Step One: Wash the Dishes

Soon after we started locking down here in the US, I wrote a letter to my nieces and nephews. They’re all in the UK, so we regularly stay in touch using tools like WhatsApp. (I love watching their YouTube videos!) But this time, I wanted to get some thoughts down on paper about how they could tap into their natural creativity to feel empowered and helpful to others in the weeks and months to come. Like a lot of kids, there’s a level on which they’re happy to be out of school and sitting for exams. But it’s also a scary and uncertain time, and I thought a few words from their favorite and most awesome uncle might help. I’ve distilled some of the advice I shared with them below with the hope that it will be useful to you and the people in your life.

I’m continually amazed and inspired by the compassion I see in the young generations. I plan to be a good resource for the kids in my life as they navigate this quickly changing world—and certainly they’re an incredible resource for me. We can all help each other.

Kiran Singh Sirah

1. Start Small (Wash the Dishes)

When I was a kid, my dad had a saying: “If you don’t know what to do, wash the dishes.” This advice has always stuck with me. When I was a teenager and my dad lost his job, he didn’t sit around and mope in his pajamas. He got active. The point is that it’s okay to start small; every day doesn’t have to be a big accomplishment. Just get active. Do something—anything. Wash the dishes. You’ll feel a small sense of satisfaction that will power you on to the next task, and the one after that. Sometimes you have to get your hands moving and give your brain a minute to catch up.

2. Find Your Mission
Often the best way to help yourself is to focus on helping someone else. Give yourself a mission by choosing another person (or perhaps a group of people) to serve in some way. Most of the time, we can’t be there for one another in person right now, but there are a lot of tools to help us connect. Social media is a big one. Maybe you could use a photo on Instagram to cheer someone up—or leave a nice comment that will make someone’s day. Call up an elder and share a small story from your day (and ask about theirs in return).
Serving others helps us feel a greater sense of purpose. It feels good to look for ways to help your family, your friends, your neighbors. Maybe you can write up some instructions for someone about how to use a videochat tool like FaceTime. Or check in with someone who might be lonely via Facebook. Think about strengthening social bonds, as well as new ways that we can pool and share resources so we all have access to the things we need.

3. Write It Down
I’m a big fan of keeping a journal. Your journal doesn’t have to be a comprehensive document for every detail about your life. It can just be a place where you put down a few thoughts and observations from each day. When I was a kid, my mum made me keep a journal. She told me I could use it for anything: pictures, ideas, stuff I’d seen, stories I’d heard, whatever. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to go about it. You just do it. I think one of the easiest ways to start a journaling practice is to assign a certain amount of time to dedicate to it every day. Maybe before you go to bed, give it 10 minutes. By the end of the week, you’re likely to have something interesting. You might even want to share the story of your week with someone else. Or read your own story years from now. Or pass it along to your children.

4. Learn About History
Read a memoir or a biography. Or give someone older than you a call, whether it’s a friend, a former teacher, or an elder in your family. These people are full of lessons and stories about history. Not the boring textbook kind of history, but real life lessons that you only gather through experience. Learning about the difficult times that have come before can yield surprising insights into our current situation. Ask someone about their experience during September 11th, for example. How did they feel immediately afterwards? And at what point did they start feeling better? When was it clear that things were improving?

5. Get into Science Fiction
It’s important to imagine the future. Maybe it’s a from year now, or maybe it’s 50 years down the road. Maybe more than that. What do people in the future look like, and what do they think of what we’re doing here in the “past”? How are today’s events informing the world of tomorrow? Do the people of the future greet each other in the same way? Use your imagination. Write it down in the Notes app on your phone. Put an idea on a Post-It note, or draw a picture in a sketchbook. Take your time. You might want to build on the story a bit each day. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.

An important thing to remember when the world feels out of control is that each one of us has the opportunity and the responsibility to write our own stories. We get to author some part of them ourselves. We can train ourselves to look for beauty in struggle, and to focus on moments of good, even in difficult times. It’s also okay to feel darker emotions like anxiety or despair. Those feelings are natural, and just part of being alert and alive.

Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed by the events of the day, I imagine myself telling a story about what I’m experiencing. (Sometimes I even picture myself on stage at the National Storytelling Festival. Why not?) Storytelling isn’t just a way to explain your experience to someone else; it’s also a way of interpreting and understanding life as it happens. Sharing your story has great power to help others. But maybe more importantly, stories can help you find the power to heal yourself.

Does that sound like too much? Hey, that’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up. All you have to do is go back to step one. Start small. Wash the dishes. The rest will come.