Moral Distress, climate change and hummingbirds

Moral Distress: I’ve been feeling a lot of moral distress lately with the state of the world, politically, environmentally, humanitarianly, conflict, war, genocide. It’s feeling very overwhelming for me as a highly sensitive person. I think it’s feeling like too much for most of us, really.

My biggest source of moral distress, though, is that I can do my part to make a difference. In the context of these bigger scenarios, I know it’s not going to be enough.

Practical Steps and Mindful Actions to Moral Distress

So where do we go and what do we do when we feel powerless to stop the suffering around us?

Take climate change for example: I’m doing my best to take care of the planet:

  • conserving water, 
  • growing our own food, 
  • not installing an air conditioner, 
  • putting a sweater on instead of turning up the heat, 
  • recycling, 
  • picking up trash when we walk our dog, 
  • speaking up to people in my circle of influence about changes we can make to help the environment. It’s not enough to actually make a difference and the science proves it.

Activists put enough pressure on our politicians that they do a little something. They talk about what they’re going to do, but the action that they take is almost belittling. Like they give us a gold star for trying, but don’t actually do what’s needed. 

Yes, I know it all has to do with money, but that pisses me off. It’s not really just about the money.

Just look at the Indigenous communities that don’t have clean drinking water and haven’t for decades. However, if the drinking water became unsafe in a big city somewhere like Toronto, the government wouldn’t bat an eye while they sign the cheque to get the problem fixed. But somehow the problem is too expensive to fix for Indigenous peoples?

Make it make sense.

Or the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 was the same fight that we’ve been fighting for decades, without much pro ingress. It was trendy for a while. The politicians knew they just had to wait the protestors out and then could go back to business as usual.

In a world overwhelmed by crises, it's normal to feel powerless, especially as a highly sensitive person with moral distress.

Persisting Amidst Inaction in Moral Distress

Same as with all the mass shootings in the US. Every once in a while there are mass protests about it. But the laws don’t change enough (or don’t change at all) to actually do something to stop them from happening.

It just feels so disempowering and I end up feeling absolutely sick to my stomach when I think about it.

On the one hand there’s the Kenyan story told by Wangari Maathai of the hummingbird.

There was a terrible forest fire and all of the animals were standing on the other side of the river watching their homes burn. The elephant, the giraffe, the zebra, the lion, they were all standing there watching the fire.

But a little hummingbird kept zipping down to the water. It was grabbing a droplet, flying to the edge of the fire and dropping it. It went back and forth, back and forth, one drop at a time.

The other animals watched the hummingbird for a little while until the elephant spoke up and said “Hummingbird, why are you doing that? The drop of water is too small, you are too small, you won’t be able to make a difference and put out the fire, so why are you trying?”

The hummingbird looked at the elephant and the other animals and said “I am doing the best I can.”

I am doing the best I can.

Which is hard for me to accept because I feel like I have to be doing more. Like what I’m doing is not enough because I know it isn’t enough to make a meaningful difference.

Finding Purpose in Uncertain Times

It was feeling like a waste of energy because my small actions aren’t impactful enough to stop the suffering, destruction, and pain.

It’s like we’re on a fast moving freight train without breaks that just keeps going faster and faster and we know we’re going to crash – but the conductor just says “well, sit down and enjoy the ride”. I’m not onboard with that plan. I have to keep trying.

And that’s where I was stuck.

Hate and destruction only win when we all give in to our moral distress and surrender. And I’m not ready to accept defeat

I brought this up to my therapist and she said “Sometimes the fire is just too strong, but that doesn’t diminish the effort of the hummingbird.”

Then, because she knows me so well, shared that we’re in a time of upheaval. Our systems are broken. The world is broken. It needs fixing, but we don’t know when that time will come.

There will be pain. There will be suffering and fear. We will not be able to continue on with life as we’ve known it to be and things will change.

We will either adapt – or we won’t.

She had recently watched a documentary series by Ken Burns on the Vietnam war. It was another time of upheaval and moral distress. Eventually, at the end of it all, the general population realized that politicians and our governments lie. Prior to that point, the world trusted their leaders to do what was best for them. But with the events that transpired during and after the Vietnam war, it was clear that this was not true.

Just like in the time following the Vietnam war, fundamental “truths” are having their foundations shaken and in some cases destroyed.

Navigating Anxiety, OCD, and Moral Distress Amidst Uncertainty

Side note – I realized recently that the degree to which all of this was affecting me was way out of proportion and was actually a new obsession for my OCD (I’ve decided to call him Herbert. Just in case you didn’t know, I name all of my diagnoses as a coping mechanism – it just makes me feel better). Now that I’ve been able to name it as OCD it’s not causing me to throw up or lose sleep – but the moral distress is definitely still there.

We’re watching the world break down while standing on unsteady earth that may no longer be able to provide for us and keep us safe in the way that we were used to.

And that’s scary.

Of course it brings on a lot of fear for all of us (to different degrees of course).

The thing is, everyone processes and expresses fear differently. Whether it’s fight, flight, freeze, fawn or some combo of the four – I know that we’re all doing the best we can.

Now I could find compassionate acceptance for the people who are in powerful positions that are not “doing enough” to fix our world and stop:

  • hate, 
  • racism, 
  • discrimination, 
  • climate change, 
  • genocide, 
  • abusing the indigenous communities whose sacred lands we’re living on

They are also the hummingbird – doing the best they can.

Our systems are broken. The world is broken. It needs fixing, but we don’t know when that time will come. There will be pain with moral distress

Compassionate acceptance doesn’t mean I’m okay with what they’re doing (or not doing) about the world’s problems. It just allows me to release some of my anger and fear, and come back to finding my own inner hummingbird.

Then I remembered that I chose to redefine what high achievement meant to me on my journey of Becoming Avery and settling into this disabled body that continues to break, and I started to find my way out.

Reimagining High Achievement Even with Moral Distress

Typically high achievement is described as someone who can accomplish more, make a bigger difference, or create change in the world. In my head they’re the public activists, the change makers, the protestors.

But that kind of thinking might have led to the significant health challenges I started experiencing at the end of 2018. When I think about it, I was feeling the same kind of powerlessness in my toxic work environment just before I had my epic burnout. 

So I came back to my new definition of being a high achiever, which to me means that I am creating a wave of compassion and understanding that moves beyond my initial circle of influence. I can’t solve all of the world’s problems, and I am not able to stop climate change.

But I am not powerless.

As I was thinking about how I was going to write about this, I immediately thought of the story of the man walking down the beach that was covered in starfish that had gotten washed up on shore. He was slowly bending down, picking up a stranded starfish and tossing it back in the water. Someone else was watching this older man do this, painstakingly bending over to pick up one starfish and chucking it back in the water. They came over to him and said “what’s the point? You’re not going to be able to save them all. Are you even making a difference?”

The old man looked at them as they tossed one more starfish into the water and said “I made a difference to that one.”

I can’t solve all of the world’s problems, and I am not able to stop climate change.

Three Commitments Toward Positive Change

So friend, I guess what I’m saying is that even though the world is a dumpster fire for oh so many reasons and the likelihood of me or you making enough of an impact to change something as huge as climate change, or human rights, or stop a war…well it’s slim.

We’re in a time of upheaval and it will settle – likely not where we want it to, but we will figure it out when we get there.

But in the meantime I have to try and make my corner of the world a better place. 

Change I know is possible.

I have to believe that I can create a ripple effect of compassion that spreads beyond my circle of influence.

I have to try and be like the hummingbird.

Because hate and destruction only win when we all stop fighting for justice. When we give in to our moral distress and surrender.

And I’m not ready to accept defeat.

You know I like me a good plan, so here are the three things I’m committing to so I can move forward feeling empowered:

  1. Remember that we’re in a time of upheaval and some foundational ‘truths’ are breaking apart and crumbling down around us
  2. Have compassion for my own fear and the fear of others no matter how they express it
  3. Agitate for change in a way that is in alignment with my values, my highly sensitive nature, and my disability 

My theme song for this?

Skoden by Digging Roots. It’s a vibe, my friend. Have a listen. I think you’re going to like it.

I have to believe that I can create a ripple effect of compassion that spreads beyond my circle of influence.

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SKODEN - Digging Roots