square bulletThe Importance of Imagination – Active Optimism and Resilience

From , MSW, LICSW, Research Assistant, Trauma Informed Oregon

Burnout in Activism

I recently had a conversation with a childhood friend about climate change: how climate disasters are increasing in severity and frequency across the world, and the immense toll it has had on her. She told me, “We’ve known about climate change since the ‘30s, and no one’s listening. It’s getting worse. There’s no stopping it.” My friend, once hailed as a “leader of tomorrow,” became involved in climate activism starting at the age 15. Her greatest victory was stopping a power plant from being built in a rural, predominately Black community. At the time, I remember being drawn in by her almost feverish energy – passionate speeches, knocking on endless doors to get petitions signed, long stuffy road trips to the capital for environmental conferences. Ten years later, my friend is still passionate about climate change, but that passion is laced with despair, desperation, and doubt. Our discussions now lean into the negative, and my friend is no longer active in climate work.

My friend’s experience in climate activism is not unusual. In fact, I feel I’ve seen and felt this sense of despair in many occupations fueled by passion and a desire for societal change – social work, education, and various forms of activism. Burnout, a form of deep exhaustion from chronic, psychological, and emotional stress, can lead to feeling emotionally and physically drained. Burnout can cause a sense of tragic hopelessness, even in a person who was once motivated by conviction. Cynicism towards broader social change starts to dominate thoughts and conversations. I also witness emotional wounding, talking in circles, difficulty sleeping, hunched shoulders, wide eyes, and most especially loss of imagination around what could be. Psychological distress is a normal response associated with constant stressors that are difficult to cope with, especially when the stressors appear boundless. When that distress is unrelenting and pervasive, it can become a state of unaddressed trauma buried in our nervous system, leading to blame, defensiveness, and polarization between people. In turn, imagination shrinks, reducing our ability to grasp complex problems and complex solutions.

The topic of loss of imagination leads me to Dr. van der Kolk’s famous book, The Body Keeps the Score. When working with veterans, Dr. van der Kolk observed that trauma affects the imagination. The traumatized people he worked with had trouble with perception, superimposing their trauma on everything around them.

Imagination is integral to our lives. Not only does it offer an escape or distraction to mundane tasks, but it also offers us the ability to dream about new possibilities, opportunities, and solutions to make things happen. Dr. van der Kolk states, “Without imagination, there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach” (p. 17). While in no way am I stating that my friend is undergoing a traumatic experience, I do feel she and many of us in social justice work in chronically stressful environments that risk eroding our imagination. I do feel there is an impact on my psyche and well-being when fighting for my voice to be heard, to be seen, to be known, and to be valued as a being worthy of safe, healthy, and fulfilling environments, especially when time and time again I witness voices being silenced, dismissed, and devalued.

Fostering Imagination

It is critical to foster healthy imagination in our work. Through imagination, we can step back from hopelessness and address stress buried in our nervous systems. While there are many approaches to nurturing our imagination, I’d like to spotlight active optimism and resilience as described by authors whose work is steeped in social justice and healthy imagination.

Jahi Chappell, author of Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond, introduced me to a quote from Brazilian sociologist Herbert “Betinho” de Souza, who stated “Não sou otimista babaca, mas otimista ativo” (as cited on p. 4), which basically translates as “I’m not some stupid optimist”; rather, “I’m an active optimist.” Active suggests intention and something ongoing. Optimism suggests hope, and belief in that hope. Together, active optimism, in its simplest sense, suggests intention and purpose, nurturing and fueling faith into hope. This stance clearly links the need for change and the belief that change can be possible. This is in contrast to skepticism, believing the need for change while also fearing that it is impossible.

Active optimism requires constructive sources of meaning, purpose, and healthy imagination in our work. This also speaks to kindling a social environment that is supportive and fuels imagination. One way to feed our active optimism and support resilience in our social spheres is through storytelling. Storytelling, individual or in community, is relational. Stories offer the language of experience and connect us and each other to that experience. By engaging in storytelling, we invite listeners (e.g., other community members, government, philanthropy, and private sectors) into lived experiences. Telling stories with intention (i.e., not for entertainment or reaction) offers storytellers moments of reflection of their experiences, opportunities to identify where their roots lie, and exploration of why they connect so deeply to activism. Listening with intention (e.g., with curiosity, with empathy) offers listeners a chance to diversify experiences, learn new perspectives, and expand their imagination to new possibilities.

Storytelling in Oregon

As a community engagement tool, storytelling reconnects members to the vital core of who they are and what they’ve experienced, and invests meaning into that experience to help them embrace, retrieve, and accept themselves holistically.

Storytelling as a means of community connection and healing is not uncommon in Jackson County, OR. Located in Ashland, OR, The Hearth is a nonprofit that trusts in the power of personal stories to transform, rejuvenate and mobilize communities into action. It recognizes that when the gift of personal stories is offered, communities receive an invitation to act, movement towards critical consciousness, and a new understanding of bridging divisions. Over the years, The Hearth has developed a multitude of transformative storytelling methods to engage communities, including radio shows, live community story groups, written stories, songs, photography, story websites, and teaching storytellers how to foster safe and transformative settings. Volunteers from The Hearth actively engage in community healing, including facilitating climate grief groups, story projects with high school youth, neighborhood story events to increase fire safety measures, and a compassionate listening team for disaster survivors. Most recently, The Hearth launched a Care for Caregivers event, inviting service providers into rejuvenating space with food, somatic healing practices, and storytelling related to burnout and vicarious trauma.

I spotlight storytelling as a method for increasing our imagination, but I know there are many ways to approach this. How do you nurture active optimism and resilience? I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to email me at

Books Spotlighted in This Blog

Chappell, M. J. (2018). Beginning to end hunger: Food and the environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and beyond. University of California Press.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.