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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30 comments

  • I live in New York, and though aware of the trauma faced by so many, I sit in a warm home with water and electricity. I was plagued with the feeling that I couldn’t be okay until everyone was restored to normal. Thank you for voicing how I felt. I too believe that doing what I can for humanity on a consistent basis, which I do, and helping now where and how I can, is the best course of action for me. Excellent post.

  • Debi Ireland

    When I don’t know what to do to ease the suffering of others or myself, I get into compassion meditation. Lie on your back, get relaxed by taking 4 or 5 deep breaths and start by thinking of others. I systematically start thinking and sending compassion to each member of my household then I move on to my neighbors as individually as possible and then I start expanding to my community, to surrounding cities, to surrounding states, and finally to the people in surrounding countries. This really helps and I find it helps my relationships too.

    • Donna Naylor

      Kate…you are so much like your wonderful mom! I loved all of your thoughts about helping others and I agree that you must take care of yourself first so you are able to give without depleting your self. I honestly believe in the ripple affect…so if you heal yourself you will heal others…thank you for your beautiful soul…you are such an inspiration to so many!
      love you Donna

  • Cheryl

    Oh my gosh, that blog post was spot on girl. You are so right that suffering alongside others does them absolutely no service at all. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting those around you. Good for you in getting out of dodge so there was one less person in need.

    • Kate, You give me hope for the future. Your wise knowing about yourself and how to respond to yourself I took nearly 20 years to learn. And you already have clearly understood the path to other is through the self. Take care of yourself first then you have an ability to re-source something to another who is in need. The love is clear and true. Thank you for your wisdom.

  • Patryce

    I have been right there with you. I feel guilty for having gotten out in time, but simultaneously so grateful that I did. I sent some needed supplies to a group of acquaintances delivering to/ volunteering in Rockaway, but I still feel that it’s not enough. I feel a kind of gaping hole and am not quite sure how to manage it. Your thoughtful post is helpful.

    For anyone who wants to help, but not sure what’s most effective/ needed, here’s some good info:
    http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/rockaways/
    rockawayhelp.com

  • Hi Kate,

    Beautiful work. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life feeling guilty about not suffering when I see others are…Now whenever I feel myself going there I remind myself of exactly what you said, my suffering does not help others, and instead I find a way to improve the world no matter how small it is.

    Jennie

  • What an amazing attitude and positive spirit to send forth into the world. Thank you for that. Having been through natural disasters, I agree with all you have eloquently said. Lovely – and yes we all have an incredible ability to impact our immediate sphere with love and kindness and it reverberates out around us like a ripple. Keep up the awesome inspiration! :-)

  • Jagica

    You are a very wise young lady! Congrat’s to your wisdom and thank you for sharing.

  • Tami Bartlett

    Wonderful article, I am happy your mom shared the link on FaceBook.
    Like you I give regularly to Women for Women, Kiva, and Dr. Without Borders. At times like this I meditate and send healing loving energy, and then decide which charity I fell most drawn too.

  • Carol Chappell

    It is so easy to get overwhelmed worrying along with the immensity of suffering outside of my control, thanks for the reassurance that I am not alone in my tendency to fall into that destructive pattern and for the reminder and inspiration to take positive, loving action to do what I can for myself and those I can really touch and help!

  • I love this, Kate. Even though I donated some supplies to victims in LES, what I really started feeling was the need to bring more love and attention into my own home. Only from a full place in our hearts (which always begins at home) can we really be able to truly give to the world.

  • Love your voice, Kate!!! XOXOXO

  • Liz Smull

    It is all about what you do from moment to moment.

  • Wendolyn White

    I applaud you for recognizing that we have the biggest influence in our immediate sphere and that taking care of self needs to come first. I also wanted to share what a local music group is doing to help; each Thursday they play at a small cafe and this week will be a special benefit performance to help those affected by Superstorm Sandy. Rather than cash donations; the band is asking each attendee to bring a $10 gift card from any emporium (Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, etc.). The gift cards will be distributed to families who lost everything in the storm. What a wonderful way to make sure what you send is what they need! Just makes me smile to think of it.

  • brilliant Kate – thank you for putting your thought into words. I passed your newsletter along to my Mom who is struggling with how best to help her 77 year old sister who is challenged with 1/2 a condemned house at the Jersey shore and worries, feeling very helpless. Your words not only helped me gain perspective but I know they will help my Mom too. Thank you for being wise beyond your years!

  • Oh you have no idea how much I needed this! Your timing was perfect and elegant. I’m in the midst of a 29 Days of Giving project, yet I find myself more distracted by the hardships of the world and in my immediate circle, rather than getting into action! Thank you for this reminder!
    PS I love Heifer too!

  • Gwen

    Lovely, meaningful post! Two of my three daughters – in college at the time -were in Houston during Hurricane Ike. I’d left them just a couple of weeks before when I moved across the state. I was so concerned for their welfare (as, Kate, I’m sure your mother was concerned for your welfare, too), but learned that my amazing daughters were well-equipped to handle it all. This allowed me to let go and simply pray for their safety. They were without electricity for 3 weeks. They met their neighbors for the first time as everyone brought frige and freezer contents outdoors to grill, and to escape from the stifling air inside. Once they accepted that they would be without power for an extended period, and once they all realized they had no control over the sitation, their cookouts turned into organic “family” gatherings. I pray this for the folks affected by Sandy, for love to conquer all, and for healing and restoration to come quickly.

  • Rebecca

    Great Blog Kate! Check your mom’s public site for a link I posted to the Occupy Movement’s Amazon “Wedding Gift registry”. I doubt the spam filter would let it through here. Anyone can go to Amazon and purchase things on the list which will be distributed to victims. They have also included a long list of Churches and other organizations collecting food, warm clothing and other items for folks.
    Like you, I had a nice home to go to when Katrina drove me out of my own. In my case, my place was completely destroyed…but I was so much luckier than others and we all pulled together to help each other. I did what I could for friends, offering the safety of my folks home as needed. When my job started again, I spent many a night on the floor of a friend’s apartment in what was left of the city. Keep up the good work!

  • Love this, Kate! So much wisdom here and so many are sharing your feelings. Thank you for your eloquent thoughts on this important topic.

  • I think it’s called guilt, Kate. And despite everyone’s opinion that guilt is a useless emotion, I feel that it’s a barometer of how I’m doing in relation to the plight of others. I’m grateful that I and mine are allright, yet I , at the same time, feel sad for the ones in such need.

  • Robin Amos Kahn

    Kate,
    Just this morning I read this quote and wanted to share it with you:

    We do not help others by entering into the same weakness that is keeping them in a world of distress.

    We do not help the weak by becoming weak.
    We do not relieve sickness by becoming sick.
    We do not free man from failures by permitting ourselves to become failures.
    We do not emancipate those who are in bondage by becoming bound.
    Christian Larson

  • Yikes! Am I the only one having a hard time reading the comments? They are coming out white on a light background and are almost illegible. Anyway, when I’m overwhelmed by the suffering I encounter, I write a blog post about it and ask my readers to open their hearts and wallets and give them a link to donate. Here’s the link to what I recently wrote re Sandy (only my website is down for maintenance right now so you might not be able to access it) http://www.starpolisher.com/compassion-community/. Does anyone ever take action? I don’t know, but I feel I’ve at least done a little something.

  • Kate – What a great great post. Right on the money. I especially loved Mike’s wisdom about taking stock of what we are doing everyday to make the world a better place vs just in times of crisis.

    xo Johanna

  • Hi Kate,
    This is so extraordinarily well said! I love that you suggest to first feel what we are feeling. This is so very important. We have to cry, moan & wail if that’s what our bodies want to do. We can then act from that place of clearing.
    To answer your question, when I feel overwhelmed by the suffering, I have to get very still and tap back into the love. Sometimes I have to cry. I get into action through my writing. And I trust that the actions I need to take will present themselves…Just as I trust that in every crisis there is an opportunity to transcend.
    Thanks for writing this article. It’s important work!

  • Hi Kate,
    I really enjoyed this post because it resonated so deeply with me. In fact, just this week I wrote a similar article. I always frame these feelings as the difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy being sympathy’s “older wiser sibling”.
    I actually live in Manhattan and was very fortunate to have only dealt with the rattling of windows. In the aftermath, I was feeling a little lost about how I could help. So while I was searching, I took every opportunity to use my blog, my facebook page, and my radio show to get the word out about volunteer opportunities and ways to donate. Like texting the word “REDCROSS” to 90999. It automatically donates $10 to the relief effort.
    Anyway, I think you’re wonderful and creating awareness is an extremely important way to help out. Thank you for your great post!! Please feel free to read mine. “3 Reasons to Not Have Sympathy for Sandy Victims.

  • Thank you so much Kate for your wise advice. It helped me to get unglued from my computer and get out there and walk some 20 floors up and down delivering food to seniors in Rockaway yesterday.
    It’s really hard to read comments as they are showing up in white font on light yellow background. Is it possible to change that?
    Here’s the link to Sandy’s Wedding Registry mentioned above to buy the items that are really needed and will be distributes ASAP by Occupy Sandy volunteers:

  • The link didn’t show up – trying one more time:

  • Suzie

    Thank You for your thoughts… I have been thinking about some of the same things. I have 2 sheds on my property full of stuff I never use. I can’t seem to part with these things for some reason. When I think about giving them away or even selling them I think the stuff is not good enough…It is just that STUFF…. there are so many people that don’t have stuff right now. I keep thinking what should or can I do ?.. Well this weekend I am going to bite the bullet & go through my stuff & give a bunch of it away…. The next question is how do I get these things to the people who really need them. Every time I think about donating to someplace like the Salvation army. I get mad because they have stores here & re-sell it. Some of my stuff I don’t think re-sellable. Some one with nothing though might be gratefull… You see how I keep attatching strings to giving my stuff away. I want to be totally loving & giving & non judgemental…. I am still working on this…. Thank You for inspireing….Suzie

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