But What Can I Do?

“But what can I do?”  It’s a question that comes up a lot in conversation and one I’ve grappled with in recent months as  I’ve tried to figure out a response to it.  When nothing we do seems to make any difference, why should we even care what’s going on let alone try to do something about it?  Or to put it another way, what is an ordinary person to do in the face of the kind of unsettling news that has become routine in the last ten years?    

We have a tendency, when confronted with information that we’d rather not know, to say “I don’t want to know about things I can’t do anything about.”  We think to ourselves: it’s a beautiful day, I have things I can do that will make me feel happy or productive or good, and I don’t want to know about unpleasant realities that I feel powerless to solve.

Right there in that last sentence is a very important word — solve.  I remember thinking that it was my job to save the world and then feeling very discouraged to discover that not only could I not save the world — the world didn’t even want to be saved. Fortunately, it’s not any one person’s job to solve the problems of the universe.  That’s a really insurmountable task.  But there’s a world of difference between saving the world and doing nothing, and unfortunately, the malaise that follows disillusionment often leads to the latter.

There are a lot of possible reasons why we feel unable to do anything about our current situation. One possibility is that we are lamer people than we used to be, unable to do anything to help ourselves and in denial about the basic underpinnings of our lives. Or perhaps we feel defeated in the face of a monolithic edifice of government, education, medicine, corporations, and media that make us feel too small and stupid to have any effect on their decisions.  And then there’s a third possibility, perhaps not applicable to all, that says we feel defeated because we’ve tried to effect change in the past, either through voting or activism, and since it didn’t work, we’ve decided that democracy is broken and there is no way to effect real change past the local level.

A byproduct of feeling defeated is a form of negativity best exemplified in a game called Yes But.  Yes But is when someone makes a perfectly reasonable proposal, and you say, “Yes but…” and then tell them why it could never happen.  I’m very good at Yes But.  So the other day, a friend said to me, “Seriously, Lise, what do you want people to do?  If there’s nothing for them to do, why shouldn’t they just tend their gardens and enjoy life?”

Being confronted with this question forced me to actually try to answer it, which I don’t usually do being just as cowed by the monolith as everyone else.  But in this case, I tried, and the first thing I came up with is that, at the very least, you have to know what’s going on.  Maybe not in depth, but you need to have at least a passing acquaintance with the important issues and news stories of the day and what people think about them.

It may not be pleasant or fun to think about these topics which can range from terrorism to torture, but if you don’t know, you are all but ceding your rights because if and when a time ever comes for you to act on your own behalf in this democratic society, you won’t know what to do because you won’t have been paying attention.  You need to pay attention if you’re going to be of any use to the rest of us.  Sorry to be blunt but in a democratic society, we all sink or swim together.

To at least know what’s going on is a very basic thing that most people can accomplish with a minimum of difficulty.  The next step is to talk about it.  People like to talk to each other, we all like to share information, which explains everything from neighborhood gossip to social media.  As long as you know about things, there’s no harm in bringing up something you’ve learned with someone you hang out with and asking them what they think about it.  You might even end up discussing the news with them, which can be fun.  

What probably isn’t going to be successful is trying to convince anyone, especially someone with already formed views, that your own views are correct.  Although it would be nice if you could just write a great article or blog post and everyone would instantly see the wisdom of your ideas, in real life, that seems to happen almost never.  Either people already agree with you or they don’t.

But mostly, it isn’t about views, it’s about news — in other words, facts.  Without facts, there’s no way to make good decisions.

Ok, so you have a basic idea of current reality and you’re already talking to your friends about real life stuff and not just weather, cars, kids, sports…..  And they hate you for it, not surprisingly.  Is that it?

No, it isn’t.  There’s one more thing that anyone can do that can help and that is to hold your elected officials accountable by writing to them.  In Vermont especially, our congressional delegation really does care what voters think and while they may not always do what we want, they will always write back.  That means that they are registering our views and tabulating them, and that means that when it comes time for them to vote, it’s going to be harder to vote against us because they know how we feel.

These all sound like very simple things and they are, but then, who has time for hard things?  But as another friend told me recently, “When everyone else gets out there and is ready to do something, that’s when I’ll help.”  And he’s right to think that, because he’s done a lot of activizing in his time. But more to the point, it’s not enough for us to leave it to activists to do the dirty work of democracy, while we contribute maybe a check or a signature on a petition.  We’ve got to get our hands dirty too, by knowing what’s going on, knowing what we think about it, communicating with our peers, speaking up, contributing in our own way, and yes, voting.  

When you can’t do big things, do little ones.  Even if it doesn’t seem as though it matters what you do, it’s better to do something, anything, than to give up and do nothing. And if you do a simple thing, and your friends and families do it too because you have awakened them, then things will be different, somehow.  

As for gardening and love and family and nature and beauty and all the other great good things of this world — those are important too, and I hope we’ll always nurture and appreciate them no matter how big the issues that confront us.  But if it comes to a choice between one or the other, between enjoying life and being involved it, I would say “both” every time.  Because without our stewardship of what we have through awareness and action, there may not be any good life for us to enjoy.

Comments | 5

  • Don't leave it all for the activists to do

    “…But more to the point, it’s not enough for us to leave it to activists to do the dirty work of democracy, while we contribute maybe a check or a signature on a petition. We’ve got to get our hands dirty too, by knowing what’s going on, knowing what we think about it, communicating with our peers, speaking up, contributing in our own way, and yes, voting…”

    Everyone’s hands-on the issues, fingers on the pulse keeps us all in the loop…just hope the knot isn’t closing too fast…

  • "Just DO IT"

    “But mostly, it isn’t about views, it’s about news — in other words, facts. Without facts, there’s no way to make good decisions.”

    I would never assume, or argue, that news equates to facts or that anyone should accept facts as such. I think the news often reveals as many opinions (views) of the reporter, the source of the “facts” and who determines what is a fact, in addition to the social context of the facts, (not to mention the editors)etc. We see all around us the thoughtless dismissal of “facts”, even hard scientific evidence, every day.

    And my own experience is that any “one” (or several or a group) writing elected officials, even if including facts or citing data, rather than, or along with, ones’ “feeling”s, will not necessarily influence poltical decisions that will have an impact on one’s life.

    I think one individual taking action (including, but not limited to, writing a blog or article)toward creating the change they want to see is more effective than looking toward officials to lead. They often act as lubricants to the status quo.

    • Facts and Data

      I agree with you completely. I think what I was referring to there was information that is material and not just ideas and ideology. It’s good to have views but you need to base them on something. I worry that there’s a certain element of “what I don’t know can’t hurt me” going on right now which seems almost dangerous, given current conditions. The other piece of it is that knowing what’s going on by finding out for yourself is doing something. It may feel like nothing, but it’s not. It seems really important to me to at least know.

      But as for the ways in which data is turned into holy writ, I couldn’t agree more. I also agree that no writing is without bias because it is written by people. I would even argue that when/if computers write they will reflect the biases of their programmers. So yeah, completely objective anything doesn’t seem possible which is why I think it’s important to consult a lot of sources and reflect for yourself.

  • To be oppressed forever, why that's absurd

    Everybody can do something to make the world a better place. Smile. Have some fun. Clean up. Help animals and children.

    I worry that we’ve lost the “leave it better than you found it” philosophy that guided us for so long. Perhaps part of the problem is we’ve spent the last 100 years getting rid of the evidence of us being here.

    We no longer have piles of trash in our yards, as it’s taken away and shipped somewhere out of sight. We don’t have outhouses, and our waste gets whisked away without incident. Our air pollution is still there, but it has been cleaned so the air looks clear.

    We’ve forgotten that things are made and are forgetting how to make and fix them.

    Depressed? Not at all. I still have faith that people are good and capable of amazing things. In that spirit, I repeat the words of the Last Poets:

    “Wake up, mighty nation, from your sleep. Flex your muscles, stand up on your feet. Put your fears behind and activate your mind. Just know that the taste of freedom is bittersweet.

    Speak up loudly, let your voice be heard. Train your tongue to speak the righteous word. Think before you talk and look before you walk. To be oppressed forever, why that’s absurd.

    C’mon join your party before you die. Don’t let a chance for freedom pass you by. You owe it to the youth, to search and find the truth. Results depend on just how hard you try.

    You must look to the future right away. You must get on the move without delay. When all is said and done and victory is won, you’ll find you’ve moved the obstacles away.

    Wake up yourself from this unpleasant dream! Your limbs must work together as a team. Your future could be great, if you cooperate. Believe me, things aren’t always as they seem.

    What you gonna do? Better get movin’ before we all are through. What you gonna do? Better get movin’ before we all are through.”

    Break the bonds that hold you to the earth, Free yourself show the world your worth. Let your motto be: I’m determined to be free, to give my children freedom from their birth.

    Unleash that talent, put your mind to work. Who knows what joys behind tomorrow lurk? It’s time to take a stand, and give yourself a hand. But first you must be free of doubt for sure.

    Search your soul, free yourself within. Let the truth become your bosom friend.  Make your motive right and your future will be bright. Just reassure yourself that you can win.

    Put your words and actions in accord. Keep your obligations to your lord. The time is much too late to procrastinate. Your actions will determine your reward.

     Wake up, wake up! Got to say it twice. Ain’t nothing happening withour some sacrifice. So, do what you got to do before we all are through. If you want freedom, gladly pay the price.

     What you gonna do? Better get movin’ before we all are through. What you gonna do? Better get movin’ before we all are through.


    Make it your theme song!   http://youtu.be/1GK8JVx3s98

    • That'll be the day

      Most people will eat a can of corn.

      Most people, however, cannot mine the earth or know how to make the can, few people can grow the corn and even less people can really “can” the corn and bring the can to the shelves, and worse, neither can they recycle it themselves when they consumed it and as you say, when they throw it away, the collateral damage they create is sight unseen.

      What you can’t see, you’re not responsible for.

      “Leave it better than we found it?” Ha. That’ll be the day. The day my Iroquois and Cherokee ancestors come back and haunt us.

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