2016 has been a doozy. As countless memes* commemorate, many of us ended up feeling far more beleaguered than we imagined possible. And it wasn’t just the election. It has also been the horrifying and heartbreaking international news, the mounds of famous/inspirational people deaths, and the never-ending stream of hate crimes and police brutality suffered by people of color in our own country. Again, 2016 has been brutal, and getting ready for 2017 seems like a herculean task.
I’ve surveyed some of the people in my life to crowd-source some wisdom on how they all are getting ready for 2017, feminist style. Here’s a run down on what I found…
The things I most often heard were references to self-care and health — both physical and emotional. “2017 is going to require me being more careful to make sure I keep up my yoga practice,” shared one woman, only to be echoed by almost everyone else, albeit with some variations on a theme (e.g. crossfit, barre, aerobics). Another explained that her stress levels were spiking so much that she was worried if she didn’t keep to a regular yoga schedule, her physical health would begin to deteriorate because of stress. “I know from these past few months that if I don’t make the time to do yoga, then that whole domino thing will happen.” By “that whole domino thing,” my friend was referring to a cascading set of ever worsening health consequences from not dealing with her stress in a productive way.
The legitimacy of worries about stress leading to worsening health is backed up by what I saw happen to so many of my clients over the years. The scariest things involved all different sorts of rare cancers which showed up in more persistent forms or showed up when my clients were far younger than science would have predicted. While there is no direct scientific way to prove that my clients’ cancers were tied to ignoring and pushing through their stress, many of their treating physicians were confident that stress had played a big role. But even setting aside the Big Bads like cancer, there were also the more routine physical health tolls (migraines, weight loss/gain, digestive disorders and ulcers, etc.) and the significant emotional health tolls (bouts of depression, panic and anxiety attacks, increased medications, etc.). Out of the hundreds and thousands of women I represented, only a small handful had managed to evade serious health consequences from their long-term exposure to intense and undue stress. In other words, stress is no joke.
“You cannot be a force for good in the world if you’re not able to be in it at all.”
My personal experience has been a stark and vivid illustration of what can happen to women who just push their stress down and try and keep going. I’ve had my physical health fall to pieces after swallowing too much stress for too long. And by fall to pieces, I mean four hospital stays over the past six months that included a major surgery and will likely require at least one more minor surgery in the near future. So I, myself, am placing a priority on finding healthy, physical ways to work out my stress in 2017. Because I know that with 2017 looking to be a stressful and depressing year for our country and world, I don’t want, through my own inattention to my health, to double the harm caused by the idiots out there. As I’ve counseled others in the past, you cannot be a force for good in the world if you’re not able to be in it at all.
Obviously related to the idea of dealing with stress in a healthy manner was the next item suggested by my little focus group: cultivating and utilizing our personal strengths:
“I’m finding that anxiety about the outer world is energy depleting, so focussing on my own strengths is going to be important.”
“I want to build off of what I know I can contribute.”
“I don’t need to be around people who are going to celebrate the tragedies; I need to be around people who are going to shore me up through the hard times.”
In fact, this refrain was repeated almost as frequently as attention to health. Over and over, women suggested that they were going to spend time connecting to those things within that are strengths in order to bring that strength to the outside world. And, in support of this effort, they are going to seek out supportive and inspirational communities. One person who has more free time because she is retired is taking a two month trip to visit friends and family, but was careful to pick locations where there would be “no Trumpers in my face.” She was making this a priority because, when spending time at home in a heavily-Republican community, she found herself getting too downtrodden. She hopes that with that safe space to heal, she can come back ready to go. Others referred to not only looking inward but also upward. “I’m counting on my spirituality to help me replenish my energy” explained one friend in the same breath she talked about carving out time to go volunteer at an organization where she could put her training to good use.
Another friend shared with me that she was happy to be in position for her job where she could address what, because of the incoming administration, has now become an especially pressing need. In contrast, an acquaintance who found her current work to be unconnected to the real strengths she could leverage for change was making plans to find a way, either through a new job or through volunteering her time, to put those skills into use. Over and over, I heard people reflecting on where they could uniquely contribute. We all like to feel useful, but when we draw on our individual strengths to be useful, that can be doubly rewarding.
I also heard from people who are joining together to capitalize on shared individual strengths. One woman who is a doctor shared with me that she joined a group of other physicians to work on issues surrounding reproductive rights and healthcare access. Her ability to leverage specialized knowledge on the subject made that topic an easy pick for her focus, and the opportunity to use her personal strength alongside others who shared the same gifts makes the achievable impact much larger. Other groups are also forming around specialized skills; for example, I’m personally a member of Lawyers For Good Government (a group that despite its right-wing think-tanky name is actually concerned about civil liberties and progressive policies).
Many who gave me feedback shared plans to get more involved, especially on causes that had some specific or special individual importance. “I have to do more than read through social media; I have to do something that is important.””I need to see that I can be a positive force, so I am going to be acting on those things.” “I’m going to work on causes that matter to me.” Over and over, I heard a renewed commitment to action.
For some, it starts with the Women’s March on Washington in January. “The tickets to travel were really expensive, but my friend and I felt like this was something we had to do.” When discussing the March with people, I regularly heard references to history’s view and to making sure it was clear on which side they stood when future generations look back at us. Another shared with me how, at her law school, various groups had already formed to address the causes that most inspired different groups of law students: “we have one group that will be working on reproductive rights, another that will be working on protecting immigrants’ interests, and another that will focus on the rule of law and limits on Executive Branch power.”
I’ve personally reached out to find ways I can help address things like interfaith organizing on anti-discrimination efforts in my local community. For me, I suspect that this aspect of getting ready for 2017 may prove to be the most rewarding. However, I also remind myself (and all of you) that devoting time isn’t just about knowing we showed up for the causes that matter to us; it is also about building the foundation for progress in the future. Whatever investment we make on the cause or causes of our choice cannot, fundamentally, be about us; the time we spent fighting for the cause has to be about the cause itself. Our passion can and should be peeked; we all do our best work when we’re into it. But spending time on our causes has to be meaningful beyond our self-satisfied glow. We have to be willing to get our hands dirty so that the cause reaps the benefit of our time.
Another frequent theme had to do with being more disciplined, purposeful and courageous about going out there and getting what there is to be gotten. One friend explained the context for this goal in this way: “2016 was like a tornado in my life. I feel like the structures of my life have been torn down.” I’ve heard this from both friends and colleagues. Folks look around them and see plans, futures and a belief that arc of the moral universe was generally bending towards justice lying in broken pieces around them. But, inspirationally, I’m also hearing from many people a new-found purpose and determination to rise up to meet the challenge. For example, one friend told me, “I’m not going to allow fear to keep me from making choices that will require admittedly-scary changes in my life. I’m going to fight stagnation in my life.” There was confidence, but also a slight tremble in her voice as she said this.
Unsurprisingly, I heard more than one reference to sport in these kinds of conversations, including an extended invocation of a college football coach. The general thinking was that the best coaches “don’t let losses torpedo” their long-term plan for success. Instead, they acknowledge that more often than not at least some losses are inevitable, but they are systematic about achieving the desired win/loss ratio at the end of the season. Another friend commented about a commitment to consistently do the things that are necessary for achieving that long-term success, no matter what frustrations or obstacles may come along later.
Other friends articulated this as a “back to basics” mentality. In fact, one described a plan she is putting into place to engage in a “refresher course on feminism.” She and a few other friends are making a list of books by women writers on feminist issues. And because feminism is intersectional or bullshit, that list of books includes critical race theory texts in their cannon of classic feminist books. She explained further that the idea was, by returning to books like The Bell Jar that they read (or should have read) in college, they can gain insight and fortification for the fights immediately ahead. While some starry-eyed optimism seems to have been lost, these ladies seemed ready to draw up their battle plans for the gritty work again. Clear eyes tell us that what’s coming is going to be scary, but also that there are many people who are ready to fight no matter what. For those of us GOT fans who imagined that 2017 might be the year of the ascension of a Daenerys-like first woman President, it may be time to turn our creative aspirations instead towards Sansa and her steely comeback. (And yes, there’s so much I could do with this, I may just have to write a separate GOT-themed post, so I’ll just leave it at that for now).
Beyond my GOT diversion/obsession, I found much in these conversations that resonated with my own thoughts and plans. Being particularly purposeful and systematic in the face of such odds is essential. Along with the general resolve of spirit, I’ve invested in a planner that builds in accountability for goals both long-term and short-term by requiring regular, benchmarked updates; I know that when I write things out like this, that accountability metric really sticks. And I have a buddy with whom I am doing regular check-ins for some of my goals and another who regularly offers to help me with a goal that I otherwise would love to avoid. Finally, to be totally honest, I am 100% stealing the refresher course on feminist texts idea for my “Getting Ready for 2017” list.
* I tried to find my favorite, which showed the ever-cheery Mrs. Weasley for the “me at the beginning of 2016,” the soot-stained Hermione for the “me at the end of 2016,” and the devilish Bellatrix Lestrange for the “me in 2017.” But I’m apparently terrible at the googles. Sigh.