another source of stress for nonprofit leaders and activists

The Emotional/Psychological Stress of Struggling with Big Problems and Little Problems at the Same Time

I was reading this article, “The Covid-19 Overwhelm,” and one phrase jumped out at me: “the absurdity of the double life.” This is from Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist, author, and sort of an historian. He’s best known for studying and writing about the psychological causes and effects of wars. The “absurdity of the double life” is about how people have to juggle two demanding things in their minds at the same time:

1.      The big problems of the world, like the climate crisis, or the pandemic, or racism, or inequality, or hunger, or malaria, or malicious ignorance, or cyberwarfare (… OK, that’s enough for now. I’ll stop.)

2.      The mundane, day-to-day stuff of life, like waking up, eating food, deciding what to wear, doing ordinary work tasks, relating to family and friends, weeding the garden, or taking little vacations.

There’s an absurdity somewhere in there. On the one hand, what are you doing spending valuable time, on your knees, pulling those ridiculously unimportant weeds, when the world is aflame?! On the other hand, sure, the world is aflame, but hey these weeds do also need to be pulled; they’re not just going to lay down and die by themselves.

Those of us working in the nonprofit world feel this. We care about the problems of humanity and the planet. Maybe our own scope of work is small, but none of it is detached from the enormous, frightening realities. We care. We stay informed (more or less). And yet, at the same time, we have to carry on with the mundane, unimportant, ordinary, inconsequential matters of everyday life.

Where to find integrity in this dilemma? I think the answer moves in two directions.

1.      We can’t just “proceed with business as usual,” or let others “proceed with business as usual.” Learn, then act. Learn, then change. Learn, then find ways, one step at a time, and with community support, to re-shape daily life toward astute response to global realities.

2.      We have to stay in touch with our own emotional/psychological state. Caring activism requires self-care. Stay alert to what keeps you sane and healthy, and to what pushes you toward the brink.  

love, joy, peace … Michael Michael is a freelance consultant to nonprofits, with an emphasis on research. Contact him for a free, one-hour consultation.

Vol. 1 No. 18

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