Five Ways to Be a Change Agent Without Burning Out

by Leanne Sowul
published in Community

2017 has been an insanely difficult year. From political strife to domestic terrorism, hurricanes and refugees to cyber warfare and nuclear tension, we are exposed to human suffering and fear on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis. For sanity’s sake, we can limit our social media and news access, but no one can completely turn off the world. It’s impossible to live in a digital society and not be emotionally affected by the deluge of frightening information.

We need to fight for our own well-being by compartmentalizing and limiting exposure as best we can so we can continue to thrive in our daily lives. But, if you’re like me, it isn’t just fear you’re fighting. We’re also fighting feelings of powerlessness. I want to do something about the suffering in the world. I want to make a difference; I want to be a change agent. But the problems are so vast, so diverse, and I’m just one person. It’s hard to know where to focus my energy.

I’ve been struggling with that feeling of disempowerment for the better part of this year. I finally decided to make some guidelines for giving my time and energy, so that I can make a difference and feel empowered, but still protect my writing life and personal wellness. I hope these guidelines will be helpful to you, too.

1) Think small

Just as it’s impossible to wrap your mind around the concept of a billion dollars or infinite space, it’s impossible to hold all of humanity’s sufferings in your mind. Accept the impossibility, and focus on one corner of it.

One way to do this is to choose just one project on which to focus your energy. For example: you might decide that you want to take action on keeping our news media honest. In that spirit, you’d subscribe to the least biased news sources and share their articles on social media. You’d call biased news sources out on their coverage, and contact lawmakers demanding stricter laws regulating reporting. Other issues might arise that you feel passionate about; if so, you’d either choose to re-focus on a new topic, or let those issues go. You keep your focus on a single cause.

Another way to think small is by doing just one thing to combat any problem that disturbs you: a quick action whenever something new arises. You’d call your congressman about a law you feel strongly about. You’d donate to a relief fund for a natural disaster. You’d write a letter to the editor about a local issue. Most of us do these things, but we still end up feeling powerless because we think we haven’t done enough. Give yourself permission to just do one small thing, and allow the accompanying good feelings to flow.

2) Start local

Rather than fixate on the world stage, limit your radius to your home area. Does your local school district need help? Are your neighbors informed about things like water quality and crime rates? You can attend town council or school board meetings, participate in local fundraisers or protests. Sometimes these will connect to a national issue, and sometimes they won’t, but it’s always satisfying to effect change that starts at home.

3) Connect with an authority

You don’t have to start from scratch. If there’s a politician, newspaper editor, or a local official you trust, follow them. Do as they say. Take up their causes. You won’t need to vet your actions, because this trusted person is already vetting them.

4) Attach action to what you already do

Whatever you do for a living, you can find a way to make a difference through your work. Teachers can create discussion groups or clubs about diversity or environmental causes. Office workers can use their office network to arrange fundraisers. We writers have the most powerful weapon of all: words. We can write blog posts and letters to congressmen with ease. We can give our book characters an ethical stance. Use your platform for good. Heck, if you don’t have a platform, create it with this point of view in mind, and you’ll be more likely to attract like-minded readers.

5) Let things go

You can’t do everything, give everything, or be everywhere. That’s a fact. But it’s also a fact that our human natures won’t allow us to ignore suffering. Try the Marie Kondo method on any new cause that comes along. Hold it in your mind, and if it doesn’t call to you, allow yourself to let it go. Another project will come along that will demand your time and passion.

These guidelines have helped me to pick and choose where to focus my energy. They help me feel good about what I am doing and less guilty about what I’m not doing.

How do you fight “giving fatigue?” Do you have any tips to add to this list?

Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical/literary fiction and memoir; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.

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