The Question We All Must Answer

In a recent column for the New York Times, Charles Blow gave voice to a question with which I continue to struggle–a question that (I assume, albeit without evidence) bedevils most thoughtful people: what can I do? What difference can one person make?

Blow recounted his family’s history of poverty, and told of a trip back to visit a favorite–very poor–aunt. By the time of the visit, he had moved into a more favorable economic position, but was certainly not able to ameliorate the conditions of the impoverished folks in his family, let alone others similarly situated.

I sat there thinking about the great divide among us, about how far removed I now was from this life, but also about how very connected I was, spiritually, to it.

And I was conflicted. How much could I or should I help? I have had long talks with my mother about this. Other than a little money in greeting cards, there wasn’t much that I could do for all the people I knew in need.

Blow concluded–accurately–that the problem of poverty was not going to be solved by  personal generosity. It would require public policy– and public indifference continued to impede passage of such policies. He decided that, given his particular skills and his position with the Times,  the best thing he could do was advocate.

Blow’s column really resonated with me, not because of the specific issue he identified, but because that issue–poverty–shares an essential component of most of the issues Americans face right now. It is a problem that’s far too big for an individual to solve, or even substantially affect.

I don’t know about those of you who read this blog, or other people generally (it may simply be my own personality defect), but what depresses me are not the sorts of problems and challenges we all face in life. I can deal with those, because in most cases, if I work hard, I can do something about them. What depresses me is powerlessness-– an inability to solve a problem, whether personal or social, or even make a dent in it.

Most of what I see around me these days reinforces that powerlessness.

Any reasonably well-informed person in today’s America cannot help but see what seems to be the disintegration of our society in the face of the truly massive threats we confront. Yes, some of those threats have been with us a long time, although (thanks to the fact that we currently marinate in media and social media) we have become much more aware of them. But others, like climate change, pose challenges that are new–and monumental.

And then there’s gerrymandering, and a global pandemic and the utter insanity of a significant portion of the American population.

If we are sentient and even remotely aware, each of us has to ask ourselves the question Charles Blow posed in his column: what can I do? What possible impact can an individual make on problems that are national or even global in scope?

I suppose one answer is to work for the election of reasonable, competent people who take these problems seriously, although gerrymandering frequently defeats that effort. Another is to model appropriate behaviors in our own lives–to work for equity and inclusion and rational public policies in our own communities. But–in the absence of widespread public participation in those activities or the emergence of effective social movements devoted to them– any rational evaluation of their efficacy will conclude that they have very little impact. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these things, but neither should we exaggerate their importance in the scheme of things…)

Charles Blow concluded that advocacy was the best thing he could do; as someone with a “bully pulpit” at a national newspaper, he is in a position to affect the national discussion. Most of us involved in advocacy don’t have that sort of audience. We are left feeling powerless–because in a very real sense, we are powerless.

Maybe that feeling–that acute awareness of a loss of agency–is why so many people are looking for someone to blame…


  1. Very true. Few things are as maddening as powerless. I think simple acts of kindness can be important. And helping as we can…Recognizing our shared humanity is a start.
    A friend of mine works for IL Dept of Motor Vehicles. He is sensitive to the poor and powerless that he meets daily. He goes out of his way to be helpful and kind to these people (While the other DMV employees – all Republicans – look down their nose at these folks and offer the bare minimum of assistance.)
    In my mid teens, I worked at a Mobil station, I had a daily “customer” named Lloyd. (I recently found Lloyds grave – near my family plot) I made an effort to welcome him each day. Some days he would buy some gas and I would have to fill out and and sign his check for him as he had NO idea how to write. That was good for 16 year old Pat to see. He wore dirty grey striped coveralls, he did not smell too great and told me how many tons of corn he shoveled that day as he savored his cold cola. Lloyds life was Very different than mine. We enjoyed our daily talk.
    I also drove with the sales manager to check on a customer who was behind on his payments on a used 59 Chevrolet. We found the family living in a DIRT FLOOR converted chicken coup with NO running water. I have never seen kids that dirty. We did NOT take back the car. I had no idea people were living like that in the mid 1960’s– 15 miles from the State Capital of Madison WI. Educational for sure.
    In more recent times, Oprah did a show on people living within an hours drive of Chicago who had NO running water. How is this possible?

  2. What you are speaking of drives many people away from their “careers with titles” into more meaningful work of helping others. You can advocate for the impoverished and the systemic changes which produce the results, but it gets down to the individual level. The great philosophers and wise men and women who see how our systems have these outcomes tried to channel us away from them, but we didn’t listen.

    Einstein saw it in 1949, and we dismissed him because he wasn’t an economist. That’s the power of denial. We have a remarkable capacity to rationalize and justify the most heinous activities that we inflict upon each other as a society.

    Drone strikes killing innocent civilians go unpunished while we torture and jail courageous truth-tellers.

    We cannot even deal with the record number of suicides committed by our service people returning home. We’ve already pivoted toward war with China and offended France in the process.

    It’s beyond absurd — our federal government has cut off aid to unemployed workers who, for the first time, were lifted out of poverty during a pandemic killing every 1 in 5 people. We don’t even mind evicting people even though billions sit in banks to help them, and the Fed prints $120 billion a month and gives the banks to gamble in their $1 quadrillion worth of derivative securities.

    Why aren’t the people who create these problems stepping forward with solutions to fix them?

    Our so-called leaders are so blinded by their greed and corruption that they cannot see what they are doing. Only a power greater than themselves, ourselves, can intervene. I believe this power has been by showing us the consequences of behaviors, but we ignore them. The signs are everywhere. Simple cause and effect, but how can you make people see what they don’t want to or cannot see?

    The Serenity Prayer comes to mind, so wisdom tells me to take action when I can and accept those things I cannot change.

  3. Mr. Blow is correct. It DOES take a nation-wide and government directed policy to defeat poverty. But in the United States, poverty is merely the underbelly of our lust for pure capitalism. And, once again, the Republican party comes to the rescue of social success where poverty is a mote of dust in the social air instead of a mud pie hurled into the face of millions every day.

    BUT, once again, the corporate sponsored Republican party hires the speech writers, the message makers and the worst of the greedy to make the propaganda that defeats the ideals of fairness. They created the bogeyman of “socialism is evil” to protect the profits of the bribing influence on our government.

    The current examples of Manchin and Sinema portray perfectly the success they’ve had at screwing up democracy to the point where government simply cannot function. Making private money illegal in politics would allow all of us to be happier with our lives.

    That said, there’s this: I live in Denver County where the voters are over 80% Democrat. Sorry, Hoosiers. But what I do and will do is write the letters and mail them to the people in Republican districts to urge them to rise above the muck of Republican disinformation, lies and craven partisanship to do the right thing. People love getting letters written by you addressed to them.

  4. There are those of us on this blog daily who, aside from seeking the information here, who do give of themselves to help others without announcing it to receive kudos. I’m sure some spend their time actually helping in person in ways we aren’t aware of and those who donate what financial help they can. Others of us support organizations who can provide legal and physical help to those in need; supporting food pantries and clothing drives, offering transportation to family and friends, speaking out about the current numbers of unvaccinated and those who refuse to wear a mask. A few on this blog have accused us of doing nothing or whatever we did was wrong or useless; no information as to what they themselves are doing to help anyone in any way. Blaming the government for ending financial assistance to millions, which totaled billions of our tax dollars, when the Pandemic prevented businesses from remaining open, obviously haven’t seen the signs in almost every form of business in this country saying “Hiring” and “We need workers” with few applying for the hundreds of thousands of available jobs at this time. Spouting Bible quotes and quoting long dead well known people to prove a point that we do have millions of needy families living in poverty in this country offers no assistance or solutions.

    Two Stephen King quotes say it all in response to them, “All we can do is all we can do.” and “If it isn’t enough, it will have to be enough.”

    We stand in long lines everywhere due to few cashier lanes open and deal with the lack of items on empty shelves; we wait days for prescription medication due to pharmacies being short staffed. And unlike that group of fools in NYC who attacked the Hostess for asking for proof of vaccination as is required by that restaurant and many other businesses as they try to save lives, we do not like it but we understand it is necessary at this time. That is one answer to “what can I do?” and “what can one person do?”

  5. My frustration comes from the fact that American voters have limited abilities in determining national election outcomes or major policy outcomes for that matter. We are actually quite lucky we weren’t confronted with 4 more years of an odious, insane criminal as our President. We squeaked by with about 44,000 votes in the Electoral College count process despite a 7 million vote lead in the popular vote. Radical changes in state voting laws have already been made that would likely erase that narrow advantage in future elections.

    Somewhere between 58-61% prefer amending the Constitution to use popular vote to elect president (approx. 89%Ds & 23%Rs). Yet we’re stuck with the archaic Electoral College process that makes little sense in today’s world.

    But that’s just one example, there are so many more. Gun control as one example — 80-90% of us have wanted controls for years but it doesn’t happen. And then there’s the basic concept of majority rule. A lot of us want that, but even that is denied. 

    American voters are forced to accept these realities of U.S. politics. Yes, forced! Even if we were operating in a system that respected different points of view, changing the “baked in” factoids of American government is nearly impossible. Yet now we operate in a system where science, truth and decency have little meaning.

    Right now saving the U.S. democracy itself is in the hands of politicians we have elected, and it’s basically a crap shoot.

  6. Expanding on what Vernon Turner says in his first paragraph, the Republican party denies that success depends on opportunity, and unless you chose your parents carefully, you were not likely to have opportunities essential to succeed. As the saying goes, if hard work were a guarantee of success, every Mexican crop picker would be wealthy.

  7. Large scale action by government is indeed necessary to end poverty, but until that happens perhaps between efforts to editorialize the problem in the Times Mr. Blow could spare a few bucks a month for his impoverished aunt.
    Too many, in order to do little and keep their own wealth, use as an excuse “no one person can solve the problem.” Instead of thinking that you have to solve the problem, try just alleviating the suffering in front of you…one old aunt at a time.

  8. It’s hard enough to attempt to end poverty as we currently define it, so imagine how hard it will be to eliminate poverty as is actually is. Below is how we currently define it:

    Persons in family/household Poverty guideline
    1 $12,880
    2 $17,420
    3 $21,960
    4 $26,500

    If I made $12,881 dollars per year, I wouldn’t be “poor” in America, even though I wouldn’t have a place to live, transportation to anywhere I needed to go, or enough to eat.

  9. While any single person may not create a ripple small actions can create a movement that can ultimately generate a tsunanmi.

  10. You don’t need to be a Bible thumper to see that the prophets were right. Mother Nature will probably be the one to punish us for not caring for the poor, telling lies to advance an agenda that makes one rich, allowing any fool to owe a gun, unjustly put people in prison, destroy the land and seas, let poverty be the only legacy you can leave to your children and I could go on and on. So, whether you are God fearing or an atheist, you can see it coming. As a person with enough resources, it is woefully insufficient to make any difference. Political activism is the only way I can see for me to make any difference.

  11. Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you. — RUTH BADER GINSBURG
    What she says is what Gandhi meant by Be the Change you Wish to see in the World and, actually, what I mean by “every day nonviolence.” I mean that situation specific nonviolent actions -taken individually and together-with intent – can help us create positive change under the shared organizing principle of nonviolence. The Nonviolence Movement is a movement of movements that will “work “ if we will work at it. We can no longer delude ourselves that a magical individual will come along to save us. Maybe just take a look at my explanation of this in
    The Tao of Nonviolence (at Pace e Bene & Amazon).
    It’s for people new to the notion of getting ahead of the violence instead of waiting for the blood or oil spill or divorce to act.

  12. No one likes feeling powerless. I know the feeling well. It was awful watching my mother slowly deteriorate and then die due to dementia. It was awful seeing how under staffed the nursing home was. I thanked God for what I learned in my recovery process which allowed me to “Let go and let God” so to speak in dealing with the slow loss of my mother. My 2 sisters and I worked together to help our mother.

    Although I don’t like much of what Jordan Petersen says, he did say one thing with which I agree. Before we engage in activism and trying to make the world a better place, we need to clean our own house. I have to look first at how I contribute to the problems with poverty,global warming etc. I have decided that the only way I can change others is to change myself, to be the change I want to see in the world. There’s a new rock song and the chorus starts with “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.”

    Having said that, my mother told me that a gentleman stepped up and co-signed on the loan her father got for the farm he had wanted for a long time. My mom inherited the farm after my grandparents died and used the money to pay for my college education in nursing. It also helped one of my sisters get a teaching degree and my other sister became a social worker. We have been able to help hundreds of people because of that one man’s kindness toward my grandfather. He co-signed the loan in 1929, the day the stock market started crashing which led to the Great Depression.

    What was it Mr. Rogers said? Focus on the helpers? What is it Thich Nhat Hahn says “Focus on what’s not wrong. Oh, and I just heard on NPR that trees contribute to our mental and physical well being. Who among us is planting trees or taking time to give ourselves the benefit of sitting with or walking amongst trees?

    As soon as it cools down, I think I will go to Eagle Creek . I need the healing power of trees which like Tolkien I dearly love.

  13. I am planning to leave the US as I see our democracy and culture disintegrating. As a combat vet I find this especially depressing as the reactionaries/white nationalists falsely claim to be “patriots” while I call them hate mongers and bigots. So I am taking the only step I can and extricating myself from this swamp of pure evil.

  14. THIS IS A BIT OF AN AD…with Sheila’s permission

    You all know the Margaret Mead saying…Well, it can be done by choosing a “sniper” approach over an “army” one. In times like these, that is how you make change.

    Four years ago, I and 40 other concerned voters started the CommonGoodGoverning community with a laser mission aimed at the US House: replace partisan/ideological “pols” with servant leaders who put country first.

    We have grown 30 fold with no social media presence, no conferences, no thought papers. We have no staff, no dues. Our efforts are done by community members who are able to spend a few hours doing Internet research. We have assisted more than 60 candidates in the primaries, more than 25 in the last two general elections – mostly longshots and folks of modest backgrounds. We do not give money to candidates.

    In this vicious environment, we have helped elect 6 atypical House members – all from districts that The Former President won. Four of the six belong to the only effective bi-partisan House group, the Problem Solvers Caucus.

    So…wanna make change…look me up – the ’22 House election may well determine the future of our democracy.

  15. Thanks for all the thoughts, and yes will try a little harder to do more, screaming at the insanity wont work.

  16. The serenity prayer is a good place to start. And then go for “think globally, act locally.” Yes, I’m an aging hippie. Then there is, as referred to above, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead; one of my hero people.
    J.P. is so right, yet, this morning I found that bunch of loonies were out on their favorite street corner, here in Floridah, waving their Trump flags!
    Pat, how does that happen within an hour’s drive from Chicago? I’m guessing that it’s because of the remnants of the Puritan ethic, saying that folks who do not pick themselves up by their bootstraps do not deserve better, although our culture has cut those very bootstraps. I mean, heck, we don’t want creeping socialism, do we? Social support systems, do we? Basic income, do we? If Roosevelt, and his lady helper, had not gotten unemployment insurance and Social Security through congress back in the day, we’d have people making millions out of running Scrooge’s favorite poor houses.
    Despite my pessimism about global warming, and its potential to wipe out humanity by century’s end (keep an eye on the Gulf Stream, if it collapses….)I was out participating in today’s International Coastal Clean-Up, this morning. Yes, one’s gotta do what one can do.

  17. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
    You must be the change you wish to see in the world.- Mahatma Gandhi
    “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” The Big Book of AA Accepting our powerlessness opens us up to the willingness for a Higher Power’s help. We then offer the problem over to a Higher Power. We let this Power remove the problem by practicing the rest of the 12 steps as a way of life. I find you can substitute just about anything for the word “alcohol.”

    Some wisdom that helps me.

  18. Magats do not take poverty seriously. Their solutions are twofold, blame the poor and reward the wealthy.

    On a different note, the female clown guv of South Dakota won’t mandate masks for school kids, but she will mandate prayer to her god in public schools. That oughta help.

  19. Complete lack of power would almost be better. Only the powerless are truly innocent. Having some power, but not enough, is a source of the despair.

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