I’ve been sitting about lately watching the world be slightly more on fire and trying to figure out how I should feel about it all. It’s not that I’m wondering whether to feel bad, it’s more some questions about what kind of bad I should feel and what, if anything, I should do about it. I don’t have any real illusions about my individual influence over the world, but at the same time simply accepting something bad as inevitable is a tool the alt-right likes to use to avoid thinking about making change (or to avoid having to).
I’m mostly thinking about guilt, and whether I should feel any. I understand the importance of recognizing complicity, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of collective guilt, especially when it comes to an entire country. I’ve never supported a politician responsible for invading Afghanistan, for example, and I have significant doubts about the extent to which U.S. politicians actually represent any part of the popular will. Why we keep believing political campaigns is equally mysterious to me.
I think we’re frightened to call ourselves powerless, since it does sound like an attempt to evade responsibility. But we may have overcorrected on this point. It’s a part of the broader conversation about things like privilege that isn’t really happening. Nonetheless, there’s a frequent battle in my mind about how what specifically *I* can do to make the world a better place, to what extent I’m selfish by doing things that I enjoy but that don’t necessarily contribute to others, and how much money one can have before it becomes “too much.” Other than this blog I’m usually pretty disconnected from the world. I try to remind myself that not everyone is called to be some great spiritual or political leader, but this isn’t an all-or-nothing question.
Rather than rending my garments in some paroxysm of white guilt, I’m just feeling vaguely sad for other people and…that’s about it. I realize my feelings aren’t especially helpful, yet they’re all I have. I’ve donated to charities for Haiti and Afghan refugees, which is not nothing. But I always wonder: should I give more? Is there some amount after which I can feel like I’ve done “enough”? To what extent is even this debate self-indulgent?
There is an undertone to all this, which is an assumption that I’m actually capable of doing enough. As someone with a decent amount of control over his own life, relatively speaking, it’s easy to over-state that. The idea that I, or even thousands of us, could magic away some major catastrophe is steeped in arrogance. And it’s a type of arrogance that can itself be dangerous; I’ve seen it argued that it was America’s belief that we can do anything that we put our minds to that helped propel the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to begin with. I’m inclined to agree.
I think, then, that the real lesson we need to take from all this is humility. We in the developed world can’t totally recreate the planet as a whole. We can do more than we do (which includes stopping doing the harmful things that we do), but I think that having a better sense of our own limitations will actually *improve* our ability to change the world. By the same token, I need to do a better job of recognizing my own limitations; it’s not defeatism to say that I can’t single-handedly stop the fighting currently going on in Ethiopia, for example.
I wonder too if there’s isn’t something to this as a distraction. It’s like how the fossil fuel industry are the ones who came up with the idea of a “carbon footprint” as a way to put the burden on individuals. To what extent do we expect less of our leaders if we assume that we can just make up for it on our own? Yet few of us have enough, even if you get a lot of us together, to donate enough to make any kind of systemic change. It’s certainly unrealistic to think that even a couple million dollars to a charity can have the same effects as a decent foreign policy from large, influential nations (such as the U.S.). Charities can often help, meanwhile, but they represent a place where the system has failed, and too much focus on the charities themselves is a distraction from asking why they’re necessary to begin with.
Another potential pitfall, in my view, is how easy it is to blame the people who need our help. We’ve seen this plenty in the case of Afghanistan, where some have tried to characterize the Afghan military’s rapid disintegration as them just not wanting it enough. Which is of course ridiculous, but it’s an easy narrative to buy into. Especially since it takes longer to explain why it’s wrong than it does to say it. Similarly, we shouldn’t think of Haiti as simply unlucky (something I’ve been guilty of myself these past weeks), because this ignores the reasons why that country has had such a hard time coping with the various natural disasters that it’s faced. Attributing those problems to simple bad luck means the mistake that led to them are that much more likely to be repeated.
I don’t want to suggest that people in the Periphery (I think that’s the term we’re now supposed to use) don’t have any agency, but there’s a difference between that and *responsibility*. I’ve often thought it’d be interesting to write a sci-fi book about America being colonized by a more-powerful alien race, but I don’t think I could do so without being super preachy, and I’m not sure how many people it’d actually convince anyway. But recognizing that agency doesn’t absolve e.g. colonial powers from their own role in creating various circumstances that those people now have to deal with. Plus, at a more practical level, I’m hardly going to blame someone for not being willing to risk their life and that of their family for some vague hope of political change. It makes those who are that much more laudable, but is hardly something I’m in a position to criticize.
Thinking about all this in the context of my own life, it’s a good way to get rid of the “if onlys.” I find myself often thinking that “if only I could do x,” things would be different. But for a variety of reasons, x may be completely unworkable. Returning to a comment I made above, we’re not all led to be some great leader, and it’s easy too to stop listening for what I *am* supposed to be doing because I’m too busy fantasizing about things that I simply can’t. I’d love to find my dream career, but as I’ve said before, I don’t even know what that looks like much less how I’d get there. Trying to figure out the first part can be useful in figuring out what I want more generally, but it doesn’t magically make something possible or even worth it. For example, to what extent can I ask my Spawn to give up the opportunities my current salary affords so that I can have a job I like marginally more?
It’s easy to be frustrated at just how much is outside my control, while just reminding myself that it’s so isn’t enough. It’s easy to rage against the unfairness of it all, and here too perspective doesn’t always help. Recognizing that it’s equally unfair that I have what I do while others don’t *can* be helpful, but only gets so far. As I’ve said before, the human animal is often a selfish creature. What I’ve found most helpful is asking myself whether I really want what I think I do, or if it’s just a signal of some unmet wish that could just as easily be met in some other way.
This is also what helps me avoid any(?) delusions of grandeur; I don’t harbor any illusions that giving me dictatorial power or massive influence would be a good idea. I recognize what I’m good at, and political leadership ain’t it. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like more decision-making as a part of my job, but that can take many forms, and the answer is certainly not to get into politics. I think it’s better to embrace the degree to which our universe is beyond us.
Returning to my original topic, it’s just the same even when it comes to helping people. I can only do what I can do. And part of recognizing that is also trusting that I’m honest enough with myself about what that actually means. I may *wish* I could do more, but that’s not the same thing as being selfish for not doing so. It doesn’t erase the sadness I feel for what’s happening to others, and I’m not sure anything *should* get rid of that. At the same time, I shouldn’t let those feelings spur me to either act beyond my means or to self-flagellation. Recognizing privilege is one thing, but feeling shame about it is something else, and it’s something I see far too much of (especially among the Terminally Online).
I’ve often wondered to what extent knowledge of things I can do nothing about is useful. I spent some time avoiding the news as much as possible (which admittedly wasn’t actually that much), thinking that my feelings on something didn’t magically make a difference. I’m beginning to rethink my stance on whether what I know in terms of current events matters. I doubt it’d be determinative in terms of voting, for example. At the same time, there’s something to be said for understanding just how the world and people work generally, and certainly for trying to understand other cultures and viewpoints. I don’t pretend that my being aware of, say, Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq or Algeria’s current spat with Morocco will have a meaningful impact on either event, or any other on the world stage. Yet one never knows where knowledge of events or a better understanding of the world in general may lead, provided it doesn’t damage my own mental health, which I think I have an okay handle on for the time being. Maybe just witnessing is enough.
I used to detest people who lived in bubbles, who lived only to serve the people immediate to them, and were ignorant of worldwide matters of great import.
But then I learned that these people are more pragmatic than I am, and strive to change the things that they are physically able to change, and let the fate of the world fall wherever it will.
On a global level, I see myself as a mere speck on one of the upper arms of the large expanding amorphously multitrophic organism known as "humanity". I cannot guide where it goes, or what it swallows, I can only tell the arm which direction to fall, and even then very seldom.
On a human level, we can directly touch and influence only a few people. The way I see it, why should I not just focus on these interactions and strengthen them, instead of distributing my finite energies weakly across an uncountable many?
I agree with you, and I think there's a degree of arrogance (or at least a lack of perspective) in pretending we have more influence than we actually do. It's better to do what we can than pretend to do what we can't.
Should you decide to do something about it, I sure the heck hope it involves your writing, because OH.. MY.. GOSH.
I actually decided to do something about it.
But the context of my effort includes the likes of having long being at Sartre's side a la "hell is other la people", and tending to believe humans aren't too much different from less-soulful automatons, and thus (individually) increasingly un-malleable ("set in their ways", especially their thinking ways) as time increases. (There are, of course, exceptions, but sufficiently rare to muck with that seeming rule.)
So... given that, I felt that I - in a sort of fulcrum-for-change role - would likely be best inserted in the lives of children, hence my shifting gears from software development (it was getting extremely boring anyway...), to teaching 6/7/8th graders math and computer science (with one unit of compsci for 3/4/5th graders to be considered "full time").
Have I made a mistake? It's - let's be blunt - insanely grueling fucking work. And I rest at least 99.99% of it's gruel-dom on the internet, which has clearly wrecked the current new generation's ability to attend - if not that of a few generations before it. I'm frequently shouting over groups of kids to reach others - because it's either that, or spending the entire time asking people to quiet down and pay attention, thereby reaching absolutely no one.
Never mind that none of the attention-getting-and/or-behavior-molding "tools" effective in my day are anymore socially acceptable - let alone legal. I'm pretty sure I could completely reach a couple of the out-of-control monsters could I just occasionally grab them and throw them against a wall, for example. I'm exaggerating slightly, of course.. and yet that's the only thing that comes to this testosteronically-charged mind given its past - and thus, again, rather un-malleable - experience.
But I do see "light bulbs go off over heads" on a regular basis. Bell's shapely curve demands it will always be impossible to reach and encourage positive change in all. But I can't express the feeling accompanying seeing kids that age "get it", especially given many of them starting from a mental place conducive to making the sound of an anvil getting hit by a sledgehammer when asked some of the simplest things.
It's a superhuman effort. But the occasional results, shall we say, laugh at ejaculation's smug face.
One thing I know for sure is any possible solutions *probably* have nothing to do with turning away from the real world to stare at a goddamned screen......
Should you decide to do something about it, I sure the heck hope it involves your writing, because OH.. MY.. GOSH.
You are *far* too kind.
But as to your broader point, I think it's these kinds of "small" victories that actually matter. They don't make the news, which makes us under-appreciate them, but I think that it's through these kinds of changes that progress actually happens. The nature of our communications makes us think we all have to be Gandhi or whatever, but as I said, that's not the calling for most of us.
Your experience as a teacher jives with my experience as a parent: it's the hardest thing I've ever done, but the rewards are proportional.
In semi-related news, I so love the confirming force of seeming coincidence - this time in the form of your mentioning proportion less than 24 hours after I embarked on a math unit entitled "Ratio and Proportion" with one of the grade levels. You gotta love when a great analogy falls from the sky.
That is definitely serendipitous!
Oh my... we're definitely in the favorite words zone, now... which - for me and in this particular case - borders on *both* the favorite movies *and* favorite actresses zones!
<inhales deeply, intones the said-to-be sacred Om>
Oh yeah, I remember that movie. I had to watch the trailer for it about 8 million times when I worked in a video rental place in high school.
I'm pretty sure seeing Kate Beckinsale about 8 million times would lead to my inventing a protocol even better than Gemini.