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…