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If You’re Feeling Despair

Handling negative emotions

If your faith in our country and our people is shaken, if you see this terrible reversal as a catastrophe about which you can do nothing, please remember: now you are needed in a way you would never have been needed if nothing had gone wrong. We need your good efforts, your willingness to work to uphold what is right and what is compassionate. We need your good sense, to point the way when many compasses will be spinning and useless. We need your patience, to wait until this has passed so that we can pick up the pieces and move on, but we also need your stubbornness, your unwillingness to be plowed under by ignorance and hate, your best ideas and strongest convictions, your anxieties made into understanding, your hopelessness made into acceptance.

Thank you for being willing to hold fast onto the things you can protect and to make those small gains that may be possible. I know you may want to crawl under a rock for four years and come back out when this is over. I would love to join you there. But we can’t, because now we have work to do, and it is time to get started.

Luc

PS – If you’re having a really bad day and could use some ideas on how to turn it around, here are some suggestions gleaned from psychological research: How to Stop Having a Bad Day.

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Climate Change Posts: Eating Oil, Carbon Pie Chart, and Hope

Resources

Elsewhere on the Internet, I’ve been slowly learning something about climate change and working on ways to make a positive impact on that catastrophic, immediate problem. My blog at FaceClimateChange.com is about finding inspiration and motivation to make a positive impact on a daunting and horrific problem. Here are some recent posts for anyone who can spend a few minutes taking a closer look at what’s going wrong and what we can do about it.

I’ve also started a Twitter list of useful sources of climate change news and information at https://twitter.com/lucreid/lucreid-climate-change .

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Hope Addiction: Why and How Not to Camp Our Spawn Points

States of mind

I wrote a dictionary of subculture slang that was published back in 2006, and in the “online gamers” section, it includes definitions for two terms that together have a lot to do with a common way we lose productivity and focus.

spawn point: A game location where characters or monsters regularly emerge.

camp: (as a verb) To take a position where many enemies emerge and ambush them there.

Some players, in some games, like to take up the practice of “camping a spawn point.” You position yourself right near a place where new players are emerging into the game, or where computer-controlled antagonists (generally known as “monsters”) are being created, and you just nail those suckers one after the other as they come out. It’s annoying to the players (and probably annoying to the monsters too, although since they don’t talk much about their feelings, we’ll never know for sure), but players who are camping spawn points are really not playing the game: they’re reactively taking easy pot shots at whoever shows up. In gaming, this may not be a problem as long as everyone’s having fun. In life, it can become a serious impediment to happiness.

Camping the inbox
I don’t play online games, but I do use e-mail–a lot. While I’ve gotten much better at using e-mail responsibly over the last few years, I’ve certainly had periods in my history when I was visiting it every few minutes, with a miniature rise and crash of hope every time I checked and something good hadn’t shown up–which was most of the times I checked, of course, because you don’t generally get good news a hundred times a day.

We can do the same thing with any number of sources: snail mail boxes, voice mail, text messages on cell phones, bank accounts, Twitter, Facebook, online sales reports, Web site statistics, the news, forums–all places where we hope some good news may suddenly appear. A deposit came through, or sales have taken an upturn, or the person we most want to hear from has gotten in touch, or something has sold, or our investments have gone up, or a package has arrived … in one way or another, a bit of hope has been gratified.

Hope is generally thought to be a good thing, the one consolation prize left at the bottom of Pandora’s box, but it has its dark side too. Buddhist tradition knows about this, stating that the suffering in the world arises from attachment, where attachment means (this is my rough explanation) making your happiness depend on anything external to you. This would include the package you’re hoping will ship today, the reply from the person you want to date, or the acceptance letter for the story you sent out last month. It’s easy to fall into a habit of always looking for some new good thing to happen, and the results can be distraction, frustration, and repeated disappointment.

How not to camp
When we camp e-mail inboxes or other places where good things might emerge, we’re either focusing our attention on something we want (for instance, a response to an e-mail, application, or submission) or being driven by habit. In both cases, one of the easiest and most effective ways to stop obsessing about what might come to us is to get engaged with something that’s actually going on, to really dig into a project, connect with another person, or just get active.

So in practical terms, three especially good ways to stop camping are

  1. Taking the next immediate step on a project you care about, so that you become involved (and ideally achieve flow–see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated“).
  2. Doing something with other people: human interaction can be absorbing and rewarding when it goes well.
  3. Exercise. Taking a walk or doing more strenuous activities will offer all kinds of benefits even if you don’t count the fitness payoff (see “Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation“).

To put it another way, the best way to stop camping is to energetically do something else constructive. Camping tends to happen when our attention is not engaged well–when boredom threatens or has overtaken us.

The difference in our experience can be dramatic. A day of camping can be exhausting even though not much might have gotten done. We feel distracted and often dissatisfied, and we have no reason to believe the next day won’t be more of the same. By contrast, a day spent focused on engaging work or with other people–or at the very least spent actively–will feel more satisfying and build optimism, confidence, and focus.

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Fighting Anxiety with Hopelessness

Handling negative emotions

Pema Chödrön

Buddhism is a rich source of insights about emotions and emotional states. While I don’t know that we can fairly call the centuries-old Buddhist tradition of investigation into the human mind a strictly scientific approach, it really is a rigorous tradition that builds its conclusions on direct experience. So I offer today’s post, based in Buddhist teachings, as food for thought.

American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart, offers an unusual route to living a happy life: embracing hopelessness. My initial reaction to this idea was extreme doubt, but hearing her point of view, I began to see the value of the idea.

To get a sense of what she means, let me give the example of my fear that everything will go to hell in a handbasket. Being interested in how things fit together–societies, supply networks, and so on–I often think about how easily something I’m used to having could be cut off. For instance, this past winter during a storm, we lost power at my house. This should not have been a big problem, especially since we have gas heat. Except that I found out that the gas heat system is dependent on electricity to run, so we had no heat or power. And the water is dependent on an electric pump, so we had no heat, power, or water. And our phone is through a VOIP service, so since we had no Internet due to having no power, we also had no phone. And of course with the refrigerator not working, I was concerned about most of our food going bad.

The power came back on after not too many hours, and my son and I had other places we could go if the outage went too long–and since it was winter, at worst I could put our perishable food outside. Still, it’s a little sobering to realize that one break in a cable can mean losing Internet, power, phone, heat, water, light, food, and more. And for years I’ve been a little bit concerned. What would happen if there were a really bad economic situation, or a plague, or a war, or something else that interrupted some of the ways that food, power, water, and other necessities get to us? How would I keep myself and the people who are important to me safe, sheltered, and fed?

Hopelessness doesn’t solve this concern, but interestingly, practicing it made things better. You can’t make anything completely safe, hopelessness says. Stop hoping that you can prevent every bad thing from happening if you just scramble hard enough. Bad things will eventually happen. Eventually, too, we’ll all die.

If you’re not feeling happier yet, I don’t blame you–but when we think about it, giving up the idea that everything will ever be perfect or absolutely safe allows us to let go of a lot of unneeded anxiety. “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself,” says  Chödrön, “to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on … if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

Stress and anxiety are a result of struggling with fears and things we want to avoid. If we don’t struggle, if we accept that bad things will sometimes happen, then the stress and anxiety lessen or disappear, because all we have to deal with is the moment right in front of us, and the moment in front of us usually isn’t so bad. Think of your situation right now, for instance. You probably have things you need to do, things you’re worried about, things you can think of that might cause trouble. But if you focus on how things are with you, right in at this moment, you may find it surprisingly easy to feel that everything’s fine. You are probably not in any great amount of pain. You’re alive. You have the ability to think about things that make you happy. Things could be worse.

There’s a limit to all this, though, at least if you ask me. I see value–real, lasting value–in moving toward our goals, in making progress, in striving for things. Hopelessness is absolutely not about striving: it’s about letting go. There is even value in negative emotions: see my article The Benefits of Feeling Bad. But striving for things is living in the future, and by my reckoning, there are times to live in the future, times to live in the past, and times to live in the present. When we need to come back to center, to marshall ourselves, to let go of things long enough to get our bearings again, then hopelessness and living just in the present moment can be just what we need.

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