February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
Judging by my own behavior and by the sentiments of those I’ve spoken with lately, there is a proclivity among us toward paralysis when looking into the abyss of social problems. “There are just so many!” we awe. And we’re right. But instead of involving ourselves in just one (as opposed drowning ourselves in them all), we involve ourselves in none. We stare at the abyss and watch the faults unfold—but we do nothing.1
By way of metaphor, think of the social problems as Sylvia Plath’s figs:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantine and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Pg 115, The Bell Jar
Now, to be frank, many social problems—perhaps most—will work themselves out without our personal involvement (they have been thus far, we suppose). But at what cost? What is the cost of our inaction, to both our own character and to the lives of those who continue to struggle in our lag?
Do we waste our money and time?
Do we adhere to only that which is presented in popular media?
Do we start to fret over the frivolities of life?
Do we feel unproductive or ungrateful?
Does ____________ remain misunderstood?
Does one more _________________ die?
Do ten more ______________ fail?
Do 1,000 more ______________ make the same mistake we did?
Do 1,000,000 more __________________ get away with it?
Does _____________ go uninvented, or ________________ unwritten for five more years?
I can’t answer these.
I just want to make a suggestion. Or rather, to avoid sanctimony, I want to make a choice :
Instead of staring into the abyss or turning away from it, I’d like to use my volition to narrow it. I’d like to choose just one thing to (1) learn about2 and then (2) to act on. I’ve heard it before, but the truth is that I literally can’t hold everything in my consciousness simultaneously, so no one is condemning me for not acting on every problem I see. But I need room to breath. I need to empty the abyss of sensory overload by choosing to focus on just one part at a time. I find this sentiment summed by following quotations:
The left quote will likely seem less worthy to you than the right [surely 100,000 deaths is also a catastrophe]—but just grasp their kinship and get the point point. Focusing on the masses can make us catatonic.
So let’s choose to focus on the one. Let’s learn about just one problem that interests us. My experience tells me that if we study a few options and then sit quietly for a moment (in genuine quiet), we usually know what’s best for us personally.3 After all, “There just are so many [to choose from].”
1Their are certainly behavioral, scientific and psychological explanations for such inaction, but those are not my focus in this essay. This essay is about choice. Perhaps the other topics will be fodder for another post.
2This means seeking out multiple sources and opinions
3If you need recommendations to suit your ability, just ask. This broadly: in your family, in your community, nationally, internationally, environmentally, artistically, etc.