It seems like every day there’s another big crisis that we’re supposed to do something about. There’s another mass shooting, another forest fire raging out of control, another human rights atrocity in Africa, another hate crime committed against (insert any one of dozens of groups being singled out), more evidence of the horrible things we’ve done to our ecosystem since the dawn of industrialization.
What, exactly, are we supposed to do with this information?
I’m someone who likes to fix things. When I see something that isn’t working correctly or isn’t being managed properly, I generally speak out. I volunteer to be part of a solution. I roll up my sleeves and get to work! Several years ago I was asked to serve as the (volunteer) president oft he recreation club in my neighborhood, and since I took it over we have rebuilt the pool pump house, resurfaced six tennis courts, completely remodeled the interior of the clubhouse and usage has gone from sparse to thriving. I like making a difference!
When it comes to the many calamities facing the human race, I find it difficult to really know how to help. I can recycle, I can try to make responsible choices when I spend money, I can buy an alternative fuel vehicle…but does any of that really make a big difference? It’s debatable. The big changes that need to happen have to be done on a national level, and many of our representatives in government (especially those from the red states) are simply unwilling to tackle these issues, no matter how many times I call their offices or donate money to the people who run against them.
If I allow myself to really think about it, I can get really depressed thinking about the world my nine-year old daughter will grow up in. That interior drive to FIX it goes into overdrive, but lacks an avenue towards which to point its energy. I can do little things, but I can’t make a significant difference. I’m not one to despair, but I can understand why many would start to feel helplessly doomed. One of my favorite authors/bloggers, John Pavlovic, calls this “cruelty sickness.”
I watch people, I listen closely to them, I eavesdrop on their conversations in person and on social media, and I look for the patterns to try and understand what’s happening to us as a nation.
I’ve tried to put my finger on how I’m feeling lately, how I think so many of us are feeling out there.
It isn’t outrage. We’ve been there for a while now if we’ve been paying attention at all.
It isn’t anger. That’s familiar territory for people whose eyes have been open to the ugliness.
It’s isn’t grief. We have collectively and individually mourned for years at this point.
It’s something else. I think it’s exhaustion. I sense a corporate emotional weariness in kind people these days, the accumulated scar tissue created when you’ve absorbed more bad news, predatory behavior, and attacks on decency than your reserves can manage. Sustained cruelty will do that to the human soul.
There’s only so much contempt for humanity our minds are able process, until one day something snaps and we lose the ability to respond with the same urgency and resilience we once had. A low-grade hopelessness sets in, slowly replacing our activism with apathy and one day rendering us immobile: cruelty sickness.
I completely understand where Pavlovic is coming from, and while I don’t believe I am to the point of exhaustion, I do sometimes grieve for what we’ve done to the world.
Behind the words that you’re reading is a picture of Clear Lake. Nestled in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, Clear Lake is one of the most pristine and breathtaking places on this planet. The air is so sweet it makes you think you’ve never really breathed air before. The surrounding pine trees are tall enough to block out any noise from the nearby (small) highway and you can’t get internet up there, so no cell phone constantly buzzing to pull your attention away from nature and into technological absurdity. If I rubbed a lamp and a genie popped out my first wish would be to magically transport to one of the familiar row boats so I could anchor out in the middle of that lake for a while.
Last year a string of wildfires tore across the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, and while Clear Lake was not in the path of the devastation, it didn’t miss it by much. Two other lakes I spent time enjoying as a kid – Detroit Lake and Suttle Lake – have been completely stripped of their incredible old growth pine forests by human-caused fires. No longer nestled in the comforting isolation of thick blankets of trees, they are now exposed in the middle of a charred mess.
I do grieve for the trees. I mourn for the thousands of lives lost in those fires – most of them innocent animals who had no hand in the cause of their destruction. This is personal to me because I know the area so well, but I know this is going on all over the planet. I can only imagine the many lives lost as humans burn and dozer the Amazon Rain Forest, for example. Thinking about it brings about a kind of desperation deep in my soul.
I also mourn for the many children who didn’t have the benefit of wonderful families like mine. As a teacher I see kids who have one parent or no parent, they are neglected, can’t read, aren’t sure where dinner is coming from and I know they are most likely destined to perpetuate their own misery because they don’t know any better. I can help one or two here or there, but there are times I allow the desperation of the millions of kids I can’t help overwhelm me.
It also seems like every time I drive anywhere I am surrounded my homeless people holding cardboard signs. They are staked out at every exit at the grocery store, they have the freeway exits covered and I see tents downtown where folks are calling medians and underpasses home. I have seen the documentaries about people who live this way and make thousands of dollars a year pan handling, I have personally offered employment to some who turned me down cold, and I wonder how to help them. I am not willing to hand a $5 bill to every person on the street. First, it would bankrupt me, and second, the story of giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish keeps running through my mind.
I can’t stop forest fires, I can’t feed every hungry person and I can’t miraculously provide great parents to every kid who comes to every neglected child. Should I just shrug my shoulders and not even try?
I refuse to allow the preponderance of problems facing the world rob me of my determination to helps wherever I can. I can’t help millions of children, but I can make a difference with those who come across my path. I can be the best parent I can be to my own child and therefore give her a foundation of empathy and caring from which to approach the world around her. I can’t fight every forest fire, but I can donate to and vote for political candidates who prioritize combating climate change and infrastructure. What’s more, I can go about my day being kind, offering a smile even when it isn’t returned, and just trying to be a positive force in the world.
If we all practice simple kindness, empathy, maybe even a little patience with each other, we can all make this a better world together. If we vote for leaders who show these qualities they may, by extension, work towards making the world a better place. These simple act of awareness might not seem like much, but they are better than the alternative. Giving in to despair and hopelessness simply is not an option.