How Can We Turn Sadness Into Constructive Action?

Sadness is paralyzing. And there are so many problems we face, including problems of great depth and wide variety, that sadness is almost inevitable.

The scope of issues like climate change or political corruption are so large that it seems like one person cannot make a difference.

On top of that, some issues can be downright heartbreaking. Seeing images or video of suffering refugee children, or abused animals in pain, is difficult. Entire towns have been destroyed following hurricanes, earthquakes, or wildfires, which is unspeakably sad.

When thinking about these and other obstacles we face, the urge to curl up under a blanket can be tremendous.

And yet, these problems call for action. Devastated towns need to be rebuilt. Injustice needs to be confronted. Sickness needs to be treated or cured.

Can these disparate realities be reconciled? Can we keep from being overwhelmed by despair, to do what needs to be done to make the world a better place for all of us?

How can we turn sadness into constructive action?

Related questions: How can we turn ideas into actions? Why do we put up with unhappiness? When do you need inspiration? How can you help? Is it a cruel world?


8 thoughts on “How Can We Turn Sadness Into Constructive Action?”

  1. We cannot let sadness about systemic problems become paralyzing. We must turn distress into personal calls for action. And, I think, the action is best made in two ways.

    First, you should go through some introspection. “Am I a personally a part of the problem or the solution?” Climate change is the example that most comes to mind when I ponder my personal actions. Are there ways I can reduce my carbon footprint? Yes. In fact, one of the reasons I garden is to do just that. Food I grow (just feet from my house), means that I need to buy fewer vegetables that would have to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to make it to my plate. Reducing my impact is also why I almost always carry a thermos with me. Nearly all the coffee and water I drink gets drunk out of my trusty bottle rather than a disposable cup. And next, I am a pescatarian. (I should become a full-fledged vegetarian.) Right now, forests are being razed to make space for farmland (often to grow animal feed) for animals for slaughter. My small efforts may be that. But they are also good and patterned lifestyle practices to help internalize my constant reminder about the problem at hand.

    Second, I consider advocacy one of he prime ways to turn sadness into positive-feeling, reinforcing power. Advocacy can be everything from telling friends, family, and colleagues why an issue matters so much to me. Again, with my gardening, I like sharing why I do what I do. The joy I exude when talking about how and why I garden I know has moved others to try gardening and/or garden more and in better ways.

    Advocacy can also be about engaging positively on a political level. I call my elected leaders periodically about issues that deal with climate change. I’ve gone to protests (although not nearly enough) on the issue. And I’ve given to causes (again, not nearly enough) that work for systemic change.

    Yes, I can still become sad about many social and environmental ills. Thankfully, I’ve surrounded myself with people who not only care about the broader world, but are examples for what I can do to make the world a better place. Thus, I am frequently reminded that I don’t need to be paralyzed into helplessness. Instead, if I desire, I can always find ways to be part of the solution.

  2. Feeling overcome by the problems of the world seems beyond feeling just sad. To me, being sad is about feeling down in the dumps about your personal problems. In that case, we may find that we feel better by thinking about others rather than worrying about ourselves. However, it seems that you are describing is being overwhelmed by the problems of others or even the whole world like poverty, disease and climate change. To me that is more than sadness… it is more like despair, which is deeper than sadness. It may be a feeling of hopelessness. Without hope, live seems not worth living. And the cure for hopelessness, is to find hope. Feeling inadequate or frustrated for doing nothing to solve these seemingly overwhelming problems can cause that overwhelming feeling of despair. You ask how to turn this into action. This could be different for each person, but in general, I would say to start by moving. Take a walk to get your blood pumping and then think about one little thing you could do to help the situation. Then repeat this again and again each day. Write something down or share it with others. You should then begin to see that sadness or despair is only a feeling inside you and you don’t need to be lost in it. Feeling alive is suppose to be fun. Having hope is necessary.

    1. Hi Ruby,
      I like your comment “in general, I would say to start by moving. …”
      Walking helps me when I’m feeling down. And speaking of hope, I recently heard a talk about hope. The speaker emphasized that hope can be a verb, requiring action. He encouraged us to hope for the impossible, for nothing is impossible with God. I like that very much!

  3. I wish I knew the answer to this. I am currently nearly paralyzed with grief some days, and today seems to be one of them. I know the question is about global issues, but right now my personal issue clouds my thoughts. My Mom passed away 2 months ago, and some days are still very difficult.

    1. Hi Kathie. I’m sorry to hear about your Mom. If you’d like to say more about her, please do. I imagine with the holidays approaching, this is an especially difficult time for you. This blog may be useful to you in sharing your pain. I can’t think of a more useful purpose for it. Or, if you prefer another venue, I can ask Michael to give you my email address. I’ve been a Companion Minister in my church for many years, and have journeyed with people going through rough times. My experience tells me how valuable it is when you have a friend who really listens to you, or in the case of Parker Palmer (the author), when he was suffering from depression, a friend who just came and massaged his feet.

  4. This blog says it’s a roundtable. So we listen to each person at the table and try to respond appropriately. The first speaker is Michael. I find your comments both optimistic and practical.
    I especially like your last sentence “if I desire, I can always find ways to be part of the solution.” Thanks, Michael, for taking time to share your thoughts. (to be continued).

    1. Thanks, Tom. I like your answer. If you feel we are a roundtable, then we are. I simply aspire to be more so. You are one that does read and reply, so thank you for that.

  5. In general, I think we all tend to overlook the little things and become overwhelmed by the big things. Any extreme mood, like sadness, can amp this habit up further.

    When I’m overwhelmed by sadness, anxiety, fear, or any extreme emotion that’s making it hard for me to act I try to work my way out of that paralysis by flipping around not necessarily where I put my attention but how I approach those things when they have my attention.

    I know I heard a phrasing years ago that summed it up well but I can never remember it. It was something along the lines of, treating the small things as very heavy and the big things as very light. It works to get me out of my head and moving forward, which then becomes a virtuous cycle. As they say, you can’t think your way into a new way of acting, you have to act your way into a new way of thinking.

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