Saving The World

I sometimes wonder what historians living a hundred years from now–assuming there’s still a planet populated with humans a hundred years hence–will dub these times? The Age of Chosen Stupidity? The Age of Tribal Reversion? Or perhaps The Age of Angst? (I think the Age of Anxiety has been taken…at least in poetry..)

It sometimes seems as if Americans who engage in or follow politics are divided into two camps. One is angry, resentful and acting-out (shorthand: MAGA), and the other is reacting to them with worry and anxiety. I know that I fall into that second group, and assuming my Facebook feed is representative, there are a lot of other people who are equally concerned about the threats to democracy, civility and the rule of law, and depressed by the seeming inability of individual action to counter those threats.

People who are “control freaks” (I plead guilty) are particularly affected by perceptions of powerlessness: tell me the only way to solve a problem is to climb that mountain, and I’ll put on my hiking boots. Tell me there is little or nothing I can do to solve that problem–that my small, local efforts really can’t make much of a difference– and I get depressed.

In the run-up to what will be an enormously consequential election, a lot of us feel pretty helpless.

But I recently came across a message that I found helpful.

The “Spark of Genius” newsletter highlights good news–progress on saving the environment, medical breakthroughs that save lives, government innovations addressing persistent problems. The linked issue addresses the anxieties of people frustrated by limits to our individual effectiveness; it was titled “Stop Trying To Save the World.”

When we try to be the hero, we act as if one person alone must do something great and heroic to enact change. We give ourselves too much importance.

When we employ a “yes, and” approach, we pile so many roles and responsibilities on ourselves that we can’t focus on what matters most. We give ourselves too many priorities.

But there’s a third way we can try to do too much. We try to take on the whole wide world and all its problems. Our scope is too broad. We forget that simply tending to our own lives and making authentic human connections is almost always the most impactful thing we can ever do.

The author acknowledges the multiple challenges we face:

the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, economic inequality, diseases of despair, pandemics, growing authoritarianism, terrorism, gun violence, runaway technological advancement, the erosion of shared knowledge and meaning, and much more. Together, these individual crises all complicate, exacerbate, and deepen one another, creating a knot of crises.

On top of all that, our experience of these crises is a crisis itself. Living with the troubling challenges of our world so often elicits anxiety, despair, and existential dread within us. This existential crisis then erodes our capacity to address the world’s more tangible challenges. As our capacity erodes, the problems intensify, and our existential crises deepen even further, and on and on. It’s the ultimate “wicked problem.”

As the article notes, caring people see the immensity and complexity of these challenges, which leads to a growing existential dread about the likely outcome and especially about one’s complicity in that outcome. Good people “yearn to do something meaningful that truly contends with this immensity and complexity.” But most of us are not in a position to save the world.

Because of that, perhaps the most strategic, elegant, all-encompassing contribution to the meta-crisis any of us can offer is simply showing up in our actual lives with more vulnerability, kindness, compassion, and courage. It’s making authentic human connections the very foundation of our lives and careers. It’s showing up to life with more heart…

Don’t overthink it. To get straight to the heart of the meta-crisis, you can just go straight to your own heart. It really can be as simple as that, if you let it.

The author is certainly not suggesting that the major innovations and breakthroughs that the newsletter reports are unimportant. The point is that most of us can only do what we can do– and that when we do whatever it is we are able to do with more kindness and courage, it really does make a difference.

If millions of Americans were to take that advice to heart, if millions of us model civility and helpfulness while we do the “small stuff”–registering voters, writing postcards, donating to campaigns, etc.– it really would make a difference. Maybe we can’t  save the world, but we can improve our little corners of it.

And if enough people did it, maybe it could save the world.

21 Comments

  1. “The point is that most of us can only do what we can do–”

    “All you can do is all you can do. If it isn’t enough, it will have to be enough.” Stephen King

    Living in fear, which is escalated daily by the morning news, and scrambling to help, physically unable to do much of anything, those my meager checks might help was spreading myself thin. Realizing the source of fear is our own government at all levels I stopped sending “help” to charitable organizations and am concentrating on going to the source, the Democratic candidates locally and nationally in this “Year of the Orange Pig’. We are struggling for the life of the planet as well as choosing elected officials who will struggle with us to survive what has become the “otherworldly” year of MAGA.

    My friend Mike Priller messages his wide range of friends on Facebook two days ago that he had only hours to live. He began his final message to us with “Vote, vote, vote!” “Saving The World” was his message from his death bed, he left us still doing “only what we can do”.

  2. The term “existential crisis” has been used a lot in geopolitics and here at home. It’s gone from a few around the world to many. There are too many to name here today, but many more than Ukraine and Gaza. Iran is going to respond to Israel’s attack on their Embassy in Damascus. That will prompt a reaction by the US, which will prompt a reaction by Russia’s Navy floating off the shores of Israel.

    The larger existential crisis is nuclear war. European countries are constructing fallout shelters for their citizens. I’ve not heard of any such activity from the US.

    The broadcast TV “news” is abysmal, and it screens much of the news it shares with Americans and Brits. The BBC has gotten so bad that UK citizens want to defund it. Any attempts by the US to replicate the BBC are shot down quickly since we all know it will be US propaganda.

    Also, I see many global climate-related emergencies on X. They are escalating as promised by the climate experts years ago. We can all limit our carbon footprint even if our government is corrupted by Big Oil & Gas and won’t act. Many non-profits want members to help spread the word. Join one!

    Another action we can take is to follow a non-profit we care about and march in protests for their cause before the government bans all protesting as extremism. The large protests worldwide for Palestinians are helping raise awareness. Code Pink is doing a great job pressing politicians owned by the Israeli lobby and other industrial lobby groups.

    The Democrats and Republicans posting on social media are getting slayed by fact-finding individuals. Many are called citizen journalists and can capture a video or photo that speaks a thousand words. Everybody has a cell phone and access to the internet. Be aware of your surroundings.

  3. You could work to feed desperate people via an organization such as World Central Kitchen — only to be blown into a pink mist by explosives supplied by Democratic President Joe Genocidal Psychopath Biden.

  4. * “I came back seeing under the sun that the race does not go to the swift nor the battle to the crack fighters, neither does bread go to the wise, neither do riches go to the longheaded, neither does popularity go to the knowing, because time and chance happen to all of them. 12 For man does not know his time either: like the fishes, that are gripped by a disastrous net, or like the birds, that are gripped by the trap, like them mankind are trapped in a disastrous time when it falls upon them suddenly.

    13 This too I saw of wisdom under the sun, and it was great to me: 14 a small city, and few men in it, and there came to it a great king and surrounded it and built great towers against it; 15 but he found in it a wise poor man, and he preserved the city by his wisdom; but people did not remember that poor man. 16 And I say, wisdom is better than prowess, but the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not listened to. 17 —Wise men’s words in quiet are heard better than the screams of a ruler among fools. 18* Wisdom is better than weapons of battle. But one bungler brings the loss of a great deal of good.” _____Ecclesiastes the 9th chapter______

    You are right, King Solomon recognized this issue that was brought out today, several millennia ago. It really is about being out of the reach of men to control their own path. Peer pressure, Just exacerbates the age of ignorance! In this age of ignorance, men continue to pour gasoline on the fire. They don’t try something else, they do the same thing over and over again with the delusional expectation of something different occurring.

    “But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, 3 having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, 4 betrayers, headstrong, puffed up with pride, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, 5 having an appearance of godliness but proving false to its power.” _____2nd Timothy the 5th chapter_____

    Whether one believes in God or in scripture or not, this issue in the thread today has been brought out for All to see with their own eyes. Unfortunately, in the age of ignorance, it works both ways. The ignorant claim they do things out of the authority of men that screech ignorance and untruth. Then the other side of the coin will screech against What the ignorant have commandeered. Also showing ignorance. Really, it’s the same side of the coin, not the flip.

  5. “Age of chosen stupidity?”
    “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure, while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Bertrand Russell
    Ian, one does not have to like, or agree with Biden, but the psychopaths in the picture are the Orange waste of protoplasm, and those whose asses he kisses.

  6. A cynical April day….I understand the sentiments of today’s piece….random acts of kindness, random acts of democracy, etc.. – better than nothing, eh? What if the abolitionists had followed that? The civil rights movement? The “do what you can do to feel better” smacks a bit more of our “MEism” v/s usism that has worked in the past. Sure is working for MAGA right now….

  7. This country has experienced many existential crises, and the present one will eventually have an outcome. Between now and then, humans will learn a lot that will become part of our shared knowledge. Those who desperately clutch onto a past will eventually have to let go.

    I doubt I will see the outcome but I worry about others (like my grandchildren).

    One thing I have been taught along the way of my life on earth is that we are all defined by our DNA, our time and place of birth, who contributes most to our upbringing, and our pinball trip after, reacting to things that we encounter—in other words, our memories, our brains.

    We have no idea if our position in the whole story of life assures the sustainability of our species.

    But, to quote Max Ehrmann:

    “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

  8. Ian. You do exactly the opposite of what Sheila calls us to do today. You make your little corner of the world ugly mean and dishonest. You are consistently part of the problem, never, at least in your posts, part of the solution.

  9. A bright spot for my day. I work on myself every day to live with the earth and do no harm to it. I respect every plant and animal and human and keep my footprint as small as I can. I teach anyone who will listen. That is my calling.

  10. https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/april-2-2024
    We are in peril. The rest of the world can no longer look to the U.S. as a stable democracy. You can only applaud them for stepping up to fill the void, hoping that the collective will stand in the gaping hole we have left.
    The criminality going on in his shadow government with full backing by the oligarchs of all stripes shows that our system may be fatally flawed. Voting for national candidates will not protect against down ballot corruption.

  11. Taking care of ourselves and not being a burden to others is a form of helping the community. Like on the plane in an emergency when the O2 masks drop, you have to breath for yourself first to be able to help others. That’s where our power is. Don’t let false authorities steal your core (soul) away and demand conformity.
    I pass on hard earned knowledge and experiences from grandparents, parents and me for a reason. Cautionary tales of how bad things can get, but optimism and effort to work toward healthy social progress is the aim.
    I have the sweetest young grandchildren that I hope will be able to have a fair shot at having a peaceful and healthy life.

  12. I used to be a Republican and thought that genocide of the entire Joe Kennedy family would be a good idea. Little did I know that RFK, Jr. would validate the wisdom of that idea!

    Now I am mostly a Democrat and thinking that genocide of the Trump family would be a good idea. Thankfully I am sure that I will not live log enough to see which Trump scion validates the wisdom of this idea.

    What I am sure of is that I have to live long enough to cast my ballot for the candidate who opposes the the orange ectoplasm that actually has a chance of winning. And that means for somebody who actually knows how government works, not some inexperienced booby!

  13. CGH – let’s wax philosophicaI. I often complain that the rich and ignorant, like Musk and Trump as a for instance, should “stay in their own lanes.” Trouble is, who defines what lanes are suitable for the rich and dumb to inhabit and not inhabit, the criteria employed, the pesky First Amendment, and by what right lane-definers such as I have to define the limits of others’ participation in civil discourse.

    I think we are stuck with the shaky opinion of an old Supreme Court justice who said he couldn’t define porn but knew it when he saw it. Such may be applicable to my understanding of appropriate lamesmanship when “seeing” (and hearing) the likes of a Musk or a Trump, but like Senator Warren, I intend to “persist” since their views cannot go unchallenged, however flawed my approach, and I like to think Aristotle would agree.

  14. Yeah,the reader calling out and against US assisted genocide is the bad guy. But advocating for the assassination of an entire family is considered admirable.

    Fine group of people you have here,professor.

  15. A most poignant post today.
    I have thought a lot about the “little things” since my sister-in-law’s funeral, a bit over a month ago.
    The entire family was overwhelmed by the number of people coming by to tell us how she had touched their lives or inspired them to become a teacher.
    She lived a normal life as a teacher, principal, volunteer (political and community), and mother of three daughters (all with careers in helping professions), but she lived it with caring and love for everyone she met (well, at least she was polite to MAGA people). She believe in Tikun Olam, healing of the world through acts of loving kindness.
    We shouldn’t despair. Rather should remember that all of the “little things” count more than we realize, in politics as in life.

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