The Danger of Slipping Into a Restless Helplessness

Friday, March 17, 2017 - 8:34 am

The Danger of Slipping Into a Restless Helplessness

I was out for a walk with my baby, trying to defeat her valiant nap resistance with the comforting bumps of the sidewalk in our neighborhood, when my husband texted me a tweet from Rachel Maddow:

My heart leapt for brief moment, and then it sunk even lower than it had been before the text arrived. Could this sense of momentum be trusted? Would having the much-discussed tax returns actually lead to any real consequences? Dare I be hopeful this would matter?

I kept strolling. Eventually my baby gave up and fell asleep, her huge, fuzzy head tilted in what looked like a very uncomfortable position.

Eight weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, I’m feeling a little like my baby — bumped along by the ups and downs of the daily (no, hourly) news, and my husband’s insistence on keeping me apprised of it. I’m not in danger of falling asleep, exactly — too scared for that — but I do feel in danger of slipping into a kind of restless helplessness.

I’m paying less attention to the news, exhausted by a sense that I don’t know what to actually spend my limited time and energy on. I’m confused about how to calibrate my expectations at this point. I remain curious about how this country could have nominated him in the first place, and therefore interested in having conversations with people who voted for him. Yet, my passion for those conversations is leaking out of me like an old balloon.

There are people (and a planet) in danger. I can’t let the droning relentlessness of our politics fool me otherwise. I sat at my kitchen table this week with a friend whose son is an undocumented immigrant (she has recently gotten citizenship) and talked about what a daily stress it is to feel like he could be detained at any moment for anything. People will suffer because of this administration. People will die because of this administration. And that is not to mention the spiritual carnage of this nation as a whole.

I must not fall asleep. I can’t. There is too much at stake.

So how do those of us who oppose this administration process all this information? How do we figure out where to put our limited energy and money? How do we sustain the resistance?

Some lessons:

1. Pass the baton.

My friend told me the most beautiful story about when she and her family were at the San Francisco airport protests following the first Muslim ban. Her three-year-old had been a trooper for hours — plied with snacks and wowed by the energy of it all — but was finally starting to fade, so she and her husband decided to head home. She said that as they were heading up the escalator, another family was simultaneously heading down. As they floated by one another, she had this palpable sense of passing the baton to them. It was such a good and necessary feeling. We must show up, and when we need to go home (whether literally or emotionally), someone else will be ready to jump in. We have to trust this.

2. Gather with your people.

Gather with the people you love, the people who live in your neighborhood, who constitute your circle of friends and neighbors, and care for one another. Feed one another. Laugh together. Be real together.

I have been so moved by what seems like an unprecedented number of gatherings that people are hosting following Trump’s election — Indivisible and Swing Left house parties, the Art and Activism workshop that an artist friend of mine has at her house each Friday afternoon, family-oriented potlucks with cards to policymakers strewn about along with the teething biscuits and the sippy cups, a brunch for white women to think about our own role in this moment… the list goes on and on. If you haven’t been pulled into these settings by the tide of the times, host one yourself.

3. Take the long view.

Of course we will need some small wins along the way if we are going to keep our chins up. We need proof that we are powerful, that what we do has consequences in the world. The image of all of those lawyers sitting on the floors of airports across the country with their laptops open, hammering out suits has been succor to me on more than one occasion. When the ACLU got the initial stay on the Muslim ban, I felt elated and deeply reassured. But even that relatively small win was the result of a much longer game. We must remember that this is not only about March 2017. It is about March 2117, too. Historian Beverly Gage reminds us:

“Some of the most significant shifts in modern American law and political culture came out of efforts birthed in panic and despair. During World War I, for instance, the United States banned criticism of the government, interned thousands of German Americans and instituted widespread surveillance of immigrants and political radicals. Many Americans supported these policies; others feared that the country was abandoning cherished traditions of tolerance and free speech. In response, a small group of alarmed progressives founded an organization that came to be known as the American Civil Liberties Union. They lost many early courtroom battles, but their vision of a nation in which ‘civil liberties’ were taken seriously eventually changed the face of American law and politics.”

I am going to be mothering this little baby a long time. Today, I’m trying to get her to nap. Tomorrow, I’ll try to get her to nap again. And the day after that. And the day after that. Playing some meaningful role in the evolution of our country is no less relentless, at times maddening and unrewarding, and at times profoundly beautiful. We must stick with it. We must resist. We’ve got no other choice and few more important privileges.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Thank you for sharing this useful advice.
    Worrying itself doesn’t help anyone and only depletes energy. Meeting to share emotional support with like-minded people is comforting, enjoyable, and can be energy enhancing, though sometimes that time and energy displaces actions that might actually make a difference outside that circle. Meeting with people who give us comfort or for mutual ranting plus communicating with like-minded people on social media won’t be enough any more than it was enough during the election cycle.
    When we think strategically about how to use our energy, the idea of passing the baton is critically important, particularly when we take the essential long view. None of us can stay in every effort full time, though some will try. We need to be able to pass the baton, but just as important, we need to be available for the baton to be passed TO us so that the burdens don’t become concentrated on the few.
    We cannot expect- it is not fair to expect- to be rescued by heroes or to imagine the necessary sacrifices are easier for others.
    It will be a long game.

  • CrummyVerses

    “I’m not in danger of falling asleep, exactly — too scared for that — but I do feel in danger of slipping into a kind of restless helplessness….there’s too much at stake.” Thanks so much for sharing this…and for what you’re doing both personally & publicly. I envy you for your seeming ability to take care of yourself during what must be a trying time for you and most of us. My “prayer” for you is that you continue to find ways to take care of your self, e.g., turn off that (expletive) TV!, imo. Thanks again.

  • Karen Franchot

    I especially am grateful for your reminder of the long game. I felt something settle inside when I read your words. I was a teenager during Vietnam. Now I’m 65. I have been awake and involved to varying degrees throughout my life. I’m not going to stop now. Thank you and bless you and OnBeing for nurturing and reassuring me.

  • Sue Johnson

    You literally write my thoughts and feelings every week. I am not good at feeling helpless, and am overdosing on the news. As with a trainwreck, I need to look away and cannot. It is seeping into my soul and depressing me on a level I’ve never experienced as a result of just news. Sure, here and there the horrific realities of this world have astounded and saddened me to the point of tears. But I have never, as a 58-year-old woman, reacted so viscerally, and on so many levels. Keeping the faith, as mine is, and hopefully will always be, very strong.
    Change is messy and painful and necessary. I get that. But hearing such consistent cluelessness from people in power is beyond unnerving and unsettling. I simply have to keep reminding myself that this is how revolution happens, and a patriarchy is dissolved. Vigilance.

  • Roy Reichle

    I get what you’re saying, Courtney. I too have retreated from the barrage of rancor that fills the media, because its corrosiveness has eroded my spirit. I’m not hiding, but have turned my attention back to issues within reach. This way, I can directly do something for my community and country. Listening to fights on the air waves and posting on the internet lacks the meat of putting my hands in the mix. I still pay attention, mostly with newspapers, at least I don’t have to press “mute” every five seconds as one uncivil talking head rudely cuts off another ad nauseum. I write letters to my congress people, continue my charitable work, offer my position to others more through my actions than my words, and hope for the best as Niebuhr taught me. Wishing you all the best, Courtney. Cheers!

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  • Louis Schmier

    This essay reminds me of the story of the two shoe salesmen. A natonal shoe company wanted to expand its business into rural areas. It sent two shoe salesmen into one region of the backwoods. After a short while passed, one salesman came back totally frustrated. Stumping, with a dour look on his face, he angrily exclaimed with great exasperation: “What a waste of my time. None of these people wear shoes. I’m cursed! ” The second salesman appeared much later with a a zip in his step, an excited smile on his face, exuberantly exclaiming, “What a fantastic opportunity I have there. None of these people wear shoes. It’s a miracle!”

    So the question is: which shoe salesman do we wish to be. For me, I prefer to be the likes of the second salesman. To be that person, at the start of the day, before the sun rises, I have a ritual. First, I am one of who walks up bright eyed and bushy tailed with a “yes!” Second, I brew myself some coffee, got out to my koi pond and get lost for a few moments in the music of the waterfalls. Next, every other day, I go out for a “get in myself” meditative seven mile power walk while on the other days I do my dumbbell sets and mediative planking. Fourth, I randomly pick a word from my stack of positive “Word to Live By Today.” This morning the word was “wow.” Fifth, I gaze and think about quotes that I periodically hang above my computer. The latest one is that of Pablo Casals: “Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he acts on it and listens to it, he is giving a great deal of what the world needs most. It is not complicated, but it takes courage. It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act upon it.” And finally, I close my eyes and imagine an angel walking in front of each person proclaiming, “Make way! Make way! Make way for someone created in the image of God.” Every day, I use all these rituals collectively to put me into a deep caring, empathetic, faithful, hopeful, and, above all, loving mood; I use them to realize how amazing each moment is; I use them to appreciate all the wonder I am immersed in; I use them to be thankful for all that I have; I use them to celebrate the magnificent miracles in each supposedly ordinary moment; I use them to be decent, trustworthy, and respectful towards others. And, I use them to treasure it all.

  • Thanks for this. It’s really helpful.