Despair as a teddy bear

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

Bad things seem to pile up: the slow grind of dishonest politics, the sharp horror of war, the unfathomable end of life on earth barely registering on our front pages. You want to make the world a little bit better, but amid all of this, is there any point?

Much has been written already about the risk of burnout among activists, charity workers and healthcare workers. Many have repeated the advice to put on your own oxygen mask first, to practise ‘self-care’ (a term that I find off-putting for some reason, even if I agree with the concept).

But aside from looking after yourself (time off, getting into nature – whatever works), I wonder if it’s most important to find a kind of acceptance, to see despair as the inevitable other side of the coin. 

Sustainable activism

As psychotherapists Paul Hoggett and Rosemary Randall write in Open Democracy, “any movement that seeks to make things better in the world has to manage despair”.

This may be just as significant – or at least as constant – as the more tangible barriers facing any activist, they suggest: “in addition to its external opponents, a movement always has an internal, emotional enemy – a gnawing, repetitive, low-level fear and hopelessness that accompany the struggle for deep-rooted social change.” On a personal level, the damage can go deep. As one interviewee says, there is a real danger of “tying your whole sense of worth and purpose” to huge, never-ending challenges.

But there are healthier ways of managing this ever-constant despair. Many of Hoggett and Randall’s interviewees were able to “relegate” this sense to the background while continuing to work on something practical – accepting it in the same way someone with a life-limiting health condition might work around that, without it dominating their life. Sustainable activism, the authors note, holds pessimism and optimism in tension (easier said than done, no doubt).

There’s something else that can keep despair at bay – the here and now, not the impossible future.

“The sense of building a movement that might prefigure the kind of society they hope will emerge in the future was hugely sustaining to almost all of our respondents – the conviction that they could create a world in miniature that was more caring, more responsive and more inclusive; in other words, a community.” 

Coming alive, through action

Community, yes, but also: taking action. “Hope is the byproduct of action, not a prerequisite for it… Action leads to results, which fosters hope, creating a virtuous cycle,” as one environmental studies academic, quoted in Grist, says. I heard a similar message when I spoke to Nicky Dunlop recently: she co-founded Actionable, which aims to “empower a new wave of lifelong action takers”, on the principle that action, however small, is the cure to despair. In practice this means helping people to “find what makes them ‘come alive’”, because, Actionable believes, if you deeply connect to a cause, your activism will be more sustainable. (Effective altruists would probably disagree with this: they argue we should be driven much more by data than by our emotions if we really want to make a difference. ) 

Nicky emphasised two more helpful things in our conversation: joining a community, which also made her feel much more positive about her own ability to change things; and having a sort of “dual focus” – remaining aware of global-level crises, but not letting that overtake one’s focus on the local level, where we can often have a real, direct impact.

The final word to the writer/historian/activist Rebecca Solnit, whose book Hope in the Dark I picked up on a day of world-weariness recently. 

Some people become so “deeply attached to their despair” that it becomes a habit, a reflex – a sort of “teddy bear” that they refuse to let go of, she writes. This achieves little other than getting you off the hook – you can be “bitter and idle on your sofa” instead of doing something. Meanwhile others, those who cannot afford such luxury, resist.

“It was striking that the people with the most at stake were often the most hopeful,” Solnit wrote, in the 2016 edition of her book – long before besieged Ukrainians insisted that they would defeat Russia, long before Ukrainian president Zelensky gave a simple, powerful response to a BBC interviewer who asked how he maintained hope (watch the very end of that clip).

Hope is “not a prize or a gift”, Solnit continues, “but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair, and through digging tunnels, cutting windows, opening doors, or finding the people who do these things. They exist.”