Monday, April 26, 2010

Taking Action in the Face of Despair and Helplessness

“I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit." Dawna Markova

Penny Spawforth asked me in a comment: “I would love to hear how you transform the despair you feel about where the world is heading and your helplessness about contributing sufficiently as I daily experience and feel a sense of helplessness that creates despair and minimal action ('no action seems large enough to be of use'). What I see as my tiny contribution to the world I want to help create just doesn't feel 'enough.'”

Before discovering my current passion for Nonviolent Communication, I was in exactly the kind of place that Penny describes. I saw no way that I could support movement towards what I wanted to see in the world. Then, while talking with my friend Tom Atlee, we came to realize that having a calling, knowing what you are to do in your life, is a form of privilege. It provides clarity and focus, eliminates or drastically diminishes certain forms of struggle, and provides a sense of meaning, and energy for action.

Today I still often fall into pits of profound despair. What helps is that I now know what I am called to do, and do it to the best of my ability. Then I think of all the people who, like me years ago, don’t have a clear sense of what they can do to contribute, and I remember how wrenching and helpless this experience can be. I want to offer Penny and others some tips and milestones about how to move from despair to action.

Opening to Despair
The first thing I learned was to embrace my despair. This was no easy task. Many times over I shut down instead of feeling the despair. Over time I found ways of keeping my heart open to the pain and anguish that live in me. They’re still there. What’s changed is my ability to keep breathing, thinking, moving, and connecting with myself and others when the despair is present. I am no longer afraid of despair, because I learned to see it as a manifestation of my immense care.

Letting Go of Outcome
You and I are likely to die in a world not dramatically closer to what we want than the one we live in now. I derive relief and patience from realizing that I am not able to control the outcome no matter how hard I try. As a result, I keep moving closer and closer to doing what I am doing because it’s the only thing I could be doing. While I have truly no idea about the long-term effects of anything that I am doing, in the moment I experience more effectiveness when I am able to be present and connected instead of fueled by the frantic energy of urgency.

Risking My Significance
Since I started inviting people to risk their significance I am deeply saddened to see how many of us have been trained to believe that we don’t matter and that what we have to offer doesn’t amount to anything. Risking my significance hasn’t meant guaranteed success. I have at times experienced, instead, ridicule or harsh judgment, and often tremendous loneliness. It’s still what I choose to do. I have committed to following my heart, however feeble its voice may initially be. That voice has grown, and with it my trust in myself. If I have any inkling of what I want to do, I do it. When I manage to let go of outcome, I choose to take any action, however small.

And since I can’t know the effect of my actions, large or small, I want my motivation to be, more and more, the effect that my actions have on me. Whether or not I create what I want in the world, I want to die knowing that I lived with the integrity of trying.


  1. Miki, you could have been reading my mind. Over the past two years, I've felt nudged to allot more and more of my day to making a contribution, and it is a very insecure place. That's especially true when society's ultimate validator--payment for one's services--is not part of the mix. I take comfort, however, in the bliss I experience as I am contributing; that bliss, on my good days, is validation enough.

    Your thoughts on separating actions from results is particularly trenchant and well reflected in the writings of many thinkers, like Thomas Merton. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  2. Dear Miki, it has taken me a long time to write back but I don't want to overlook the fact that I want to deeply thank you for replying to my question about despair in the face of the world predicament. I am beginning to realise (finally at 46!) that I too have a calling to share NVC in the world. Embracing despair is not something I have ever done and is no easy task I find (as I have numbed myself from it so successfully for so long) and I love the concept of seeing it as a 'manifestation of my immense care'. Strangely enough, the words I took most comfort from and seem to have the power to release me from the trance of numbness and inaction were and are 'you and I are likely to die in a world not dramatically closer to what we want than the one we live in now'!and ' I keep moving closer and closer to doing what I am doing because it's the only thing I could be doing'. Miki, there is a lot I have taken from your few timely words and the phrase that I plan to hold in my mind daily is 'Risk My Significance'. THANK YOU, Penny S