Some of us just know too much. We have seen too much of what goes on behind closed doors and gates. We know about the animal suffering and environmental degradation in animal agriculture and the abuses in animal experimentation and entertainment industries.
When my neighbors, Robert and Gunvie, came for lunch they told us we were the only vegans they knew. Not surprising since we were the only vegans we knew in our area and we were only aware of one other vegan who lived in the city 45 minutes away. Actually there are no people in our area who are even vegetarian, let alone vegan. While eating lunch, Robert said the food I had served was "different". I asked what he meant. He said it was the first time he had a meal without meat and cheese and alcohol. I asked if that was ok with him. He said it would be ok "just this once". He wanted to know why I wouldn't eat meat or dairy and I explained my many reasons. Mostly I focused on my love of animals.
This launched him into the story of how much he loves squirrels. He told about an incident that happened 20 years ago. He and Gunvie had been giving nuts to a squirrel at the window for many years. Then, one day after they had given him the handful of nuts, the squirrel returned and started pounding on the window with his front little paws. He wouldn't stop for a very long time. They tried to just ignore him. Then finally, the little guy left the window. Some hours later when Robert and Gunvie were leaving, they walked around the corner of the house where the squirrel had been pounding and saw him sitting on the edge of the porch above the water barrel for the downspout. In the water barrel was his drowned mate. Robert and Gunvie said that this still haunted them. He had asked for help and they hadn't responded. As they told this story, I stuffed my emotions so I wouldn't cry while they were there.
After they left our house, I was doing the dishes and could not keep the image of the squirrel out of my head. I kept finding myself on the sofa sobbing. The ache was too much. The despair I felt for this squirrel trying to get help was overwhelming. On top of this image was the realization that people like Robert and Gunvie consider themselves to be the biggest animal lovers and do not want to give up eating animal products. How can I expect people to choose a lifestyle that respects all life, when even those who call themselves animal lovers do not take the leap?
I finally went to my partner and asked him if he could help me deal with the sadness I was feeling. I told him I could not get the image of the panicked squirrel out of my head. The image just kept chasing me. He had me sit down. He asked me what level on a scale of 1-10 my sadness was at. I was still sobbing and through my tears, I told him it was maybe a 7. He told me to go to a 10. Without thinking, I easily went deeper into what I was feeling. Soon I was sobbing even harder. He worked with me on letting myself feel it and moving through the pain. After some time, I felt better. I had the powerful realization that when I try to make the sadness or pain go away, it only continues to come on stronger. But when I let myself feel it, it eventually moves through.I was lucky enough to be living with someone supportive who knew how to help when despair took over.
Not everyone has the luxury of a supportive person to turn to when the pain of what is happening in the world threatens to overwhelm them. And, ignoring it doesn’t help. Like a sleeping volcano it rises up when we least expect it.
With this in mind, here is a collection of helpful ways to work with, live with, move through and heal the despair.
The best way to deal with the pain in the world is to not support it with your personal daily choices. Act on what you know. If you don't like what happens to dairy cows, don't consume dairy. If you don't like battery cages, don't eat eggs. Let your own personal life reflect your caring. When a reporter asked Gandhi what his message was for the world, Gandhi replied "My life is my message". Let your life be like a walking billboard for what you want to support. There will always be despair when you know what is going on in the world, but, the despair is multiplied many fold when you yourself are part of the problem rather than the solution.
What are your personal passions and skills? Are you drawn to activism or education, writing letters or speaking to large groups? If you feel most alive and have skills for educating those around you in a positive way, there are countless ways to use this energy. Humane education is a growing field and can include everything from companion animals to environmental concerns and sweatshops. There are now training programs to help those who don't feel ready to do this kind of work on their own. If you love activism you can do this on your own or join a local or national group and take part in their existing activities or create your own.
Locally, in your own community, you can bring people together around the issues you care the most about:
-Host a film and discussion series at a local community center and have resources available for people to take home with them.
-Teach a compassionate cooking class through your local natural food store or community center or church.
-Create celebrations that are open to the community and promote life. Try hosting events like a Living Thanksgiving Celebration. It can be a wonderful day open to all ages and all eating styles. Make sure carnivores feel invited and welcome. Put together a fun, colorful poster inviting everyone to come and explain that all food should be vegan/plant-based so that everyone can enjoy all the dishes. Give people a phone number for more information. If folks call and say they do not know how to make vegan foods, ask them what their favorite foods to prepare are. Have them list their top 5 recipes. Usually at least one is plant-based. At the event, set up a table with information on compassionate living and vegan lifestyle choices for people to take with them. Celebrating life in a positive way is a perfect invitation for others to join your vegan community and is great despair repair.
Surround Yourself with Like-minded People
If you do not have people in your community who feel the way you do about life, then attend workshops and conferences and events that attract people who understand your choices. Look for the events calendar in publications like VegNews. There are many national and international events throughout the year that attract large numbers of caring people. These can feel like the family reunion you actually love attending.
If you cannot afford conferences or workshops, visit shelters and sanctuaries and volunteer if you have the time and energy. If you don’t think you have the time and energy, try it once and you will get so hooked you will make it a priority. It is hard work that energizes you. Every state and most countries have amazing rescue facilities/sanctuaries. Many people have been inspired to start their own sanctuaries from just one visit to a well run, effective and caring facility. Be sure that you research the facility before visiting. Many places call themselves a rescue/sanctuary facility when in reality they are run by animal hoarders who do not have the resources or the skills to care for the animals.
Another way to surround yourself with like minded people is to read about them and listen to them. Receiving publications like VegNews, Lifelines (TVA Toronto), and other inspiring reading material is a wonderful reminder that you are not alone in the world when it comes to caring for all life. You can also download free podcasts like Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s “Vegetarian Food For Thought”. Many people find that this and other compassionate living podcasts and radio shows keeps them going when despair threatens to drain their motivation.
Surround Yourself with the Beauty of the Natural World
Get away from your computer, television, blackberry, mp3 player and car. Find a place to breath in the natural world. Everyday spend time with natural beauty. Like an old friend whose presence feeds you, you may not realize how much you missed it until you take the time to re-connect. One year when I was going to quit my work as a humane educator because I was burned out from all the work and travel, I changed my mind because of an encounter with a sea otter. Non-human animals, trees, the sky, fresh air....all have a healing effect.
Peace of the Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound,
In fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds,
I come into the peace of the wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water,
And I feel above me the day-blind stars, waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Work With Your Internal Suffering
All of our despair comes from our story about what is going on around us. The event happens and it is our interpretation of it that causes our despair and suffering. Working internally is rewarding and challenging. Two tools that I and thousands of others have found to be life changing are Vipassana Meditation (www.dhamma.org) and The Work of Byron Katie (www.thework.org). There are also many other meditation techniques and inquiry techniques. Once investigated, we can see that it is our stories about the world around us that creates peace or stress in our lives.
Be Gentle With Yourself and the World
Focus on how far we have come. Celebrate the victories. If we can only look at how far we have to go, we will never feel at peace. Notice the changing world. Not just the changes that scare you. Notice that vegan is becoming a commonly known word. Notice that you can now travel most places and find delightful veg food. Notice that you are not the only one on the airplane with a special meal. Notice that you cannot keep up with all the information, organizations and events going on around the world on behalf of all life.
Notice what you do everyday that makes the world a better place. Celebrate the fact that at least your life is moving in the direction of supporting more and more life and less and less suffering. Know that there are people who have made positive changes in their life because of their encounter with you. You may have spoken to them for one minute or spent a month with them. Chances are you have no idea how many people’s lives you have touched and how many thousands, perhaps millions, of animals have benefited from this. When the despair comes, as it certainly will if your eyes, heart and mind are open; let it come and wash through you. Treat them like a welcome guest. And then return to celebration. Return to joy. They are also guests to welcome. Cook beautiful, compassionate, healthy food for yourself and friends and go hiking, play games, dance and laugh.
(Poem by Rumi)
This being human is a guest house
Every Morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some
Momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture
Still, treat each guest honorably
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight
The dark thought, the shame, the malice
Meet them at the door laughing
And invite them in
Be grateful for whoever comes
Because each has been sent
As a guide from above