Living in difficult times


How does one live in bad times without becoming chronically depressed and angry? This is an increasing problem as I age. Many of the hopes I has when I was young have not come to fruition. It’s likely that I will die before the world improves much. How can I enjoy life?

One solution is to focus on personal pleasure and ignore the rest of the world. I can’t do this, though my personal life is pretty good.

Another solution is to pretend the world’s problems are not happening. Deny the Greenhouse Effect, deny poverty and oppression. Everything is fine. La-la-la. But it seems to me we ought to know what’s going on in the world, and that we need to face problems honestly. Patrick spent years working in locked psych units. He once said, “No situation is made better by ignorance or stupidity.”

Some people use their anger to fuel activism, and I admire this. But most activism involves work with people, and I am an introvert. Most of the time, I find dealing with people draining. So activism doesn’t usually help me enjoy life.

These days, I limit my activism to sending money to good causes, writing to politicians, working for a nonprofit with a mission I like, and writing fiction and nonfiction about issues that seem important to me. If I were going to pick a single theme in my fiction it’s the struggle against prejudice and the social conditions that limit people’s lives.

Our brief time on Earth should be as pain-free as possible, as productive and fulfilling and happy as possible. That should be the goal of every society.

The best solution I can find to focus on ordinary pleasures — a drive to Duluth, a visit to an art museum, time spent with friends, a walk on a nice day, a good movie — while remaining aware that much in the world needs improving.

I know that depression is utterly unproductive, and that anger is not a good idea, unless it leads to productive action.

And there has to be a way to acknowledge the world’s problems without brooding on them, until they ruin the ordinary pleasures of life.

Another technique that helps me is keeping a list of improvements during my lifetime. I do this so I won’t end up as a sour old lady, saying, “Things were better when I was young.”

The Civil Rights Movement and the end of Jim Crow; the second wave of feminism; Gay Liberation; the end of the draft; Native Rights movements throughout the world, including the current movements in Venezuela and Bolivia and Ecuador; the Environmental Movement; the test ban treaty…

Antibiotics, the personal computer, the Internet, power wheelchairs, cell phones, a lot of medical technology…

The Dalai Lama was in Minneapolis a few years back, visiting the local Tibetan community, and I went to hear him. He said that he once asked the Queen Mother of England, who was then alive, though very old, if the world had gotten better or worse in her lifetime.

“Better,” she replied. “Beyond question.”


“When I was young, women and non-English people were not seen as equal.”