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Instructions for Living in a World on Fire

Responding thoughtfully to global crises can help lower anxiety.

Source: Canva

It’s a common sentiment these days that if you’re not angry or anxious, then you’re not paying attention. Perhaps this is true—it’s impossible to read the news and not feel fearful or hopeless. How we choose to respond to these facts, however, is more interesting to me than the degree of our panic. Because when we feel panicked about politics or the environment, often our reactions become more about relieving the anxiety we feel in the moment than about generating thoughtful, reality-based solutions to the world’s problems.

Rapid, emotion-filled responses can be an important part of change. But so is the steady, daily work of responding to complex problems. It is deeply uncomfortable to know that throwing money at a problem, shouting at someone on Twitter, or attending a few protests isn’t going to fix everything. It's so uncomfortable that it’s easy to lose focus and simply react to news cycles, instead of staying in touch with the longer story of a global problem.

As a therapist, I often ask my clients to describe the difference between reacting anxiously to a problem and responding to it with their best thinking. Because in our families, our work, and the larger world, we are doing the former a good 90 percent of the time. Here are a few examples.

Reacting: Throwing money at a crisis without bothering to continue educating yourself about the problem.

Responding: Evaluating how you can best invest your attention and resources to help solve a problem.

Reacting: Anxiously fixating on the daily news cycle.

Responding: Defining your values and seeking daily opportunities to operationalize them.

Reacting: Shouting at others to change their behaviors.

Responding: Defining how you want to function and modeling it for others.

Reacting: Avoiding the news.

Responding: Engaging a subject by gathering the facts.

Reacting: Giving up because your contribution feels too small to make a difference.

Responding: Trusting that good thinking is contagious if you calmly live out your principles.

Reacting can feel very effective because it can temporarily calm the anxiety of the moment. But responding takes a willingness to put up with the discomfort that lasting change takes time.

I cannot overstate how impossible it is to respond thoughtfully to a crisis if you do not have a plan. So if politics are important to you, what is your plan as a citizen? If the climate is important to you, how are you going to define and operationalize your best thinking? There will be lots of opportunities to react quickly to daily crises, but how will you stay in contact with the bigger story?

Today is always a great time to sit down and write down your own instructions for living in a world on fire. Who are you going to be on days where it feels like there’s not enough money, time, or people to solve the world’s problems? Are you going to be a person who distances from the problem or a person who tries to bully others into maturity? Or will you be a person who has their operating instructions in front of them, illuminating the way on the dark days?

Your instructions may change over time. But starting somewhere is better than the alternative—letting your anxiety run the show. There is a time for anxious fixing, but there is also a time for our best thinking. And I think that time is now.