“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.