Things You Can Do

StressIt’s easy to feel completely and totally whipped by events beyond our immediate control these days. I’ve had to walk away from social media and all forms of legit news – local, national, or foreign – for days at a time, just to find the energy to function and do the stuff “real life” needs me to do. I hate having to choose between being engaged and being happy – part of why things go to hell in the first place is because too many people aren’t paying real attention.

But it’s a new year, and while there’s no particular magic to a man-made calendar and an arguably arbitrary changing of the numerals, it IS a good time to reevaluate and reboot. It’s a GREAT time to try to make small but significant changes in how you approach the world.

Obviously I’d love to make some sort of major difference – so would many of you. And if that chance comes, then take it. Jump. Speak. Risk. Be a hero, a voice, a thorn in someone’s propaganda. What’s the worse that’s likely to happen? Maybe you’ll look a bit melodramatic or paranoid when things play out OK. I can live with that. Maybe there will be consequences, mockery, or even very real backlash. If you’re doing what’s right, I believe that’s a good thing – however much it will no doubt suck in real time.

But while we’re straining to remain vigilant and preparing for the possibility of such moments, I thought it might be useful to have an open discussion about some things most of us could do in the meantime. Stuff to fight the decay, and to proclaim some better "American" values. Heck, some of them may even be spiritual values as well.

I triple-dog dare you to do at least one of these as soon as you finish reading this post, and to add one or two a month until sainthood is achieved and all of our problems are solved. Feel free to add your own suggestions at the end – they may be better than mine.

(1) Subscribe to a newspaper. Anything legit will do. Local papers have many benefits, but there are plenty of online publications you’re reading anyway every time someone links to a story on Twitter or Facebook. Pick one or two and give them your $10/month to read them for real. If we say we value truth and investigatory journalism and the free press, then value it.

(2) Support local artists. Go see a play at the community theatre. Buy tickets to some dance performance that sounds interesting but may or may not make any sense to you. Visit your local museums, and if they don’t charge admission, drop some money in that donation box near the entrance. Go have a beer and cheer for some local band – especially if they’re playing a few originals along with “Jesse’s Girl” for the zillionth time. Art matters. It’s not all miraculous, and it’s not all progressive, but by its nature art seeks truth and explores humanity. If you want to fight our descent into fascism, support the arts in whatever flavor most appeals to you.

(3) Be nice to someone scary and/or dirty. Obviously I’m not asking you to put yourself in physical danger or to give money to someone you suspect is simply scamming folks just trying to make a left turn. But it doesn’t have to be money or taking them for coffee (although the latter has very real potential) – start by making eye contact. Talk to them, even if it’s just to say “hello” or “good morning.” Find some excuse to be pleasant to folks behind you in line or standing at the same counter (bonus points if they’re a different color or obviously from a different socio-economic realm). Let someone have that parking place or go ahead of you to order lunch. Compliment their shoes or earrings. It’s cliched but true – that stuff makes us feel better. 

(4) Volunteer once a month somewhere. My druthers lean towards the ACLU or CAIR, but you don’t have to go that direction if that’s not you. Food banks always need help, as does Habitat for Humanity. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your employer, or find the local United Way, or religious institution of your choice. It’s OK if you want to go with someone you trust a bit more than the rest – but do SOMETHING. A few hours matter, and it might just grow on you.

(5a) Read novels. Fiction tends to promote empathy – not as a plot point, but simply by its nature. Reading of any kind expands our horizons and broadens our base of knowledge. It makes us think differently than we might otherwise, and it takes our brain out of the grind and into a higher place for a while. Even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, we’re not quite the same when we return. Take one of those gift cards you got for Christmas or dig out that old library card you hardly ever use and pick something. If you don’t like it, you have my full permission to set it aside after a few chapters and try something else. No guilt – this is READING.

(5b) Read history. There’s so much accessible, well-written history available. It doesn’t have to be anything overtly tied to current events – pick something or someone in whom you have passing interest and see what B&N, Amazon, or your local library thinks might make a good place to start learning more. Nor does it have to be deep and complicated. If you don’t read much history, start with something light – but legit. Pretend it’s for your teenager if you’re worried about looking foolish. But you won’t.

(6) Get involved in local political campaigns – especially during primaries. Don't wait until the big national elections. Volunteer to make calls, to knock on doors, to talk to the public. I know it often ends up feeling futile, but we can give up or we can try. So we try.

(7) Pay attention to your loved ones. It’s easy in frustrating times to take our nearest and dearest for granted, whether they agree with us or not. Make sure you’re listening to your spouse, spending time with your kids (and not just watching the news with them), making plans with your friends. Stay connected to real people in your real world. Value them, and love them even if they don’t always make it easy. They’re why reality matters – don’t let it alienate you from them.

(8) Insist on the good things. Listen to music that gives you strength or makes you happy. Binge on that same dumb show on Netflix. Have desert (unless that plunges you into guilt and same instead). Notice when people are smart or funny or do nice things. Point it out to yourself when things work out the way you wish they would. This isn’t about being optimistic, and certainly not about bathing yourself in self-delusion – it’s about building monuments to the “wonderful life” moments. It’s about not letting others’ distortions and destruction steal your joy quite so easily.

(9) When you DO engage in social or political discussions, whether in person or online, avoid either marinating in your outrage or escalating when you know better. Don’t fight crazy with crazy, or hate with hate, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t fight shoddy attention to facts and reality by being shoddier. If your emotions begin to swell, it’s usually a safe bet you should walk away before (or instead of) responding.

Consider responding ONCE to dissent or challenge, on the off chance an actual dialogue may be established. Maybe they have a point. Maybe you’re missing some dynamic in the situation. Maybe you can reach someone else with your ideas or values. But if that’s clearly not what’s happening after one reply, let it go. No need to even tell them why; there are few things so deafening as the silence of cyberspace when you think you’re really sticking it to someone and they simply lose interest and disappear.

And finally…

(10) Meditate, or Pray, or Reflect. Set aside a few minutes each day and clear your mind. Talk yourself through things calmly. Recite the basics you know to be true. List things for which you’re thankful. Sort through what you can and can’t control. If you believe in God, then turn it over – on purpose, whether you feel it or not. If you don’t, do it anyway. Breathe, and lower that blood pressure. We need you, healthy and centered and clear-headed and strong. Take care of yourself, seriously. If you don't know where to begin, ask someone who does.

Who knows? We might just turn this mess around. Even if we don't, though, we can go down gloriously. That probably means some kicking and screaming, but it also means refusing to let THEM set the tone. It means insisting on DOING everything we can do to make things better, and righter, and truer, even if we eventually lose.

I believe in you. Let's get to it.

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