How to deal with feeling helpless
Friday night, November 13th, 2015. I’m upstairs. A group of people is downstairs playing cards.
I scroll quickly through Facebook. My heart drops when I read the headlines.
153 dead in Paris, killed by terrorists wielding AK-47s and strapped with bombs.
I walk downstairs with a heavy heart. “Have you seen what’s happening in Paris?” I ask everyone.
Some have, some haven’t. A few follow-up questions are asked, they return to their game.
I’m standing there in shock. I marvel at how quickly and easily we turn away from headline tragedy when it doesn’t seem to affect us.
But I realize it’s not indifference; it’s helplessness. What can any of us possibly do about it?
When we feel helpless we either lash out in desperate anger, or we simply go numb. I watch the world over the next days as both reactions manifest.
The first reaction is shown as the desire to strike back at the terrorists, to wipe ISIS and radical terrorists off the face of the earth. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Make them pay.
I feel it too; it seems like the easy and logical thing to do.
And then I remember this quote from the Russian sage Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“If only there were evil people out there insidiously committing evil deeds and it was only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”
Still, we want to do something.
But I also remember this caution from the Christian mystic Thomas Merton:
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.”
And then it occurs to me what I can do — what we all must do. We must sit still and meditate on the question, “How am I contributing to violence and suffering in the world?”
As the Buddhist phrase goes, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
All too often we’re so eager to go out and change the world when the world is nothing but a reflection of our collective hearts.
My whole life has been marked by a fervent desire to make a difference, combined with a deep unconsciousness about the most important place to start: my own heart.
It’s a dangerous combination; in that state, every change we make in the world will be tainted by our own unconsciousness. We build our own flaws into every system we construct. Furthermore, every initiative we launch is subconsciously designed to run away from the painful reality about ourselves.
It’s a hamster wheel of insanity disguised under good intentions.
As we get honest with ourselves, the desire to help emerges with more purity and simplicity.
This is when we listen to Mother Teresa:
“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time — just one, one, one. So you begin. I began — I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand. The whole word is only a drop in the ocean. But if I didn’t put the drop in, the ocean would be one drop less. The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin — one, one, one.”
We can’t change the world; that lofty goal is both misguided and impossible.
But we can make a difference for one, then one more, then one again.
The world is a scary, dangerous, violent place. And so is each of our hearts.
The world will never change until individual hearts change. One heart at a time.