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‘Like a leaf on the river, let life take you where it will’

—Here is most of a talk by Chris Overfelt, a member of Veterans for Peace in Kansas City, a Board member of PeaceWorks-KC, and an activist in the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign. He gave this talk during the Missouri Green Party webinar Oct. 6, “Activism and Self-Care: How to Stay Sane for Another Day.”

I am not here representing any organization. I am simply here as an individual relating to you my experiences with anxiety and depression, and the ways it affects my life. Nothing I say here tonight is meant to be prescriptive.

Everyone experiences illness differently, whether it is physical or mental illness, and I think it’s important to establish what I mean when I use the terms anxiety and depression. For me, the anxiety is a very physical thing. My muscles tense up, my heart rate rises, and my thoughts and feelings form faster than I can process them. The physical and mental strain that I feel is akin to something like taking a math test. For me, math was always a difficult subject, and at the end of each exam, my mind and body felt like mush. When I am having an episode of anxiety, that level of stress and strain attaches itself to each thought that forms in my mind. The most routine and mundane of tasks become monumentally important, insurmountable and impossible to accomplish. In its most severe form, the anxiety feels more akin to a tiger stalking just outside my bedroom door, and my bedroom door is made of cardboard. Only I know in my head that there is no tiger, no imminent threat, yet I am still crying, still shaking and sweating, and there is no rational reason for it.

For me, the depression sets in when the severity and the duration of the mental and physical pain become overwhelming. I mentioned the strain of taking a math test, and most math tests last an hour to a few hours at most. But severe episodes of anxiety can last days, weeks, and months. Our minds and bodies are not built to handle elevated levels of anxiety for long periods. During these severe and sustained episodes, my mind and body become detrimentally fatigued. It becomes difficult to function at work and in my relationships. I go through my processes of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and yoga. I take my medication and see medical professionals. But still the pain persists. During these periods, the pleasures that life normally affords are not there, and it becomes difficult for me to envision any scenario where I am not in pain. My mind is tired of fighting, my body is tired of fighting, and I begin to think that death is the only option available for relief.

Chris Overfelt, left, at 2020 rally–photo courtesy of Chris Overfelt

I know these subjects are difficult to discuss in a public setting, but I think it’s important to be honest with you about my experiences with my mental illness. In the next part of my presentation, I want to share how my mental illness intersects with my activism. One of the cognitive behavioral therapies that I practice is to separate my physical situation from my mental state. This means that instead of looking for a solution to a physical problem to relieve my anxiety, I simply accept my anxiety as it is. This helps me calm myself, relax, and it takes the stress away of trying to fix my anxiety through my physical actions.

Activism, on the other hand, is based around the practice of physical action to resolve physical problems. This fundamentally conflicts with the tenets of my cognitive behavioral therapy. And when I ask myself why I participate in activism, the most honest answer I can give myself is that I don’t know. When I examine the decisions I make and the actions I take in my life, I cannot find a reason or a rationale for them. I know this sounds strange, but this actually helps me cope with the irrational anxiety that I experience in my life. By recognizing that my choices and actions come from a deep unconscious level, I can relieve myself of some of the stress and anxiety that comes with trying to make sense of my life.

On a very surface level, I recognize that my activism comes from a place of humility. I accept that I cannot change the world, and that as an individual I am powerless. This is another cognitive behavioral therapy that I practice. We are told to believe in the power of the individual, but accepting my own powerlessness helps me control my anxiety. So the approach I take to activism is not one of exercising my own power, but one of simply participating in organizations. I recognize sincerely that I do not possess the answers to the world’s problems, but I do know that those answers are communal ones, not individual ones. That is where the practice of organizing together comes into effect.

Sometimes there are no easy answers. Sometimes there is no clear path forward. As we face the issues of climate change, nuclear weapons, and mass migration, it’s important to recognize that the answers will not come easily, and at times we will find ourselves in retreat instead of making progress.

Chris Overfelt–Courtesy of Chris Overfelt

The last thing I want to share is a mantra I repeat to myself each morning. These are words that give me comfort, and they are not meant to be prescriptive ideas that I think you should agree with. I tell myself to practice love, walk in humility, and recognize that you don’t have the answers. Don’t get upset or angry at the people around you, or at the world, but look for the good in the people around you and look for the good in yourself. Accept the world as it is with its faults and flaws, and accept yourself as you are with your faults and flaws. Let go of your fear, anger, and hate, and approach problems with compassion and not with anger. Practice grace and mercy, forgive the people who hurt you, forgive the people who hurt other people, and confess your own violent nature and hateful thoughts. Let go of your life, your freedom, and your health, and exist as a spirit. Embrace your meaninglessness, insignificance, and anonymity. Embrace the temporariness of this life and this world. Embrace your death and suffering, and the death and suffering of others, and recognize that pain, sickness, and death are nothing to be afraid of, but more experiences within this reality, and be grateful to experience this reality and the other realities that exist beyond it. Erase yourself from the world. Erase your thoughts, actions, and emotions. Don’t think about the past or the future, but be like a leaf on the river and let life take you where it will.

Copyright 2021, Chris Overfelt, Missouri Green Party, Hannah Domsic, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License.

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Man hanging origame peace cranes.