“Now is the winter of our discontent.” Although I quote Shakespeare, I really only know this line from my ninth grade obsession with the movie The Goodbye Girl. I should try to read Richard III but I am too busy doom-scrolling. Now is the summer of our discontent, and our discontent is pervasive. Gun violence is so common that small shootings are no longer newsworthy. It takes a mass shooting to possibly garner media attention, but there have been over 300 mass shootings in 2022 already. Yes, 300.
Many people I know are overwhelmed with negativity. Pick your fear: gun violence, inflation, loss of abortion rights, racism, immigration, the end of democracy, the end of this very planet. It is particularly easy to be swept up in negativity and pessimism, with 24- hour news cycle.
The news almost always focuses on disasters and crises. News organizations are well-aware that fear keeps viewers engaged. “Today, in breaking news, a 12-year old girl was kidnapped walking home from school” will glue viewers to their seats. If the anchor chirps, “Happily today, all the children arrived home safely” most viewers will shut off the TV and go eat ice cream. So bad news plays, non-stop. Bad news guarantees viewers.
“Be afraid, be very afraid,” my husband and I mutter to each other, reassuring ourselves again and again that the world is not as dreadful as we are being told.
Lest you think otherwise, I fully acknowledge there is plenty to fear; there are perilous issues in our world. However, living your life in fear hurts your mental health. Living your life in fear creates anxiety, depression, and panic. Living your life in fear creates suspicion of your neighbors and the strangers on line at the grocery store. Fear also affects our physical health, leaving us more prone to illness, cardiac disease, and cancer.
So, if you would like to reduce fear and embrace calm, here are 6 strategies to help:
Limit the TV/radio news: It is important to be informed, but you don’t need to be informed all day long. Centuries ago, news would arrive at a small village only when travelers came, maybe just once or twice a month. Imagine the relief of listening to the news just twice a month! I recommend listening to the news at the top of the hour once or twice a day, and then turning off the TV or radio. The allure of checking the news is powerful and a bit addictive. Try to keep it to a minimum. Another tip: many people find reading the news to be less jarring.
Listen to music instead: Music fills the air around you with beauty, instead of gloomy tragedies. Listening to songs you love will lift your spirits. Do you like 70s music? Turn it on loud and dance to Earth, Wind and Fire. Do you like Madonna? Come on, vogue, baby. You can regularly find me singing the harmonies to Beatles songs or dancing (badly) to A Chorus Line. Singing along makes me smile, every time.
Notice the good: Our brains naturally focus on problems and worries. That is how we evolved, and it has kept our species alive. The caveman who stayed alert and heard the approaching bear survived; the caveman who napped by the fire did not. We are evolutionarily wired to notice problems. However, we pay a steep price for this negative focus. When we dwell too long on negativity, our bodies tense, our cardiac system goes into over-drive, and our immune system shuts down.
There are plenty of positives around us, but we often overlook them. Right now, I notice that I am comfortable sitting on my couch, that my beloved terrier Frankie slumbers next to me, that my living room is graced by a grand piano, that I ate healthy yogurt and fruit for breakfast, I am pain-free, and I live in a free country. That is a plethora of goodness, for which many people around the world would be overjoyed, but which I can easily take for granted. I imagine you might take gifts for granted too.
Get outside: I am fortunate that Frankie, the aforementioned terrier, requires daily walk. Many days, I grumble about having to take him. And yet, I am no sooner out of the driveway when I notice my mood lifting. I love watching Frankie’s little ears bobbing up and down as he trots, his feathery tail proudly aloft. Walking, breathing, seeing the flowers, and waving at neighbors all bring me joy. Nature grounds us. The enormity of the blue sky, majestic trees, pounding waves, distant mountaintops, all these sights remind us that we are but a small part of a vast and beautiful universe.
Make your garden grow: I don’t mean an actual garden (although gardening is an excellent hobby if you enjoy it). This phrase references Candide, a book by Voltaire, yet another classic book which I never read, but I have seen Candide, the musical. In the show, Candide explores the world seeking enlightenment but encountering evil and suffering instead. At the end, he concludes that the wisest plan is to tend his own garden, meaning to build a good, meaningful and healthy life for himself and his wife.
Tending one’s garden does not necessarily mean turning your back on the world. Hopefully, our gardens grow, and we feed each other from what we create. My garden, for example, includes this blog, my outreach to readers near and far, and my wish to nourish compassion, kindness, and bravery. Gardens can be about growing vegetables, but also growing empathy, financial generosity, and artistic creation. In these small but significant ways, we better our world, a little bit at a time.
Embrace hope: Humankind has endured many dark times. People have survived world wars, plagues, enslavement, and many more horrors. We are more resilient than we fear. Hope is what carries us through the darkness. Having hope doesn’t mean pretending that everything is great. It means holding out hope that things can turn out OK, someday.
In the myth of Pandora, Pandora impulsively opens a box which she was warned not to touch. Once that box is opened, out fly all the world’s tribulations: evil, greed, want, envy, sickness, and death… forever to torment us. But one other force emerges from the box. That force is… hope. Hope that we can survive. Hope that we can help each other. Hope that our gardens might nourish each other through a dark day, and that better days could still be ahead of us.
If hope sounds naïve, I remind you that hope is what carried many people through the grimmest of times. Enslaved people sang songs about freedom and justice, Martin Luther King had hopes and dreams of a better world. Right now, the Ukrainian president Victor Zelenskyy speaks passionately about hope for his embattled county. Hope can sound naïve, but it is the bedrock that sustains us when we suffer. Hope fuels our energy to keep pushing on.
My hope for you, dear reader, is that these suggestions bring you some comfort and tools to carry with you. Look out for one another. Forge on, stay safe, and be well.
(A previous, somewhat less personal version of this essay is currently in PsychologyToday.com)