Sunday, December 6, 2009

Action instead of Aggravation

That's what I used to say to my kids when they were worried about something that might happen in the near future: Instead of,"Let's do something about it instead of worrying ourselves to death," I'd say. "Action Instead of Aggravation!"

I see I haven't changed much in the last 40 years. Here's an exchange I had recently with someone who wrote me an email. (The letters she sent were much longer than the excerpts I've copied here.)

(1)  Country: Canada
Permission: OK to publish

Question: Dear Barbara.......I am so glad I found you at this time in my life! I stumbled on your book "Live The Life You Love" at the library. I have never been in such a "dark" place in all my life. [She goes on to describe a very difficult childhood and the resulting anxiety she has always experienced] It has prevented me from doing much. I recently moved back home (sadly my mom has passed on so her warmth is not here) and my dad is still verbally abusive... My sister is mentally ill and has been taking her wrath out on me and my brother since we were small.

My grown kids are always angry with me. Even my best friend says she is tired of my "pity parties." I'm seeing a counselor who listens very well but cannot really help me other than listen.

My courage is at an all time low - I need a job. There's more, and it's just as bad. Anyway, any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.


(2)   Hi GL:

I have a suggestion. I'm hardly the first person to advise this, and you're not going to want to do it but you should really give it a try. It almost always works:

Go to some place where people need something you’re skilled at (like speaking English, for instance) and help them. That is, volunteer.

Don't volunteer to lick stamps or do any kind of solo work. Go where there you can help humans who need you. Teaching English to people who want to learn it is one thing you can do. No matter how low your self-esteem might be, you must admit you speak pretty good English.

Everyone who teaches English to immigrants or reading to illiterate adults invariably loves it. They tell me they meet wonderful, courageous people who are really worth helping. They get a lot of respect from their students, too, and getting respect right now would be better than vitamins for you.

You’re clearly depressed, so I'm glad you're getting professional help. But your letter shows that you're too much in the habit of thinking and talking about yourself. That's not wise. Isolation exaggerates dark feelings. Get into action and focus on something important enough to make you forget yourself for a few hours every day. Sign up for a steady schedule, and volunteer to teach conversational English to foreigners in classrooms. Or at coffee. Or in the park after class. It will open up a new world for you.

Try it and see.


(3) Thank you so much Barbara. I feel honored that you would take the time to offer some advice to little old me. I just started the chapter in your book( Lesson 6 on Resistance.) I am only able to read at night in bed (easier to concentrate) so will read on tonight. I just feel so insignificant and transparent and so very sad. I might be depressed but everything in my life is conducive to that so it's a "normal" depression I think. I am actually a very strong person but lately it's all getting too much. I might try and move to Cold Springs Island where I can live surrounded by wildlife. GL

(4) No, no, unh unh, GL. Bad idea. I don’t think you heard me. First, I strongly advise against moving anywhere that will make you more isolated than you are right now. You need to have your thoughts interrupted by appointments, human voices and faces. Everyone who's down in the dumps always wants to be more alone but isolation almost always makes everything worse.

Second, let me spell out what I told you in my previous note: I said to go — on a regular basis, like every Tuesday and Thursday morning of every week for at least 3 months — to a location where you can help someone else. Teaching English to foreigners is one way to do that, but not the only way.

Third, I didn’t say to read Lesson 6 on Resistance. or any of my books. They won’t help you right now. They're not right for where you are. The only thing that’s right for you at this point in time is to pick yourself up, hose yourself down, put on some clothes that won't attract attention and find a volunteer job helping other people. You are in no position to be thinking about yourself right now. You must battle your self-focused impulses and be able to think about others, people you feel responsible for, at least 6 hours a week. Otherwise you'll never get out of that damp, dark basement.

Fourth: Your circumstances are certainly bad, but it doesn’t matter why you’re depressed, you are depressed. If you weren't, you'd change your circumstances for the better without writing me. But that's hard to do when you're feeling negative. You're not in any mood to create opportunities or invent something great for yourself. Taking initiative isn't one of the symptoms of unhappiness. But there are projects that already exist and you can go to them. Your lack of energy can't be reversed unless you have to be somewhere at a certain regular time doing something with other humans; something that makes a difference.

If you can't find a way in the door to teach English to adults, go to a women’s shelter, find out what they need and see if you can find a way to get it for them. Sometimes it means no more than cleaning out your closet and giving them some nice clothes, or children's books to read to their kids. Well, for starters. Then you have to start bothering other people to donate their clothes and children's books. :-) Next thing you know, you'll feel depressed a whole lot less.

Helping animals can be good too, but I think you need a different kind of feedback, more challenging to your "long thoughts," so it's humans for you, at least for a while. Help them. Make their lives easier. That's a sunny occupation and will get rid of the mold that wants to grow in your thinking.

You won’t want to do this, I know. Clearly you feel bitter, a victim of injustice, and you don’t want to help anyone. You might think you have nothing to give. Or that you have to straighten out your life before you can help other people. But trust me, that thinking, justified or not, will keep you weak. Quit looking at the darkness around your shoulders. Look out the window instead.

Now, quit reading my book and fantasizing about getting a job. Just drag your butt out there and do what I'm telling you.


(6) Hi Barbara

I don't know if I will have the time to volunteer as I have to get a job before my savings are all depleted. This means I have to summon up strength that I don't know if I have and put all my time and efforts into earning a living.(even if I have to take anything for now) With the economic times the way they are there are many unemployed and me being 53 years old I don't exactly have youth on my side either. I do so appreciate you taking the time to reply Barbara.


If you get dressed and make some calls and volunteer tomorrow, you might have the energy to look for a job the next day or the next week. You'll also have the air of someone who's doing something on this planet that matters. You'll make a better impression in an interview than you can today.

If you stick around your volunteer position for a month or so and give it everything you've got, and you put your heart into never short-changing the people who need your help, you'll probably get hired by the organization, or, at the very least, be given a great letter of recommendation. Showing up and caring about what you do will make you stand out from the crowd. You'll be noticed.

If you don’t do what I'm telling you to do, and pretty quick, you might just stay where you are until all your savings are gone.

You know I'm right. Why didn't you go looking for a job yesterday? You felt lousy, that's why. It's the same reason you won't go looking for a job tomorrow.

Quit writing me letters and start searching the internet for a volunteer opportunity, right now.


(7)  Okay, Barbara - I will try my best! You're tough. Thanks.

Well, dear reader, that's the whole exchange. I haven't heard from her, and I have no more muscle to make her do something than you see above. I know that chances are at least 50/50 that she won't act soon enough to avoid being pulled further down into the soup. But that leaves a whole 50% chance that she will, and that's worth the effort.

So why do I answer letters like this one? Well, I've had enough practice and experience to know that I'm probably right in what I told her. And I get lots of letters that show that sometimes I do make a difference.

For the rest, I do it for myself. I just remember what Tracy Kidder said in one of my favorite books, Mountains Beyond Mountains:

"If you do the right thing well, you avoid futility."

He's talking about a true hero, Doctor Paul Farmer. There aren't enough people on this planet like him. He has set himself an almost impossible task - originally to stamp out tuberculosis in Haiti. But he's made amazing progress not only against the disease but against the world-wide organizations and people who block real solutions. And that's not the most 'impossible' task he's set himself. He's throwing everything he has at trying to stamp out poverty because he knows it's the true cause of disease.

I'm not a hero, just one of those people who knows a couple of things and isn't afraid to boss people around and tell them what to do. There aren't enough of us, either.

But I'm trying to do something about that, too. I'm helping some wonderful students use their personal experience to help others, so I have reason to expect that soon there will be more bossy people who know what they're talking about, walking up to people they recognize as being like themselves, and bossing them around too."Get into action. Do something for somebody and stick with it for a while!" Action instead of Aggravation!

I'm hoping for a groundswell.




  1. A great exchange, thanks for sharing this with us. I love your advice, partly because I can see that it's right, and partly because I see, first-hand, every day, the difference that volunteering can make to a person's life. I run a Voluntary Service Council here in the UK. We help people find voluntary work and we help organisations find volunteers. The turnarounds I've seen in the lives of some people has been humbling and inspiring. And you're right - many volunteer-involving organisations *do* provide references (and often help with resumes and job-hunting, too). The benefits aren't always dramatic, but it's amazing the difference that some regular human contact can make to a person who feels surrounded by darkness and silence. Bravo!

  2. Great advice, great approach. My situation is similar to hers, and I've found that volunteering at a small local private library has been fantastic. I have free run of the place when it's closed, which gives me a place to go to do some writing. Your advice is better yet, filling the missing components with people who actually need help. Great letter.

    Letter writer didn't say where she's from but if she's from the Pacific northwest, December is when people really start experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder, which can be pleasantly remedied with (seriously) our drug of choice, coffee. Preferably out, at a nice coffee house where there are people. Preferably, on the way to a volunteer job. SAD really sneaks up on a person and makes everything seem so much worse.

  3. (Submitting comments to this blogger page requires hoop-jumping, which may reduce the number of comments you get.)

  4. Barbara,
    Your advice, as always, is sound.
    "The Universe rewards action." It's true. Getting out of a toxic environment for even a few hours can help a person keep grounded in reality. And helping other is a great way to rebuild self-esteem.
    Finding a support group for the job search might help, too. A local library would have a list of groups in her area. (Actually, going to the library to do her job research would be a good idea, as well.)
    My heart goes out to her, as well as to all the others that are in the same boat these days.
    I hope she finds the courage to take the first step out of that door.
    Thanks for sharing this story.

  5. Great advice! She needed your 'bossy' approach. I got the impression she's fallen in love with her situation and doesn't want to let go of it...and, sadly, today at Costco's I saw a long-time friend I hadn't seen in some could have knocked me over with a feather when this normally effusive woman sounded like your letter writer - minus the job problem...but coping with a retired husband who just 'hangs' all day...I strongly encouraged her to volunteer/get a parttime job, but To Get Out Of The House for several hours at least three times a week...thank you for this most informative do good work!!

  6. Thanks for these great comments. I didn't even know they were here until I peeked in on a hunch. Maybe I should subscribe to my own blog.

    I'm posting now partly to thank you all, and partly to see why it's a pain to do so.(Submitting comments to this blogger page requires hoop-jumping...) Thanks, Your Editor for letting me know. Now let's see what happens...LOL - 1st thing is this: "Your request could not be processed. Please try again."

    I shall try again...

  7. Okay, this time it behaved itself.

    Now I shall Subscribe by email which I should have done from the gitgo.

    I love comments. Thanks so much for posting them.

  8. I've loved reading your books since I met you at A NAWBO meeting in Los Angeles in the very early 90's. Your no-nonsense approach to getting what one wants in life is PRICELESS. I know that you will have great success with your new venture in teaching others to teach others.
    All the best to you Barbara......

  9. I think you missed where this woman's enthusiasm and passion were trying to take her, and you ended up making her more conflicted. Did you see her hope and interest and motivation there? She wanted to be nearer nature, where she would indeed be surrounded by amazing people (though not necessarily human people :-). Being in nature is far from being "alone", because nature is alive and full of different individuals (the non-human kinds of people) all DOING THINGS. Nature is one of the best places to go (according to science, as well as personal experience) when you're feeling low and hopeless, because it's reassuring and inspiring and allows you to see how a healthy, thriving system works. And nature doesn't lecture you, or tell you that you're no good, it just keeps on working and growing and being beautiful... So maybe next time you hear someone have the motivation to be in a healthy environment like nature, you can support them, and let them know how great an idea it is. :-)

  10. Wow! I can actually be bossy and be of service! Sign me up!