How do we cope with so much pain and despair?

[Image description: Rows of empty desks in a classroom. Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay]

Last week, I had bought my 9-year-old Viet his first bicycle. He got to choose it and he was very excited about it. It was my fault for leaving it overnight on our porch, where it got stolen. While he was at school, I went around the city to a few different stores, trying to find the exact same bicycle, coordinating with his mom so he wouldn’t know what was going on. We could have just told him the truth—and we will, someday, as an amusing anecdote when he’s older—but knowing our son, he would be worried about his bike, about the world. His excitement would give way to fear and anxiety. We wanted to save from that, to let him be a kid for a bit longer.

I was able to find the same bike, and he never knew what happened, and I left town for a speaking engagement in Park City, Utah. There I learned about the students and teachers who were murdered in Uvalde, Texas. We parents try to protect our kids from the horrors of reality. We replace their stolen bikes and sick goldfish and kiss their foreheads and tell them the world is not a terrible place. And then we send them to school, where they do active shooter drills to learn how to hide and remain quiet if someone comes to gun them down, and we hope they return home safely each day. The unimaginable pain and anguish the Uvalde families must be feeling, their lives forever shattered, knowing their loved ones, their babies, will never come home again.

I am also thinking about the families of the people murdered in Buffalo by a white supremacist just days before. We haven’t had enough time to mourn them. How do we grieve when every week there are multiple mass shootings? The pain and injustice has been relentless.

The past several years there has been a constant flow of suffering. Massacres at grocery stores and schools and churches. Assaults on trans people. The police continue to kill Black people. Latinx families separated, children still in cages, ICE hovering outside a school to detain families checking in on whether their kids are alive. Rise in violence against Asians. Indigenous women continue to go missing or get murdered. Meanwhile the civil and human rights that so many activists fight for are being reversed, like abortions and voting and marriage equality. Our planet is dying, and we head rapidly toward white theocratic fascism.

Sometimes I look at my kids and wish I could tell them how sorry I am that I brought them into this world. Kiet is six, the same age as many of the kids who were murdered at Sandy Hook; and Viet is the same age as many of the kids murdered at Robb Elementary. I dropped them off at school on Friday. I watched Viet run off to play with his buddies. I watched Kiet as he walked into his kindergarten class, his red Spiderman backpack nearly as big as he is. I used every ounce of self-control to refrain from running inside and getting them both and taking them home.

I don’t know what to say here. I feel hopeless. Hopeless that anything will change. I feel defeated and numb. Republicans will block every attempt at gun legislation. They have been excelling at advancing an agenda of hatred, racism, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, transphobia, ableism, climate denialism, corporate greed, war on the poor, and gun violence, while many Democrats remain entrenched in white moderation and civility politics.

I know so many of you are also feeling hopeless and despondent right now. We are not built to endure this much despair for this long. Most of us who come into this line of work do so because we want to make the world better. To see ongoing injustice against innocent people, against children, it breaks our hearts. And our hearts have been broken so many times now.

It’s been too much to hold. Our sector, nonprofit and philanthropy, is supposed to be making the world better. But lately I question whether we are. Are we making a difference? Are we bending the arc of justice? Or is this arc so far bent the other way that it’s now just futile and we’re just delusional thinking we can actually change things? If you’re feeling despondent, know you’re not alone. I’m there with you.

But I’m not giving up, and I hope you won’t either. We did not get into this line of work thinking it would be easy. We are here precisely because the world is fucked up and we are determined to do something about it. We cannot let ourselves be consumed by the relentless pain and despair that we don’t have the strength to fight. We have people out there who need us to keep going, to keep pushing against the tides of injustice.

This week, please rest and breathe and take care of yourselves. Spend time with your loved ones. Check in with your team. Whatever you’re feeling, take time to acknowledge it. Let’s grieve for the lives taken and the families broken.

And then we get up and fight with everything we have. Let’s feel sad and angry for how awful things are, and then we channel our sadness and anger into community mobilizing and political organizing. For gun legislation. For abortion rights. For voting. For everything.

This road is seemingly interminable, but we must keep going. We keep moving forward, and we remember the leaders who fought against great injustice in the past, and how despite the seemingly insurmountable odds they kept moving forward. We are working to create a world we know is possible. This is what we came here to do.

As I spend time with my kids, teaching them how to ride a bike, holding them tight, I am grateful for you and others who take actions every day to make this reality more bearable. I will be there beside you. This week, I find comfort in these words below by poet, author, and psychoanalyst Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I appreciate the whole essay, “We Were Made for These Times,” and recommend you read it in its entirety. But these sentences in particular spoke to me:

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.”