how not to feel like crap right now

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

The people I know who are dealing with Pandemic Month Eight — and the nauseating amounts of stress leading up to the election — are those who keep turning outwards, towards other people. That turn can manifest in so many ways, and it doesn’t necessarily require leaving the home. They’re involved in Mutual Aid Groups. They’re continuing social justice reform and advocacy. They’re volunteering with political campaigns, they’re participating in free book fairs, they’re writing letters to people in nursing homes, they’re training to be election monitors. They’re doing something.

I realize this isn’t a coping mechanism that works for everyone. But I know that I’m sick of myself and need some distance — and you might too. Working to help others is grounding. It gives perspective. It creates community with people towards whom you might not naturally gravitate. It provides, even in small doses, so many of the things that COVID has taken away. And most importantly: it’s not about you. It those who our society has failed, and continues to fail, and will continue to fail, until we radically reorganize our understanding of how we should live with and care for one another. As the slogan for one of the organizations highlighted below puts it: “The work is not done and we are not done with the work.”

I asked for stories from people who are doing the work right now: how it’s exhausting and replenishing them, pissing them off and reorienting them in their communities. As several of the people here note, just having the time and wherewithal to volunteer can be a form of a privilege unto itself — but working for and with others without pay is not something that’s only available to people with means. There are people here who are un- or underemployed, people who’ve been forced to move back home, people who can only work from their homes. There are a lot of legitimate reasons why we don’t volunteer. But I also think there are all sorts of stories that we tell ourselves about why we can’t.

That nausea you’re feeling right now? That stress that’s spilling over onto your body? That’s fear: for yourself, for your family, for your country. It’s difficult to cultivate hope, or steadiness, within it. But you can try to create just a bit more hope and steadiness for someone else.

Devon, Age 30, Atlanta, Georgia

I've been volunteering with a group called Concrete Jungle since the spring. They originally started by picking fruit from trees around the city and donating it to food banks (I've volunteered on some picks). Then they started a farm and all of the food we grow is donated to food banks. Since COVID, they have started a food delivery program where they deliver food to seniors/at risk folks that need it. A lot of this food is from the farm/fruit trees in the city. We wear masks on the farm, and try to stay distanced.

I'd heard of the organization before, but never set aside the time to check it out. I live alone, and COVID had me desperate for interaction with people and to feel like I was doing something to actually help people. I have a PhD in Geology and was literally looking up how to apply to medical school.

Working at the farm has provided a safe, outdoor place to interact with new people. This is the only opportunity I've had for the socialization I’ve craved. At the same time, I get to do farming work that I already really enjoy and find soothing — and I also know that what we produce is going directly to people who need and are deeply deserving of healthy fresh food. I've personally picked veggies and then packed those veggies up and delivered them to the door of someone who wouldn't be able to access them any other way. Using a skill I have to directly help folks out really fills a void that I'm not getting from my paid work. Getting involved in this community has also really opened my eyes to how hard a lot of people are working to make Georgia a better place, which is inspiring, to say the least.

I'm questioning my whole career path, in terms of 'how can I contribute?' I feel totally drowned in empathy for people struggling and our planet suffering. I definitely was an "I don't have time" person before COVID, but this has transformed where I put my energy. I'm a poll worker now, I'm writing postcards, I'm protesting. I do not envision this will change post-COVID.

Rosemary, Age 38, Durham, North Carolina

I live in a liberal bubble in North Carolina, and the election is the only thing people talk about. Volunteering allows me to escape that for at least a little bit, and refocus my time and attention on something I can control. I’m delivering food every week to local families through an organization called EAT NC. I pick up the meals at elementary schools and deliver to 4-6 families. I’m also a guardian ad litem for children in foster care, though I did this before COVID as well. I’m typically putting in 2-5 hours a week depending on where my cases are.

I have done steady volunteer work for the past seven years, but I feel like the need to volunteer has increased significantly. Opportunities are being publicized more (at least in my community), and the need feels more immediate and urgent. I can’t give money, but I can donate my time. My dad is medically fragile, and I didn’t feel like I could join the protests in the streets. These opportunities allow me to feel like I am making a small but impactful improvement in children’s lives.

I’m delivering to houses where I’m not sure how the structures are still standing. Glimpses into their lives is causing me to try to rework my budget to see what I can do for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many times I don’t encounter people when I deliver, but when I do, I want their interactions with me to be an understanding that there are people in the community who care and that they haven’t been forgotten.

Kelle, Early 30s, New England

I got connected to a local state senate candidate in my hometown and have been a volunteer on that campaign, calling and textbanking. It's not exactly the most altruistic thing, but it simultaneously spikes and eases my anxiety (during calls and when they’re done). It feels so much better than doomscrolling. I also can't quite articulate it, but there is something meaningful to me about doing this in my hometown. It's a purple area but has become somewhat infamous for an anti-immigrant group. When I saw a best friend from high school pre-COVID, she even pointed out that it wasn't a great place to grow up. I guess there's something heartwarming or meaningful to me, maybe, about talking to folks who could vote for a progressive there.

Hearing from someone who isn't progressive is frustrating, or when someone expresses a need — that they’re in pain, and can't get the healthcare they need — and I don't feel like I can really help with their most immediate problem. But I think these connections shake me out of my frame of mind or current anxieties and make me feel useful (which I unfortunately conditioned myself to feel good about long ago — “being useful.”) Still, the work reminds me how pressing and immediate these political issues are: they are not hypotheticals.

Early in the pandemic I felt like a little consumption unit, just earning money, spending it, and providing my attention to the attention economy on social media. Connecting with people you don't know reintroduces purpose, community, and even a maybe just a sense of having an unexpected experience or interaction. Even an hour is useful. I could imagine doing this beyond political organizing, just...checking on people. I realize that sounds wild!

Toni, Age 24, Rural Area Outside Orlando, Florida

I’m volunteering for a local political candidate — I run her Twitter account, and before the semester started (I’m a law student) I was translating her website into Spanish and sitting in on weekly team Zooms. Before school started, it gave me a place to channel my frustration. Now, it’s honestly just another stressor.

I volunteered while living outside the US in 2016, but the day after the election, I still felt that I hadn’t done enough to help HRC win. I don’t want anyone to feel the despair that I felt when the results came in. Plus, you don’t need a lot of time or experience for most low-level campaign work. I used to text bank while waiting for the bus; I could contact about 500 voters in 5 minutes. You just need a working thumb to press “Send.”

I’ve found myself feeling less empathy for people who are complaining but aren’t volunteering. I understand people who are abolitionists and don’t believe in voting/working within the system at all, but I’m so frustrated with the privileged people I went to college with who didn’t vote and do nothing but tweet about how much they hate trump and Democrats alike, as if there’s any excuse for still believing in the whole “lesser of two evils” thing. Virtual volunteering hasn’t really allowed me to meet and engage with new people. And it’s dredged up a lot of old resentments.

Rachel, Age 27, A Major City in Canada

I’m part of a group that fields emergency food requests from people in my neighborhood, purchases groceries, and delivers them. There’s not much screening process — we run on an honor system. It started as a more coordinated effort when occasional requests in a neighborhood Facebook group increased as a result of the lockdown measures in March. I spend 1-3 hours a week doing contactless drop offs, and can usually do my own grocery shopping at the same time.

I wanted to be a part of things: since moving here as a student four years ago I’ve mostly been in fairly transient neighborhoods with no major organizing. Coming from a small university city where I had connections everywhere, I’ve struggled to feel like the city is a home. But I moved to a new neighborhood in May and knew right away I wanted to get involved. The neighborhood was already experiencing a pretty serious housing and gentrification crisis before the pandemic, and despite being precariously and under-employed, I’m on the wealthy end of the population, and as part of the COVID chaos I inherited a car. It was important to me when moving here to have a plan to give back and get to know community members.

I have had so much time to myself, and self promotion all day while hunting for jobs feels particularly inward focused. I think I was already feeling pretty empathetic but in the abstract; now I have much more specific knowledge. Through volunteering I’ve gotten to know my new neighborhood, connect with neighbors, and become much more plugged in to various ways that people are experiencing the impacts of the changes we’ve been experiencing. I feel like the initiatives happening now have staying power — which helps me feel like there’s a future beyond the crisis

Even though I only interact for a minute or two when I drop off groceries, casual interactions with strangers makes everything seem a little more normal. When I was in Brownies, we sang a song encouraging us to “pick a good turn to do each day.” This feels like a throwback to that, rather than the more resume-oriented volunteering I’ve gravitated towards as an adult.

Along those lines: it’s easy to feel like volunteering needs to be the sort of commitment you could declare on your resume. But there’s also lots of opportunities to do small things. People shouldn’t be afraid to reach out offering a specific skill. An organization may be advertising that they’re looking for delivery volunteers, but would be over the moon to hear someone wants to help with a spreadsheet.

Erin, Age 24, Talkeetna, Alaska

I've been volunteering for KTNA 88.9FM and putting in about one hour/week. It's a mostly volunteer-run public radio station that serves the small community of Talkeetna, Alaska, whose population is under 1000, and a few surrounding areas. It provides hyperlocal news, gives community members announcements about the town's goings-on, and even offers a way for people without phone service to have messages read out-loud to each other over the air. I'm a newsreader, which means I have a weekly shift where I read news, weather, and announcements, over the air.

I started volunteering for the radio station around this time last year. I had been involved with public radio in the past and wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of it. More importantly, though, I had just moved to a new, tiny community and wanted to be a very involved community member right off the bat. With COVID, it's helped me maintain a tie to a community I care deeply about, even when I'm not able to interact and share life with them in the way I would normally like to.

One of the greatest benefits of volunteering, other than the warm fuzzies, is the free training and experience you get! This may sound self-serving, but in my short time in the workforce I've been offered a full-time job at an organization after volunteering there, and at a public radio station in a different city I was asked to start attending staff meetings after volunteering twice. People want to invest in you when you invest in them.

I can't think of a super eloquent way to say it, but volunteering is essential for building community. I've learned a ton from my current community, who have made volunteerism something that is deeply embedded into the culture. This kind of goodness begets more goodness!

Lydia, Age 36, Portland, Oregon

I make 20 lunches a week for a local tent community. I make the lunches at my house and bring them to a park. This is coordinated by a group called Beacon PDX, which has been serving houseless people in my neighborhood for a long time. I also volunteer for a local ballot measure for universal preschool called Preschool for All, Measure 26-214. I take two days of twitter shifts per week and do various communications and other tasks as needed. There are a lot of volunteers sharing the load. Some weeks it's maybe just one hour apart from my Twitter shifts, and some weeks it's been a lot more; it's definitely taken center stage since the pandemic began.

When the pandemic started was also when the initiative was ramping up, and it helped me to feel like I was doing something other than being stuck inside with my kids feeling miserable. I started doing the lunches in March, when I was feeling helpless about how awful the pandemic was obviously going to be for people who are already struggling. Someone from Beacon PDX made it so easy with a simple social media graphic about what to put it in a lunch and how to arrange pickup and dropoff and that spurred me to sign up.

The Preschool Initiative work has been frustrating for the reasons that all politics is frustrating: mainly, seeing the absurd amount of work that has to go into something that should just be a no-brainer, plus all the different municipal machinations and power struggles. I’m also seeing the limits of my own capacity as I juggle caregiving responsibilities, work, etc. The lunches is a very tangible and well-defined activity, which is one of the things I love about it, but I get frustrated thinking about how limited it is in the grand scheme of things and how divorced of context it is to make meals and drop them off, both as an action and in terms of my own relationship to that action. It makes me want to have more money to spend on this kind of thing and figure out other ways to be useful, learn best practices etc., and then I laugh to myself like, Oh, so you think you want to be a tiny baby non-profit now? (I do not.)

Still, the work has meant everything. It gives me a tangible thing I can do each week to combat a sense of inertia and frustration with my own circumstances. And unlike other personal and professional things that I can put off with a sense of despair and self-loathing, these are activities I feel obligated to follow through with. I should point out that there is an element of privilege in my ability to do any of these things, because my husband has steady employment.

If you want to volunteer, find someone who is already doing the thing that seems important to you and see how you can help in some small way and then make it a consistent part of your routine. Add more as your capacity allows. It's like learning how to exercise — or I imagine it would be, if I exercised.

In the end, I don't know how much genuine connection is necessarily possible between everyone, but my feeling is sort of: people need shit, what is the shit they need, how do we get the shit. I feel more responsible to other people now, although I am far from giving everything I've got.

Wailin, Age 38, Oak Park, Illinois

I joined up with Oak Park Mutual Aid in the spring. Like other mutual aid groups that were formed during COVID, it's entirely volunteer/resident-led and funded by donations. We give people $100 at a time and also get them connected to local resources like food pantries and social service agencies, and we go shopping/make deliveries for folks without transportation. My time commitment's up to 8-10 hours a week.

I started with occasional volunteering at Saturday food distribution during the warm months, then got pulled into the weekly organizing calls.That led to me pitching all of the elementary and middle school district's PTOs on a formal partnership with the mutual aid group, and that led to me attending a twice-monthly conference call with all the social service agencies in the township. Then I started doing dispatch, which is taking shifts to call every person who fills out our aid request form and coordinating how to fulfill their request. It's like being an amateur social worker.

I liked the idea of neighbors directly helping neighbors. I've run into familiar names and faces while working dispatch and making deliveries. I also like the idea of direct aid and having a lot less red tape than typical agencies. And I believe, now more than ever, that governments should just give people money (UBI). Since that's not happening, at least we can give people $100 without making them feel like garbage or attaching strings to that money.

Now that I've been volunteering with dispatch, I'm both angrier and more filled with despair — yet more fully convinced that it is up to us regular folks to help our neighbors, because our society is totally broken and the government will let the most vulnerable of us die hungry. It's about community in the most basic sense of the word: Does the person down the street need a winter coat for their kid? Okay, I will ask a mom friend on the other block if her kid's outgrown that size yet, then pick up the coat from her house and drive it to this other person's house. To date, we've provided clothing, including winter coats, to 30 kids in 13 families, so that feels good!

To be honest, I'm not sure if it's helping my existential dread. I think I just feel more of it, along with extreme guilt, since I'm now always on the phone with people who are in such desperate situations. But what else is there to do? I have so much and I don't deserve any of it. I'm also a Christian (albeit a self-loathing, former evangelical-turned-something-else) who's been thinking about the radical stance that Jesus took on poverty. He chose to be poor; he organized the poor; he said that we're supposed to give away everything we have to the poor.

On Saturday, while I was on dispatch, we got an email from a woman asking if we were still distributing dairy products on the weekend. I said no and asked what she needed, and she wrote me an email about how she planned to drink a glass of milk on Saturday and a glass of milk on Sunday, but discovered that her milk had expired. I drove to the store and bought her a gallon of milk and dropped it off at her house. She insisted repeatedly that she didn't need or want anything else, and I couldn't find any gift cards at that store. So I just dropped off the milk, which felt both like an insultingly small gesture on my part but she was so grateful. I'm still thinking about that.

The mutual aid group is perpetually short on volunteers and running out of money. So THAT feels terrible! I'm pretty sure the small crew of us who work dispatch are heading straight to Burnout Land. But I've been suppressing the urge to get shame-y in my appeals to friends and neighbors because everyone says shame doesn't work, even though I think we should all feel deeply ashamed of how we're treating the most vulnerable. I think what I'd say is: There are small ways to volunteer that fit into your current schedule, even though we're all stretched so thin on time. Maybe just go through your bins and find clothes to donate, or make one delivery this weekend, or call this food pantry and confirm what their hours and eligibility requirements are. Or just Venmo the mutual aid group $5! (Ours is @OakParkMutualAid) Anything helps!

Since 2016, I've been thinking about how my family and pretty much everyone I know is way more in danger of falling out of the middle class than becoming a multimillionaire, even though we all behave otherwise. Volunteering with the mutual aid group has really cemented this for me. Venessa Wong wrote a piece for BuzzFeed about people who had good jobs and 3-6 months of emergency savings who are now broke. That could be my family if our fortunes change dramatically. And it's certainly the story for a lot of the people who contact us. I guess what I'm saying is: Eat the rich?

Maia, Age 23, Central Pennsylvania

I’m volunteering with PA United, a statewide organization building political power among working people. I’m now leading whole shifts of people in addition to making calls of my own. I got interested in deep canvassing because it’s been used to reduce abortion stigma in Maine; when I saw PAU was using deep canvassing to move persuadable voters closer to voting for Biden, I joined them.

It felt important to me to be in a community of volunteers working to flip Pennsylvania, which Clinton lost by less than 45,000 votes in 2016, and to talk to voters about what they really care about. Normally, we’d talk on the phone about whatever the voter really wanted to talk about, and I’d try to connect what they cared about to voting for Biden. It worked some of the time. Now, we’re making GOTV calls and focusing on likely Biden supporters, and it feels crucial to help people figure out the massively confusing and inconvenient voting system in the state. Some people simply would not get to vote if we hadn’t called them to help make a plan. That feels almost as good as knocking on someone’s door and giving them a ride to the polls.

It’s given me a sense of community and solidarity, which I’ve missed horribly over the past eight months. I had to move home with my parents when the pandemic struck, and I’ve been unbearably lonely and angry at the state of both the country and my life. With this volunteering, I’m part of something. And I’m really good at it: I love shift-leading and encouraging people, answering questions, sharing my personal stake in this election and getting people to come back for more shifts. I feel like an organizer, and I feel useful and like I’m making a difference.

I’ve spent more time by myself this year than I ever have. I hate it. Like all of us, I’m dealing with unprecedented anxiety, fear, misery, and anger. I’m lonely, angry, grieving, and close to hopeless. Spending too much time in my own head exacerbates all those feelings, and I can’t do it. I spend time volunteering to get out of myself and be part of something big, something that can change the direction of this country and help build a livable future. I can’t empathize with people who are racist, homophobic, and sexist, but I can feel compassion for their lack of opportunities to learn. Some people haven’t had the same luck and privilege I had, and I do empathize with the rage and fear that some of those people feel.

I’ve gotten used to turning my anger into volunteering power. As the election nears, it’s harder, because I don’t feel as angry anymore. I feel despairing. I’m going to keep calling voters, though. We are the last hope against an unbelievably terrifying future.

Laura, Age 64, Lewiston, Idaho

I am a volunteer grant writer for the Northwest Children's Home, which helps children ages 11-17 who have experienced severe trauma in their lives, almost always due to neglect and abuse. NCH is a non-profit funded primarily through state tax dollars which can only be stretched so far.

Sometimes I will put in four hours a day for ten days. Other times it might be two or three hours per week. I do three things: 1) look for opportunities, either local or from a database, and evaluate them for fit with NCH's mission; 2) ask people on the NCH Board or staff to find information or documents that a grant requires; 3) write the narrative portions of a grant application. It is difficult to find funding opportunities that help small numbers of emotionally disturbed children. Grantors want to see their dollars affect the largest possible number of people. When we do find them, there is tremendous competition for the dollars. Most grants won't be funded. And that can be really frustrating.

Getting past dithering to actually participating in any new activity can be difficult and, as it did with me, it often happens when someone asks you to help. I have struggled to adjust to the dependencies that are a result of my disabilities and the loss of my teaching career. Being able to do something for someone else, especially children who have been so grievously injured, gives me both a chance to help and to write again, which I love to do. As for right now, I think every generous act, every gift that is given without expectation of any return, is a way to stand up to the transactional selfishness being exhibited without shame in politics and in everyday life.

Jackie, Age 35, Washington, D.C.

I volunteer with DC Books to Prisons, a 20-year-old nonprofit that sends books to incarcerated readers that write us in 34 states and DC residents in federal facilities. In 2019, we sent over 7,000 packages. We use to work out of a room in a church, but that has been shut down since March. Sometime this summer, we've sorted out how to get the same process done at home. We are now sending more than pre-pandemic days.

The non-pandemic headaches still exist: prisons make it exceedingly difficult to send books in. I have to look through National Geographic magazines and comics to make sure there are no butt cracks or boobs because otherwise, it could get tossed. The same goes for art books or anything about the slave trade, which usually has some nudity. I have to scrutinize pages to make sure any wear and tear doesn't look like we've dosed the pages with drugs, like sheets of acid.

For people who weren’t volunteering before, I get it, starting right now might be hard. We haven't been able to bring anyone new on, although we are discussing how we might be able to do so via Zoom and other means in the future. Which means new opportunities could be coming up with other groups, too. Even with groups that are further away, or for people who have mobility issues. Working from home might mean more volunteering from home. The opportunities are going to be there, and so is the need. Reach out to groups that you're interested in. Everyone has a skill that could be useful to someone out there. For example, we get a lot of requests for pen pals, which we don't do, but send info on groups that do, like Write a Prisoner. You can donate your time to write through them — or to someone in a nursing home.

Occasionally, I have to look up someone before sending them a package — either I can't read their handwriting or need to make sure they haven't been moved to a different facility. That means I often see what they are in prison for, and find out they are convicted pedophiles, rapists, and murderers. And I still carefully pick out books that I hope they like. That is a new experience that has made my empathy grow beyond what it was. This work has also made me a better reader! We get a huge number of requests for Westerns, so I read Lonesome Dove to be more familiar with the genre. What a story. And I would have never checked it out without the people writing us. What an absolute gift.

Lauren, Age 33, Greater Waco Area, Texas

I’ve been volunteering with The Friends of the Library, whose current project is revamping the butterfly garden in the courtyard. I also volunteered to type up and edit my Grandfather’s memories, which he sent to me on handwritten legal pads through the mail, and I’ve been helping out one of my daughter’s teachers, which means separating and reorganizing bulk curriculum packets for each child in the classroom, cutting things out, and preparing learning materials. Nothing hard, just a couple hours of repetitive work that I can easily get done at home.

Like a lot of people, I've spent the last three months swinging wildly back and forth between fury and despair, fear and despondency. There are so many things out of my control, that I don't have power over — or the skillset to change. But volunteering for someone else has helped take me out of my own head. I can't control the whole world or fix most of its problems, but I can do my part to make the lives of others around me better. Doing something, especially with my hands (ie community gardening, paper sorting, typing) has helped to curb my raging thoughts and concerns, at least for the time that I'm performing those tasks.

Normally in times of distress or disaster you show up for people, often in a physical way. We can't do that now. The best way we can love one another in this crazy time is to remain physically distant. And that is so hard and so counterintuitive. Volunteering is my way of saying though I can't be with you right now, I can do these particular things for you while we wait for things to return to normal. It's a way to show love and care for and to demonstrate the importance of other people in my life.

Mary Ann, Age 31, Brooklyn, New York

Over the summer I started volunteering with a local mutual aid group that popped up at the start of the pandemic, helping to pack food boxes to be distributed to neighbors experiencing food insecurity. Almost every Saturday I go to the warehouse and spend a few hours in the morning sorting, stacking, lifting, boxing, doing whatever needs doing. We typically put together 400-500 boxes to benefit those who are hungry in and around our neighborhood, many of whom are undocumented immigrants with little to no access to government resources. We wear masks and are mostly outdoors.

I'd been looking for places to pass on some of my stimulus check back in the spring and found this local group. It took a while before I felt fully comfortable “going into the world” to help out in person, but I felt like I needed to — both because my neighbors needed me to and because I needed to feel like I was doing something in the midst of so much suffering, and as someone young and healthy I felt I had more leeway to take the necessary risk of helping.

It helps set a rhythm to the week, knowing I have steady Saturday plans in a time when all our old habits and patterns are gone. It's work that requires using muscles and moving around, which helps after a lot of time sitting and working from the couch. It's a team effort. It's helped my mindset when it comes to election anxiety too, just knowing that neighbors can and will find ways to look after neighbors no matter what.

Doing this work has made me even more grateful for my relatively cozy quarantine experience. There are so many opportunities to reimagine the way things are done rather than fight our way back to our old normal. So many people were already living right on the edge of catastrophe before we even reached the catastrophe.

I've really been trying to adopt the idea that hope is a discipline. It's an action. If you can find even one small way to put your hope for a better world, future, and society into action, you both make yourself feel better by contributing and actually put something into motion to help build that hoped-for future. Our actions are louder and more productive than our anxieties. ●

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