Have you ever decided not to act, or to give, because you thought you couldn't make enough of a difference?
A few weeks ago, NPR featured a short piece on the effect of hopelessness on generosity. Vedantam (whose micro-commentary I love) explained the basic premise of the research this way: in situations where we decide to give, or to help someone, emotional connection to the people in need is important (we get what he calls a "warm glow" from that shared humanity). But also important is the feeling that we can make a real difference. Statistics about the enormity of a problem actually reduce, instead of increasing, our emotional response; the "warm glow" is overshadowed by the negative feelings we experience (e.g. guilt) about people we're not helping. So essentially, when they're given the opportunity to respond to a big problem, people don't do what they can do because they feel bad about what they can't do.
A friend of ours gave the sermon in church in December. He's incredibly well-read and an excellent speaker, so we were looking forward to his talk; in general, whatever he has to say is interesting.
But this time, he made everyone squirm.
Because he called us all out for not giving enough.
Imagine standing up in front of a bunch of liberal tree-hugging do-gooders, and telling them that they don't give enough. That they're too comfortable in their lives. That their commitment to several key social justice projects is an embarrassment. That they ought to be supporting their church better. That they ought to be giving what they can, whatever that means.
It was a pretty ballsy move.
But he's right. If you're going to stand up and call yourself a (insert your identity here: activist, Christian, UU, philanthopist, feminist, friend), you should pony up.
I live a comfortable life, all things considered. I do give. And I could choose to ignore (or simply be sad about) the news about domestic terrorism, racism and injustice, sexism, poverty, Muslim extremists, because there is so much I can't do. I could feel like I'll never measure up to a former student who has moved to Sierra Leone and become know for her work with Ebola patients. Or I could act, in whatever small way I can.
This week, I'll find a way to help the family down the street who just lost everything to a house fire. I'll spread the word about the talk being given at my church on Saturday about the social construction of race, in a county where most people outside of my town are white. I'll help to collect food for our local food banks, which are running lower than ever. Maybe next week, there will be something else for me to do, something that's a little harder.
What do you avoid doing, because you feel hopeless about what you can't do, because it seems like an impossible issue to tackle? What small things can you do to overcome that inertia?