We are living through difficult times; this has become so obvious it is axiomatic. The current war in Ukraine is set against a context of a global pandemic, the impacts of climate emergency, an escalating cost of living crisis and further serious conflicts around the world. To borrow language from Joanna Macy: a ‘great unravelling’ seems more and more visible, while the cracks in ‘business as usual’ are becoming deeper by the day. 

Denial and despair; these are classic ways that people react in times of suffering. I know I find myself caught in both at times. When I find the space to do so, I ask myself: Is there another way? A way to meaningfully navigate the times and not become overwhelmed by them? 

Artwork by Charlie Mackesy

The compulsive need to keep up with the Russian invasion is taking a toll on our mental health,” The Guardian reported. I didn’t need the news to realise this though; I can see it in the faces and messages of close friends and family, and I can feel it in myself. My ‘doomscrolling’ has at times left me feeling so hopeless, scared and lost that I feel too weak to fully function; only able to carry out the bare minimum of my responsibilities in life. I know that I am not the only one feeling this way. 

A good friend, Alex Nunn (Action for Happiness), recently pointed out, “we are not educated in how to deal with or respond to wider suffering in the world”. And with so much suffering in today’s world this is becoming a huge problem. We need to find ways to support ourselves and each other through these difficult times. 

I’d like to pause here and acknowledge that it can feel extremely selfish to discuss the pain of witnessing other’s suffering. However, recognising this pain is important if we are to take action to help alleviate the suffering we are witness to. “Public reaction in the UK and elsewhere to the war may seem trivial compared with the horrific realities for the people caught up in it, but it has also driven political action”. And our empathy can lead to effective action only if we can avoid getting paralysed by it. 

Here it has helped me to understand the difference between empathy and compassion, as highlighted by researcher Tania Singer. Empathy is feeling-with another and is an important gateway to compassion, but if we stay stuck in empathy we can easily become overwhelmed, and this doesn’t actually help those suffering. Compassion is being confronted with suffering and then wishing for and acting to alleviate that suffering.

Compassion can be practised in many ways, such as:

Although these actions focus on the war in Ukraine, there are of course – as highlighted at the start of this piece – many issues facing us in today’s world, and many more ways to help.

When the war first started in Ukraine, I was frozen in empathy; reading every news article I could, imagining the horrors people are experiencing, putting myself in their shoes and feeling the weight of the global political shift we are all witnessing. This had a negative impact on my overall mental health, and I realised that I was not helping anyone; I was only hurting myself. I then remembered the difference between empathy and compassion, and I began to act from a compassionate perspective instead. 

The outcome of this has been me taking more small actions to support those struggling with the war. Plus, I spoke more about it with others around me (not only via social media, but also in-person) and realised that they also cared deeply and were trying to help. The types of compassionate actions I am able to take do not feel like ‘enough’ but at the same time all actions are part of a wider picture. 

It is important to acknowledge that we are facing so many intersecting challenges in today’s world, and none of us are going to make the difference needed on our own, but that does not mean it isn’t worth playing our small part. I love the way Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) expressed this in a recent Instagram post in which she compared social change to mosaics made up of small yet significant pieces. 

“The secret of mosaics are: 

  1. Each piece (us and our small actions) is far more powerful and meaningful than we know, and 
  2. Each piece (we) need each other far more than we realised…” 

In today’s world I think we need to learn how to have more compassion – for ourselves, for those around us and for those who are suffering most. Taking action to help others and taking care of ourselves are not mutually exclusive, and every action we take is part of the wider mosaic of creating a better world for us all to live in. 

AOC closed her post with the words “take heart” and I do – in her words and actions, and those of the many countless others taking powerful compassionate actions in today’s chaotic world.