Overwhelm, Acts of Hope, and Localizing Our Influence

Overwhelmed by the world

I am easily overwhelmed by “the world.” I know I’m not alone. In conversations and on social media, I often hear and read things like, “This world is broken,” or “people are just so evil.”

I understand these sentiments. I’ll nod my head in response, or join the rants about how things aren’t changing for the better. Then all those thoughts will poison my mind, and I’m left sitting in misery and helplessness.

I wrestle between my desire to be mentally healthy and productive with my seeming obligation to grieve anything that echoes of the Fall.

I recently listened to an episode of The Habit, a podcast for and by artists, where author Alan Noble discusses his book On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living. In it, he writes:

“What if our contemporary society is not actually built for humans as God designed us? If that’s the case, then sometimes anxiety and depression will be rational and moral responses to a fundamentally disordered environment.”

In other words, I have a fair reason to grieve when I recognize brokenness and long for the New Creation. But, with this acknowledgment, Noble reminds us that it is also important to remember that we are not our own. We still have to move and live and love our neighbor the best of our ability. It is through this that we shift from helplessness to purpose and hope.

Who is my neighbor?

In college, I took as many environmental justice courses as I could. These turned out to be the most emotionally challenging classes I attended. I remember watching a documentary about mountain stripping and having class in the dark from then on to save electricity, only the light from windows illuminating our conversations.

After a particularly tough lesson, all of us were feeling heartbroken, discouraged, and helpless. We asked our professor how to cope with this knowledge and how to move on with purpose.

“We can’t love the world,” he said. “But we can love our neighbor.”

We can’t love “the world,” just as we can’t know the world. We can learn all the bad news, but we can’t enter into it except through our limited imaginations where we don’t see how God is working.

Love–as a physical act of compassion–can only be effectively demonstrated specifically and in proximity.

When my professor told us to love our neighbor, however, our questions weren’t fully answered. We, like the expert of the law when Jesus said the same words, wondered who our neighbor was. We devoted an entire class to the question and left realizing that it is far more complex than we imagined.

We no longer live in small towns where everyone knows each other. We leave our homes and neighborhoods and even cities to find our churches, our jobs, and our friends. We are selective with our communities, finding groups who suit our needs. It often feels like my neighbors are the ones I choose to interact with because I like being around them.

And as we become more polarized and unwilling to interact with people of different opinions, we pull away from communities into our small echo chambers. I become angry at the hateful and uncooperative, but I become those things when I refuse to see everyone as a child of God.

This is why it is so beautiful to me when, in Luke 10, the expert of the law asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus doesn’t name all of the people whom the teacher could claim as his neighbor. Instead, Jesus describes what it means to be a good neighbor who cares for others without discrimination or hope for compensation.

His answer takes my attention away from judging whether others are worthy of being my neighbor and towards considering how I can be a good neighbor. When I think of it this way, it compels me to act the same way towards everyone and in all circumstances.

Again, I am forced back into my physical space–what I can touch and see.

My family often talks about our “circle of influence,” as discussed by Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When we can name the places and people we can influence, we become more effective. When I narrow my focus, suddenly my own role clarifies, and I can get out of bed.

Even Christ, who is God, took on limited physicality. Each day, he got out of bed and lived in proximity to his communities.

We can’t carry the suffering of the world, nor can we control what happens outside of our circles. We are spiritual beings, but we are also confined to our physical space, and it is only there that we can act and love. But, rather than restraining us, it frees us to focus our attention. It fixes me into the story I’m in.

That doesn’t mean I ignore the news, or that it is wrong for me to be overwhelmed by it at times. But my response must be trust that God is working in those stories, too. It is only trust that allows me to give the news back to God and stop trying to carry it myself.

Our circle of influence in modern times

In our class discussion, we wanted to know not just who we could influence but also what we could influence. When our professor said to love our neighbor, he not only meant our human neighbors but also Creation. As we explored this, we soon realized that our circle of influence has expanded in the modern world.

Not only can we communicate with people across the world online, but every time we go to the store, we are purchasing food, clothes, gas, or electronics from across the world. The exchange of our money becomes an influential act–something that many activists have called “a vote.” With our credit cards, we support detrimental farming practices, unfair wages, poor working conditions, or polluting practices. Or we support sustainability, fare wages, and worker’s rights.

Last year, I finally watched The Good Place, a philosophical sitcom that takes place in the afterlife. In the show, the characters discover that earning a place in heaven through moral action has become impossible in modern times because of the butterfly effects of our daily decisions. In explaining the “point system” used to judge people, they say:

“These days, just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming–Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.”

In other words, our circle of influence has expanded, but in micro and often unseen ways.

In an older post, I discussed how this knowledge creates cognitive dissonance. Once we know about the consequences of a choice but still make that choice, we can feel harbored by guilt. Later, I wrote several posts about trying to live out what my convictions through small, daily decisions.

There are no easy solutions (if you have one, let me know). But I have come to believe that I can only make the best decisions I can according to my current understanding and ability. Once again, this means placing myself back in the local position and attending to the issues in my proximity. Anything else is a path to overwhelm.

So when my classmates and I felt helpless against the affects of strip mining, deforestation, or pollution across the world, we were redirected to the places we could influence.

We couldn’t go plant trees in the rainforest, but we could plant trees and gardens in our own backyards. We could cultivate our neighborhood spaces, volunteer in our parks, or create habitats for wildlife in our cities. We could turn off the lights, run a little less hot water, or wear more layers in winter. These are our acts of hope.

Acts of hope

Everything comes back to the things at our fingertips–our neighbors, our backyards, the tomatoes at the grocery store.

I often feel that my good actions are outweighed by the negative effects of my seemingly minor decisions. If only I lived off-grid in a cob house and grew my own food–If only I could access and afford local food, or buy solar panels, or bike everywhere I needed to go.

I could choose ignorance–to be unaware or forgetful of the consequences of my choices–and few would judge me for it. Or I can choose, as my mental health and ability allowed, to know and remember.

When I am overwhelmed by things outside of my influence, I can choose to recognize what is in my influence and educate myself on how I can make wise decisions. Then every action becomes an act of hope. If I believe I can influence my small corner of the world, then I can believe and hope that there is work being done in other corners that I can’t see.

I’m not the one telling the story, and it is already written for us with the promise of the New Creation. My role, then, is to get out of bed, to love my neighbor, and to trust the One who is telling this story.

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