Light in the darkness: How to see brightness among the world’s shadows
By Katie Wilkes
The June 21st summer solstice officially kicked us off into the season so many crave for months—hot sunshine, cool breezes, and a reminder that winter actually doesn’t last all 12 months in Chicago.
But for some, summer isn’t always so bright.
To start, studies show that one in 10 people suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in summer months, though the condition is most often associated with the winter months. For others, summer can be a reminder of a tough life milestone. Or, perhaps you suddenly feel dismal after checking your newsfeed reading the latest breaking headlines.
It’s become clear lately: there’s a lot of heaviness in the world. It’s incredibly easy to spiral into all the things going wrong—that something has failed, is not enough, is broken, impossible.
According to CNBC, the online therapy institution Talkspace reported a “seven-fold spike in traffic after election night” this past November. Several of the organization’s therapists reported incoming concerns such as people feeling hopeless about the future, scared for their families and a profound sadness about the results as soon as 7:00 p.m. that evening.
No wonder we are all feeling the gravity of our surroundings.
It might seem like this heaviness will last forever. But no feeling ever does.
You’ve heard it before. Find the silver lining! Don’t stop believing! Look on the bright side!
And, be honest, how many times have you rolled your eyes or wrinkled your nose in response?
It can get downright annoying if you just aren’t…feeling it. “But how do I even start to feel better??” the mind wants to know.
At the rate we consume outside information, it seems we now need an hourly reminder of hope.
A few months ago, I returned from a place where it seems the weather mimics summertime the whole year: East Africa. It’s where bright, beautiful occurrences are often overshadowed with misconceptions of poverty, philanthropy and assumptions from the outside world.
There, my business partner and I were on a mission to capture those exact stories of hope and possibility we know are in every corner of this planet, but are often overshadowed. As part of our new documentary series, we want to give the world the reminders it needs; that yes, we can be a solution to problems around the world if we see faith in the first place.
We are in a fascinating time right now where voices are speaking up louder and clearer more than ever. We are not merely witnessing change, we are in the thick of creating it. Look at the marches taking place across the world made of people standing up for their beliefs. Count the number of people getting involved in climate change and human rights activism. Look at the social media campaigns being created to amplify voices of refugees.
This sort of energy in motion doesn’t just magically appear on its own.
It requires action to effect this change we so desperately want. But the thing is, we can only act from a genuine place if we take the first step: finding hope within ourselves.
Here are a few tips from my recent travels that might help you discover those silver linings:
Don’t skip the pages
Creators and change makers face a lot of uncertainty. As an entrepreneur, I come face-to-face with anxiety often. One day, I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, behind and just down. My mind wanted to skip ahead and work, work, work, but the rest of me wasn’t having it.
“Katie, you can’t skip from page 20 to 70 in a book, right?” my business partner, Dana, told me.
“No, of course not.” I said. “Why?”
“You have to go through the motions first—the literal emotions. Feel it, honor it, and then you’ll eventually be ready to tackle the to do’s.”
Those common self-help phrases I mentioned at the beginning of this article? They all speak to taking action. But that can be hard to do when you don’t have a drive to see the possibility and beauty that can lie ahead.
It’s action, we all say, when we have a deep yearning to make change. When we feel the burning words, “I need to do something about this!” repeat inside our heads.
There is no shortage of action needed. But the truth is, you cannot create action without having hope for something to get better in the first place. In that order.
Action without hope can feel inauthentic. When you truly believe in the potential of something—your work, your ideas, your country—your action will come from a true place. Your drive will be inherent.
That’s the exact inner drive we need to keep going when we face the grey days, too.
Commit to an open mind and open heart
I needed that same hope a year ago when I stopped playing dreamer and started taking bold action, too. I cut the safety net of my 9-to-5 job and climbed through the hole of uncertainty into the role of co-founder of this new organization. And I took a massive leap of faith I could only feel inside.
But having optimism wasn’t a given. It was intentional. I knew I had to be open and willing to see the possibility of this new endeavor, or it would never work. Telling myself “No way, no how” was an automatic ticket to ensuring what I really wanted to happen wouldn’t happen.
It was when I decided to start looking for hope that I found it.
I’ve had some practice with this, having been deployed to national disaster sites as a humanitarian worker. The moments that kept me going were the ones I saw in the thick of hardship and crisis. Communities would rise stronger, neighbors took care of each other. The contrast of that golden inspiration against the grim backdrop of tragedy is necessary. We only know light because there is darkness.
Once you get into that practice of finding hope with an open mind and heart, it becomes easier.
This is an ongoing leap of faith as our team continues to build our business endeavor. I have to keep finding hope when motivation gets bogged down and the air becomes thick.
But I keep choosing to see it. I found hope when I met my business partner and “soul sister,” through mutual friends. I found it when a former colleague offered to become our first angel donor without us asking. I found it when our first story subject allowed our crew to capture her story alongside her in Kenya. I could do this. We could do this. Staying open, we can continue doing this, too.
Our team has seen hope in the eyes of college students, disaster survivors, pioneering women. In our upcoming documentary episodes, we feature women who have called on their open hearts to create epic action in their corners of the world.
In each of their stories, we’ve witnessed a common denominator: their bravery to continue believing things can, and will get better when it can feel wrenching to do so.
Start with the outside first, then work your way in
Sometimes it’s easy to see hope in other people before you can see it in yourself.
In East Africa, we didn’t always look like the local people. But on the inside, we found deeper similarities than we thought possible. We all wanted to be seen as valuable. We all wanted to share our experiences. We all wanted the best for our families.
Looking into the eyes of the people we met, it was hard not to feel hopeful. When you’re able to recognize a part of yourself in someone else, it can be the reminder you need that we are all capable of feeling hope, too.
Hope showed up when we met dozens of young girls who shared one bedroom in an orphanage, oftentimes sleeping two to a bed. But because they had a single light bulb, they could study for school even after the sun set.
Hope showed up during a 16-year-old’s 10-mile trek to school through dangerous sugarcane fields, susceptible to wildlife and human predators. Because she had received a bicycle, she could now ride faster and safer, saving time and traveling with less fear.
Hope showed up when a toddler’s fate changed from “malnourished and in critical care” to “healthy and thriving” because his mother had learned how to garden to feed her children at a local rural training.
We are not the exception to good things happening to us. At the end of every day, you can always find five good things. Remind yourself that this is part of the journey.
Sometimes it feels like the hardest work of all is to believe in possibility. It takes a massive mind shift—a change and choice—that only you can make. How will you choose to help shed light?
Katie Wilkes is the co-founder of Freeheart Creative, dedicated to sharing brave stories of female trailblazers to inspire the next generation of leaders to change the world. She lives in Chicago’s West Loop. @freeheartcreative