Wednesday 1 February 2017

What to do when feeling political outrage?

It is essential for us to act on all inspirations that come to us, especially in this time of crisis.

What should we do when we feel outrage about what's going on in the world? I think many of us are facing this great question right now. Here are my thoughts.

In the current political climate it's natural to feel anger, fear, frustration, powerlessness, despair, and guilt for not doing more. Some pitfalls are lashing out unproductively against people with different views, venting to those who already agree with us, only taking quick actions like signing online petitions that reduce guilt but might not accomplish much, pressuring ourselves to take bigger actions that are ultimately not sustainable because our heart isn't really in them, or sweeping our outrage under the carpet and distracting ourselves with other things. I think these are all in the end unproductive or even counterproductive, because they come from trying to get rid of painful feelings, rather than from genuine inspiration.

But how does one move from pain to inspiration? It's often said that if you have "negative" feelings, you should channel them into something creative or proactive. I agree, yet I don't think that's something you can just do immediately at will. There are a few critical steps involved. 

First you need to allow yourself space to fully experience the anger, sadness, despair, etc., without trying to change or get rid of it. This means taking a few minutes away from the newspaper or screen, lying down, breathing, and just feeling the feeling, exploring it, and being compassionate with yourself through it. Eating it, as in Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's idea that our own consciousness is a kind of food that we eat when we choose to give attention to it. 

Then I think the next step is to ask yourself what do you want, what do you really want to do. Not what do you want regarding the events that outraged you, but what do you want period, right now. In the moment, what do you actually feel like doing. Be honest. It may be something like eating lunch, getting some sleep, or getting back to work, nothing to do with the events you're upset about. Do it anyway. You may need some time to sit with the pain the news brought you before you jump into action about it. Time to metabolize the feelings you've just eaten. Take that time.

Or maybe you are inspired to expose yourself more fully to the events that aroused your "negative" feelings. To educate yourself further about the issue, or spend more time with the person you've had a political argument with, so that you can get more in touch with your feelings, and they can be more grounded in knowledge and experience. If you feel that pull, follow it.

Such exposure to the world is another kind of eating, and as with eating your initial feelings, when doing this further engagement, you should have the same attitude of just being with the situation, person, or facts, exploring them, observing them, and being compassionate with yourself as you do. And then, again, you should ask yourself, "What am I moved to do now?" You may not feel called to do anything immediately; you may need time to metabolize the new input.

If you're still not inspired to take action, yet remain upset, then I think it is time to pose the question, "What do I feel genuinely moved to do in response to this issue?" And do not rush to answer that question. Stay with it. That means neither jumping prematurely into reactive behaviour, nor pushing the issue away and allowing yourself to get completely distracted from it by other things. Keep bringing up the question, with yourself, and with others.

Finally, there may come a time when you are inspired to take action. Inspiration is not something we will into being. It is something that comes to us, seemingly out of nowhere, and usually unexpectedly. For me as a musician, it appears not in the form of an abstract thought like, "I should write a song about this issue," but in a genuine impulse to go to the piano, or specific music starting to come to me. 

The thing to do that comes to you may be big, or small. It may involve other people, or be totally private. It may be a standard form of activism, or something more creative. You may not even realize that the thing you suddenly see yourself doing has anything to do with the issue that outraged you, until you start acting on the urge. That is why it is essential for us to act on all inspirations that come to us, especially in this time of crisis.

This whole process played out for me recently around a not very political event. A new septic system is being installed on my parents' property here in Truro, Massachusetts, where I spent the summers of my childhood and discovered nature. When I saw a bulldozer ripping up the ground, knocking down trees, and digging deep holes in the land that I love so much, I felt pain. I had the thought, "I should make a stink about the fact that we didn't decide to put in a composting toilet." 

Instead, I chose to spend more time just feeling my pain, compassionately, which I did. The next day, before the digging resumed, I was inspired to check out the site up close. I thought I might want to write music about it, but I wasn't putting pressure on myself to do that, or explicitly doing "research" for a song. I was just curious, and felt called to go down there and immerse myself. 

I spent time walking around the big holes, going into them, looking, touching, smelling, listening, and accepting whatever feelings came or didn't come. I did experience pain, yet also wonder, curiosity, beauty, and loving connection to the land. I was especially taken by how many colours of earth had been exposed by the digging. The next day I went again, and took pictures to show other people who love this area.

Then a few days later, it all came out naturally in a song, along with other things that have been on my mind. I never pressured myself to "channel my pain into creativity" or "write something political." It's a quiet, little song, unlikely to change the world in a big way. Yet it is an authentic response for who I am, because music is probably the best way I can make a difference in anything. 

And it is another expression of what I'm saying here: follow your inspiration. I really believe that what genuinely inspires each of us as unique individuals is the best way we can respond to the time we're in. We each hold pieces of the puzzle, and we should play them, even if we don't yet see how they fit in. We will ultimately find each other, come together, and make something beautiful.


If you walk the sky with no companion
Searching for a life to lend a hand in
Poking through the stars, the floating parties
But they're all too far from where your heart beats

If you don't know what to do
Sing the note that comes to you

If you have a land of colours varied
Where your grandma's hands and voice are buried
And there comes a team with a bulldozer
Bites into the green and paves it over

Sing the note that comes to you
Even if it's nothing new
From what you sang before 
And no one seemed to hear
Well, sing your note some more
Because the land itself is an ear.

If you have an iron in the fire 
You think could jack the moon a little higher
You're swimming with a gift to give the salmon
But there comes a ship with nets to grab them

Sing the note that you've begun
Even though you're only one
'Cause if you hold it true
Through the earth and sun
And fire and water
You will start to hear the other voices come.

And though our many sounds
Are different they're not wrong
If they're from underground
That hidden source will lead us to a song.


  1. I love this, Michael. ~Neesa

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi, Michael. Wow! I don’t usually manage to read a “long” blog entry completely before I get myself swished into doing something else... but, I read this one to the end. Reading it, I felt amazed by its synchronicity with a conversation that happened to me yesterday on exactly this theme. I very much resonate with your response to the question. Thank you :-)

  4. Lovely! Beautiful, caring, careful, thank you!

  5. Loooove it. Thank you for the reminder and the space.


Paypal or credit cards