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What to do when you just don’t know what to do.

I spent last week in New York City, one of the hardest hit places by Hurricane Sandy.

We had no power or hot water for four days. We had an apartment full of smelly damp clothes rescued from another friend’s flooded apartment. All in all, we had it pretty good.

We made an adventure out of prepping for the hurricane, making sure we had batteries and water and candles and dark chocolate.

My sister, my friend Carissa, and me headed uptown for power.

When we did finally lose power, we joyfully trekked uptown every morning to charge our phones and get online. And we cheerily came home at night, crossing below 26th Street into what felt like a different city because of the pervasive darkness.

After several days without a hot shower I started to get a little antsy. I wasn’t miserable by any stretch. But, when I found out that the Hay House Ignite conference where I was supposed to speak twas cancelled, I was thrilled to be able to go home.

Getting on the first crowded bus out of Manhattan felt incredibly freeing. Nestled in next to a bookish stranger I stared out the bus window at the Manhattan skyline and felt my heart expand at the promise of being home later that night. Even though the trip to Maine took over 7 hours, I couldn’t have been happier to get home. I submerged myself in a bubble bath by candlelight (nope, I wasn’t sick of it) and went to sleep with a huge smile on my face.

But here’s the thing. I’m here cozy with lights, heat, hot water, clean clothes, clean sheets, and shearling slippers on my feet. And I’m profoundly aware that others are not so blessed. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the news, but I’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware of those whose homes and lives were devastated by Sandy.

I spent more time than was productive yesterday worrying about how I could help. I felt guilty for getting out of dodge. I pondered why I’m up here in Maine drinking hot tea, luxuriously writing my thoughts when others have been without water or heat for over a week with no end in sight.

There’s a pervasive and insidious cultural belief that if someone else is suffering on the planet, we must all immediately stop our enjoyment of our lives to suffer with them.

I’ve long stood by the philosophy that no amount of my suffering will help someone in need. Yet, I found myself in low grade suffering all day yesterday, alternating between feeling guilty for coming home to comfort and feeling powerless to help those who are still suffering.

I’m not the first person to feel this way. We live on a planet of contrast. Elation, pain, apathy, joy, sadness, love, and fear are all mashed together here, co-habitating.

I went to dinner last night with a girlfriend who spent several years in the Peace Corps. I asked her what she does when she feels deeply aware of the suffering on the planet but doesn’t know how to help in a meaningful way.

I told her that I regularly donate money to causes that speak to my heart such as Women for Women International, the Heifer Project, Charity: Water, and Kiva. In addition, my usual plan for helping the world goes something like this:

  • I care for myself so that I’m as present and whole as possible in my relationships
  • I practice loving kindness with myself and my community to positively impact my immediate energetic sphere.
  • I pray for, meditate on, and send love to those in need in my own life and around the world.
  • I show up every day to do work helping and inspiring people to create vibrant health and the financial abundance to enjoy it.

My Peace Corps friend looked across the table at me earnestly and told me that given her experience living in and trying to serve struggling communities, she thinks my plan for doing my part to increase joy, health, and love on the planet is worth sticking to.

My man Mike also made a fantastic point that in times of crisis, like now in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we have to take a look at what we’re doing to make the world a better place every day, not just when there’s an emergency. I’m a lucky woman to live with such wisdom.

So what’s my point?

My point is, spending time worrying about, or suffering in the name of, another person’s suffering helps no one. Yesterday I spent the day doing that. By the end of the day I hadn’t helped a soul and I felt awful too.

Whether you’re responding to the news of a natural disaster, an illness in the family, or any other hardship, first give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling.  Just like worrying about someone never really helps them, ignoring your negative emotions never makes them go away.  Feel what you’re feeling, and then decide if you’re going to say a prayer, light a candle, send money, volunteer, do a clothing drive, or meditate on behalf of those in need. Don’t sit around marinating on how bad it is. If someone is drowning in quick sand they don’t need you to jump in with them. They need you to go get a rope and pull them out.

This morning I’m going to have a chat with a friend who went to volunteer in Rockaway this past weekend to find out from a trusted source how I can be most helpful. Would it be helpful to ship down a box of work gloves, diapers, and batteries? Do they need clothes, money, flashlights, or food? My worry yesterday was a sign that I need to get into action and I want to make sure my actions are directed in the most useful way possible.

Candlelight vigil during the hurricane in NYC.

If you’re watching the news learning about the suffering of someone else somewhere else in the world, start by turning off the television after you’ve gotten the basic information. Remaining glued to the screen watching the endless loop of the same awful information not only doesn’t help anyone, it also depresses your immune system.  This makes it more likely for you to get sick so you’ll be of no use to anyone, including yourself.

Give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling.

Remember that you have a choice between worry and anxiety or loving action.

Decide how you CAN help and get to work.

Do what you are willing to do.

Do what you are able to do (like going out and voting today!)

Then, see if you can inspire someone else to do something.

And most of all, be sure to tend to yourself and those around you. We can have the most profound impact on our immediate sphere. Don’t underestimate the ability of this circle of your direct influence to have reverberating positive effects on the rest of the world.

What do you do when you feel overwhelmed by the suffering on the planet?

How do you get into action?

Share your thoughts!



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