From Despair to Action

By Rob Wipond, December 2012

Effective activism takes dedicated volunteers who, even in the face of open hostility from authority and fellow citizens, can be relentlessly optimistic—often for years at a time—about the potential to make change happen. How do die-hard activists keep despair at bay?

I’ve been receiving more emails lately from people saying one of my articles made them feel despairing. One asked, “How do you keep going?”

Let’s see: In recent months, I’ve written about government corruption, genocide, toxic waste, police chiefs breaking laws, forced electroshock of our elderly… All right, I get the point.

As I was formulating my response, I realized that this is an important question for all of us. How are we grappling with our society’s converging environmental, social and financial crises? So I decided to probe a few local people whom I’d seen doing a lot of volunteer community activism that I valued. Don’t they ever despair? What pulls them out of it?

Lyne England described one of the worst moments she experiences: “Getting a call from a resident, housed in residential care, crying and saying, ‘Help me! Help me get out of here!’”

Since retiring from nursing, England’s hectic pace volunteering with numerous organizations advocating for seniors has only increased. Discussing her emotional lows and how she climbs out of them, she shook me with the announcement that her cancer had returned. 

She’s living with the uncertainty that brings, yet England’s eyes still radiated every bit of their customary childlike playfulness and affection. “Everything looks greener, colours are more vivid,” she said. “Each day is very precious for me. Do I have a few weeks, do I have a few months, do I have a couple years? That’s what shapes me now.”

This same attitude has infused her activism. Since her first brush with cancer a decade ago, she said she’s become less prone to frustration and anger and begun to appreciate even the smallest successes.

“What I found was that I wasn’t being very kind to myself, because I wasn’t re-evaluating and appreciating the movements, the positive movements, those little things that happen. And I do that now all the time. I get a phone call back, I’m happy. ‘Hey, they read my letter, they’re calling me back.’ And they’re going to do something with that, whether officially, unofficially. Nothing was lost, something happened. I know there are changes, however miniscule.”

But what really recharges her spirits, England said, are the ongoing opportunities to connect intimately and supportively with those people calling for help. “People I have never met before would come, and after meeting me, be willing and feel comfortable enough to share and bare their souls about their issues. What a privilege,” she said. “You can’t break that trust, you have to do something with that. Having the opportunity to touch a person’s life in some way; what a powerful thing that is.”

I’d never seen so clearly the line connecting the appreciation of small political successes, the value of helping even just one person, and the preciousness of life in the face of dying. But I also wondered if people directly grappling with our planet-sized problems would feel similarly.

A founding and very active member of Transition Victoria, massage therapist Anke van Leeuwen has also been intensively involved from the beginning with the People’s Assembly of Victoria/Occupy Victoria. Her generally warm-hearted and enthusiastic disposition gives the impression she’d never fall into despair. 

“I go into despair fairly regularly,” she nevertheless admitted, saying she feels we’re collectively being driven “towards the cattle chute” by climate change, global resource depletion, corporate power in politics, and a dysfunctional electoral system. “I think it’s important for us to let ourselves feel despair, and to face the possibility that we as a culture could be coming to the end of our feasibility.” 

Van Leeuwen feels grassroots counteractions are the best response, and there are some key things that help her rise up.

“It’s my love for humanity and my love for all of life,” she said. She added that she stays on an even keel by reminding herself that she can only do as much as one person can, and by “not being attached to the outcome.”

“I try not to be invested in the belief that life is actually going to end up the way I am putting my work toward. I just do what I can to live in accordance with what I believe is important to me. This is the work I need to do for my sanity, this is the work I need to do so I don’t go under in that spiral of despair.”

She said daily “self care” also keeps her going. “Looking after my physical self: nutrition, sauna, exercise, fresh air… I’ll regain the energy, passion and strength to continue.”

Another key re-energizer is community connection.

“I am blessed with having a number of groups where I feel like I can just really be who I am, whether that’s totally in despair, hopeless, helpless, or whether that is empowered,” said van Leeuwen. “That is actually where I get my greatest high, when I can meet with people who have similar values, similar vision.” And the emergences of these kinds of “intentional communities,” she feels, are fortifying examples of her vision coming alive around her already.

Community relationships and shared vision similarly revitalize Larry Wartel. If you’ve gone to any political events in Victoria, you’ve likely seen either Wartel or information he’s left behind promoting social justice or environmental events. If there’s a local volunteer who does more leafletting and attends more meetings than Wartel, I don’t know who it is.

Wartel has long struggled with depression in his personal life, but going to a speech, movie or meeting helps. “As depressed as I might be, I want to get out and be with other people,” he said. He regards a small number of long-time fellow activists as “role models” who uplift him. “They’re great people. They’re loving, they’re supporting, they’re unconditional, they don’t shame or judge. Everybody needs that.”

Though his depression can sometimes cloud virtually every aspect of his daily life, Wartel said, “the one thing it doesn’t cloud is the knowledge that the world will change, and can definitely change for the better.” To him, this perspective is vital. “Change will happen in the world, great change. It has happened. It doesn’t mean the change has to necessarily happen in our lifetime, or in a short period of time, but just the fact that we’re all on a path together in connection with other people for a grand vision is the thing that keeps me moving along.”

It was becoming clear to me that all these activists weren’t being driven by what they felt they should be doing as much as by what they enjoyed doing. And the challenges and difficulties were actually feeding those joys, like impending death feeds our appreciation of a flower.

Indeed, Jessica Van der Veen has deliberately tried to develop skills that help her experience such positive feelings that fuel activism. 

Over several years, I’ve become tired just watching Van der Veen work tirelessly to help keep local school lands and care home properties in public hands. Yet in her 20s, Van der Veen said, she spent times in emotional funks worrying about the world while doing little about it. And it still happens relatively often—for example, when she first heard about married seniors who can’t get into the same care home, she said, “my heart dropped into my shoes.”

“It’s such an empathic thing,” she explained. “I know how I feel about my husband.” 

But she’s learned how to move rapidly out of emotional overwhelm. “With experience over the years, my process to get to action has become more efficient and shorter.” 

She does it by first “teasing apart” what she can reasonably achieve and not achieve, and where she can be most effective. Then, she doesn’t allow “the perfect to become the enemy of the good.”

“If I can figure out something to do that I think is constructive, I go do it. Even if it’s not perfect.” She checks with herself that she isn’t short-changing her vision along the way, she said, “But I think if you’re too afraid of making mistakes, then you’ll get paralyzed.”

Aside from regular physical exercise, she said she also “gets fed” by frequent immersion in the arts, where seeing others’ perspectives on the world “literally puts me in a different emotional and mental state.”

Ultimately, though, Van der Veen doesn’t believe her activism choices emerge in the first instance through intellectual processes or measured deliberation. “I thought about those little kids in the future being disconnected from their neighbourhood and not having any greenspace to run around on, and I was literally hauled by my heart,” said Van der Veen. “I don’t feel like it began with a conscious intellectual decision. I was pulled by my heart, literally.”

And here, I saw another theme emerging: Acting effortlessly, almost instinctively, as a direct result of seeing, understanding and feeling compassion for the plight of others. This was at the heart of many people’s activism. Like seeing someone hungry, and giving food.

Dorothy Field drew even stronger attention to this. The dynamic, passionate Field is known locally almost as much for her frequent “letters to the editor” as for her visual art, poetry and social activism. When I asked if she ever plunges into despair, she said frankly, “It happens all the time.” Even a news report about a relatively insignificant setback can remind her how “impermeable” to change our society sometimes seems. “I get so fed up, so overwhelmed, so disgusted. I just explode, or I weep. It’s cumulative. It confirms the worst I think about what’s happening and I don’t want that confirmed.”

She “recalibrates,” she said, by “letting off steam and hopefully getting others steamed up” through her letters to the editor. In that sense, her darkest feelings are motivating. She sees this particularly often in her work leading writing groups, with homeless women or people with HIV.

“I don’t care about a dark place. I really don’t. What I hate is feeling dead, unengaged,” said Field. “When I do the work with people who are marginalized, I think it’s a privilege. To get to know people I wouldn’t otherwise know…The reality of other people’s lives, that’s important to me.” 

This past summer, Field went on a caravan north with other opponents of the Enbridge pipeline to take workshops from Wet’suwet’en leaders, and had a particularly transformative experience of this kind—of coming to greater understanding of other’s lives and feeling re-ignited in her activism.

“It shook all of us up,” she said. The leaders explained in stark detail how colonization was still affecting the lives of indigenous people every day, and how she herself was implicated in it. Yet she appreciated learning these truths, however painful they were. “It was galvanizing. It was clarity. They gave me such clarity.” 

By the time I was writing my own answer to the question I’d begun with, I realized that all of these people had voiced different aspects of my perspectives. What keeps me going? Abiding love for all things. Profound respect for helping or being helped by even one person. Understanding that creates compassion that creates action. Caring for my body. Deep friendships. Political team-mates. 

In a real sense, it seems to me, we are in our daily lives deep in the trenches of social and psychological struggle, trying to turn back environmental disaster and horrifying injustice. There is no escape from what is; this is trench warfare. So creating love, feeling good and energized, appreciating community, coming to understanding and compassion even as we fight against the vast adversities ahead—those are crucial battles already won.

Rob Wipond is fuelled by people at www.robwipond.com. He is the recipient of the 2012 Jack Webster Award for Community Reporting for two stories in Focus about the Automatic License Plate Recognition system in BC: “Hidden Surveillance,” in the February 2011edition, and “Privacy Commissioner Slams Surveillance Program” in the March 2011 edition.