to create profound change in those areas. This is why I focus on mental health and social justice: it’s what I’ve spent a good chunk of my life learning about and facing in my day-to-day life. There are folks I know who are incredible with environmental advocacy, animal welfare, net neutrality, and more, and while I’ll switch to reusable plastic bags and donate to my local humane society, I leave the center stage in those arenas to them. They know what they’re doing better than I do, and they’ll be more effective than me. (Can you name any activists who work on literally everything? Probably not, because if they did, they’d be spread too thin to get anything done.)
Revel in what joy you can find. Not to sound like I’m quoting a novelty mug or anything, but my morning coffee is truly something that motivates me to get out of bed when I’m feeling more than a little “meh.” (Bonus points if I treat myself to a latte from one of my favorite cafes.) I find joy in watching my cats play, receiving snail mail from friends and pen pals, and getting any ounce of support for my small business. I read recently that our brains are wired to favor negative stimuli over positive stimuli, and that balancing this out requires placing intentional emphasis on the things we enjoy. So next time you feel guilty about gushing over the smallest success or blissing out over a perfect bite of food, tell science to suck it and hang onto that piece of joy for however long you can.
There’s no question that the world freaking sucks right now; denying it would be both unrealistic and invalidating for many. But we build hope piece by piece. This is how we start.