There are days when I am so anxious I don’t want to leave the house. That’s because I have an anxiety disorder. Sometimes, I don’t even know what it is I am anxious about, but it’s there, like a dark cloud. However, this week, I have been abundantly clear about what has been making me anxious and depressed. It’s the same thing that has lead to my partner coming home and asking if it’s too early to start drinking heavily. It’s the same thing that is causing a lot of people to feel this way. Remarkably, this is one of the times when I’m not the only person worried about existing in the universe. Overwhelmingly, I sense that we are feeling a collective, painful anxiety about our world. Why? For oh so many reasons.
Because millions of displaced people are straining against the borders in Europe, and the eurozone is shredding itself at the seams. Because extremists are emerging from the woodwork all over our world and spouting a diatribe of hate. Because a large proportion of British politicians are turning to fear-mongering and scare tactics to influence vulnerable voters rather than inform them. Because hundreds of children are dying in Syria because their homes and hospitals are being bombed. Because an American man has decided to run for president of the most powerful nation on the planet on a platform of hate and disdain. Because more often than not, we see people reaching for their basest instincts and their least compassionate responses. Because football fans in Marseille have turned to brutality, racism and cruelty as part of their pre-game antics. Because on the weekend, a young man shot up a club in Orlando. Because yesterday, a man walked up to a compassionate and empathic politician in Birstall and murdered her.
This has been the second time in a week when I have felt this terrible sadness and despair about our universe. The second time I have cried. Part of me feels remorse for my tears, because there is just so much sadness in the world at the moment, to shed tears for one tragedy seems almost unfair to the others. But I think the tears are partly due to the fact that it feels like I have personally reached a breaking point. Not that there is too much tragedy, because there always seems to be too much, but because it feels as if the balance has somewhat tipped in the favour of tragedy. I do not feel the same optimism about our world that I usually do, and I believe that is the source of my deep anxiety.
So what to do?
Part of me wants to withdraw. To step away from social media and the news websites and just stop. Stop reading, stop commenting, stop caring. Whilst storms rage and the world darkens, our day to day lives continue and maybe that’s where I should focus. But is that really the right response to tragedies that affects us deeply?
At times like this, I turn to the person I have always turned to. Tolkien.
The first book I read and loved was The Lord of the Rings and I was seven years old. From that point, I knew I wanted to be a writer and would fiercely devour everything he wrote in the rest of my young life. He would become the subject of my academic study, his work occupying two dissertations. I intended to specialise in his work for my phD, and my geekery for all things Tolkien has been the subject of many jokes by my family, and especially my husband. He likes to watch the Peter Jackson movies with me just to watch how angry/passionate I get. Most of all, however, Tolkien’s work has been the most potent comfort and anti-depressant I have experienced. In his words, I find peace and solace and his model of faith has very much guided my own. I also find a model for a type of courage that I want to reflect in my own life.
To shut myself off from tragedy would be relieving, but when the very minimum I can give (and sometimes, unfortunately, also the maximum) is empathy, why would I take that away from those who are unable to shut themselves off from the tragedy? The victims of Orlando and their families, Jo Cox’s husband, children, and constituents, and the thousands of families displaced by terrible persecution and violent wars cannot turn off their tragedy. It’s happening to them all the time. The road is indeed dark, and I am tempted to turn away and say, “It’s not my place to walk this path with you.” But then I would be faithless indeed. I would be saying to all of these people who are suffering that I no longer have faith for the future. I would be taking all my empathy and my care and my sadness and saving it for myself. My withdrawal would only say that I think there is so little hope, that I no longer have enough compassion for anyone else. I would seem faithless, when in reality, the one thing I do have is faith.
I’m not talking about Christian faith, although Tolkien and I do share that, but faith in this:
Though it is hard at the moment, I do have faith that love is possible in times of brutal grief. I do believe that the right response in the face of tragedy is more love, not less. More empathy, not less. Leaning in, rather than pulling away. Yet this can be a hard thing to do.
One of the poems that resonates deeply with me at times like this is “What they did yesterday afternoon,” by Warsan Shire. The poem is amazing, and ends with two stanzas that always get me:
It can often feel like that inside for me. That whilst the world is screaming in pain, I am hurting too. Sometimes, so much that I do just want to turn away and not care and not give any more compassion. At those times,Tolkien reminds me to have faith and in order to find it, I try to look outside of myself for the other instances of kindness and faith in the world.
Here are some stories that have encouraged me to keep the faith this week:
We can’t guarantee anything about the future. I often feel tremendous despair. But in spite of this despair, there are people lining up to give the blood in their body to people they’ve never met. There is a hurting, grieving community that has come together to say that they will not be beaten back by fear. There are tiny babies, who did nothing to deserve their sickness, being cuddled back to health. There is an influx of famous and influential people standing up to say that the LGBTQ community is valuable to them, and should be respected and protected. And there are dogs. There are lovable, fluffy, gentle animals who bring us joy and remind us that this world is not just about us. Other creatures live here too, and they can be sources of encouragement and inspiration. For though the world is indeed full of peril, these are some of the things that restore my faith. I have faith that when the road darkens, the love that is mingled with grief and tears will grow.