4 Steps to build agency and purpose in tough times
The bad news keeps coming, seemingly at an ever-increasing rate: The war in Ukraine; frequent mass shootings; global heating with its concomitant fires and droughts; high rates of overdose deaths and suicide; the overturning of Roe v. Wade and all it portends for women’s autonomy and rights; inflation; the persistence of COVID variants; and growing extinction rates (even the Monarch Butterfly has been listed as an endangered species), to name a few.
Then there is the bad news that we don’t hear as much about these days, but which we know is happening, such as the tens of millions going hungry in Afghanistan as a result of our end to the war and the Taliban’s quick takeover; the refugee crises across the planet; the enslavement of people all over the globe; and the billions of land and sea animals brutalized each day to meet humanity’s insatiable desire for meat.
Even if we personally have food, shelter, reasonable security, and love in our lives, the bad news can feel so relentless that our empathy is stretched thin, and anxiety (or worse, despair) can threaten to overwhelm us and leave us with neither resilience nor a sense of agency.
What’s the path away from anxiety and despair and toward agency and purpose?
1. Identify what is getting better.
Not everything is getting worse, even if it appears to be. Extreme poverty has declined from more than 50% of the population of Earth in the mid-20th century to less than 10% now — still unacceptable, but a reminder that there’s no reason we cannot eliminate poverty. And, fires notwithstanding, the air in U.S. cities is cleaner than it was when I was a child, and air pollution is now improving in Chinese cities as well. Even in the face of huge setbacks, we need to recognize progress. Yes, hard-won rights for LGBTQ+ people and women are under attack, and white supremacists have gained traction, but compared to the 20th century, the progress made to build a less homophobic, less racist, less patriarchal, and less anti-Semitic society is still noteworthy.
Just because bad news is inundating us and huge problems still exist doesn’t negate the positive changes that have occurred. Identifying what’s getting better and maintaining one’s perspective can be essential to staving off anxiety and despair.
2. Identify what is getting worse so you can address it.
There are three overarching problems that I perceive as getting worse. They are:
1. Climate change: We are still increasing carbon in the atmosphere, and we are not on track to reverse global heating. Our dysfunctional governments have stymied efforts to address and solve what has now become a crisis. With that said, renewable energy systems have grown significantly, and their prices have come down precipitously, paving the way for the potential of decarbonization. There are so many ideas to draw down carbon and shift toward sustainability. These solutions are within our reach if only we can transform the political and economic systems that prevent their speedier implementation.
2. Polarization and disinformation/misinformation: While I’m not convinced that we live in the most polarized times with the greatest amount of misinformation and disinformation, polarization and disinformation/misinformation are worsening, creating increasing challenges for solutionary thinking and action. If we cannot agree on what is factual, it becomes very difficult to collaborate to find solutions to problems. As with climate change, we have answers to this problem, too: reliable fact-checking systems and organizations; effective ways to teach students in schools how to research carefully and think critically; ideas to break the power of polarization in politics through ranked choice voting, etc., but implementing these ideas requires ingenuity, creativity, and the will to collaborate with those with whom we often disagree.
3. Anxiety and despair: Along with the pandemic, inflation, gun violence and war — and the fears that accompany these — in the U.S. and other countries, we are also seeing rollbacks of hard-fought rights and initiatives. What seems like willful blindness and a return to the proverbial Dark Ages are often examples of “two steps forward, one step back” on the path to justice and sustainability. But that’s not how these initiatives (or lack thereof) feel. They feel cataclysmic to many of us, and so our anxiety and despair grow, diminishing our capacity not only to lead personally healthy and happy lives, but also to contribute meaningfully to positive change because we may feel too hopeless to act, burnt out, and, ironically, increasingly apathetic because we have given up. This is a destructive feedback loop that we must break.article continues after advertisement
Recognizing these escalating problems and addressing them is essential, which brings me to my third suggestion.
3. Take action on something that concerns you.
If you feel anxious or despairing, act anyway. You do not need hope to act. Hope is more often the result of action; it does not have to be its prerequisite. As Joan Baez said, “Action is the antidote to despair,” and as climate activist Greta Thunberg said, “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.” Moreover, your actions to address the problems that concern you allow you to live with greater integrity, which is not just good for your family, community, country, and world, but also for you.
It’s important to take the right actions with the right people, however, which brings me to my final suggestion.
4. Think and act like a solutionary.
Solutionaries identify unsustainable, inhumane, and unjust systems and collaboratively devise solutions that do the most good and least harm for everyone: people, animals, and the environment. Solutionaries bring a solutionary lens to problems, meaning they perceive them as solvable and seek out a variety of perspectives from a range of stakeholders (not just those from their “in-group”) in order to develop answers that will have the fewest unintended negative consequences overall. They draft feasible plans, implement their ideas, and assess them so that they can iterate better solutions over time.
If integrity is your ticket to living without guilt, shame, and regret, becoming a solutionary is your ticket to living with meaning, purpose, and agency.
I don’t want to suggest that these four steps are easy or foolproof, but I believe they are the right steps. Wherever you are in the world, your best ideas are needed, and to the degree that you heed Professor Orr’s words — “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” — your life will likely improve along with the lives of those your efforts help.
One final quote from Susan Griffin offers a perspective shift away from existential dread:
“I’ve seen enough change in my lifetime to know that despair is not only self-defeating, it is unrealistic.”
Learn more about how to think and act like a Solutionary with the How to Be a Solutionary Guidebook below.