Words of Wellness: An Antidote for Despair

January 19, 2023 - Claudia Finkelstein, MDCM

A field of reedsThis the season when we begin to notice the return of the light, when we notice that our resolutions have faded or taken hold. It’s the season when the excitement and stress of holiday expectations are behind us. It’s the season when the fields are fallow.

In this first such season spent in semi-retirement, I’ve spent a lot of time in airports and on planes reading and listening to a wide variety of thinkers. I seem to have a penchant for picking somewhat depressing reads – or these topics are all very real and very current.

The undeniable climate crisis, systematized racism and inequity, widespread poverty, homelessness, and general human misbehavior are just a few of the topics of the day. So, listening to The Myth of Normal in which Dr. Gabor Mate examines each topic in depth – I noticed a huge heaviness in my heart. Walking through the park, looking at barren branches and the ice cold river I was gripped by a sense of despair and powerlessness.

Many greater and far more influential people have tried to make positive impactful changes and yet here we still are. We are reaping the consequences of greed, materialism, and social isolation. Many have turned away from organized religion, many are living in an absence of community. Biological evolution can’t help us – it is far too slow. Cultural evolution, while seeming to be glacially slow, is faster and there is evidence that it may be happening. I firmly believe that it’s our only hope as a species. I hope it’s fast enough.

So, how to counter the ills of society? Is it necessary to devote your entire life to what feels like an endless uphill battle (even at the expense of your own health and wellbeing?). Is the alternative to succumb to existential despair best endured under blankets? Are those the only options available?

Turning to social media to self soothe (doesn’t often work- this time it did) I found a post by an author, educator and speaker I’d never heard of - John Perricone. In it he describes having invited a Buddhist monk to speak to his senior high school class. Apparently, the monk walked to the blackboard and wrote: “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom do the dishes.” 

The students laughed. The monk continued saying something along the lines of “it is very unlikely that any of you will have the opportunity to run into a burning orphanage and rescue an infant. However, in the smallest gesture of kindness - a warm smile, holding the door for the person behind you, shoveling the driveway of the elderly person next door - you have committed an act of immeasurable profundity, because to each of us our life is our universe.”

In this season of great need and waning resolutions – such small acts may be what we are called to do. When the lofty goals seem too big, small acts of immeasurable profundity are still within our grasp. After reading these words, some despair lifted, and I was inspired. Maybe these words will help you too.

Claudia Finkelstein, MDCM
CHM Faculty and Staff Support
Cell: 425-269-6653

Read more Words of Wellness from the Culture of Caring.