I like to think of myself as an optimist, but lately I find myself adrift in feelings of hopelessness.
It’s not just the election, although that’s obviously part of it. It’s a whole raft of disasters which add up to the impression that humanity is going backwards: the genocide in Syria, which the world seems to have no will to do anything about; the upsurge of racism and xenophobia across the West; in the U.S., police who murder innocent people on camera with impunity; hate and bigotry festering among those who should be advocates of reason.
Or take disasters like Grenfell Tower, a public housing complex in the U.K. that went up in flames, killing at least 79 people and possibly many more. It was a completely preventable tragedy: the tower had no sprinkler system, and it was clad in highly flammable aluminum-and-plastic siding that burned “like a matchstick“. While the tower blazed, desperate people dropped their children from tenth-story windows in the hope that someone below would catch them.
Despite repeated warnings of the danger – and even though a sum as small as five thousand pounds more might have sufficed for fire-resistant cladding – no one acted. Even in supposedly liberal and democratic states, governments treat the poor as beneath concern, and the rest of us are only too happy to play along and avert our eyes.
Some days, caring about justice feels like trying to bail out the tide. It’s as if there’s a current in the world that can turn against you without warning, and you find yourself being dragged backwards in spite of all your effort. And even if I decide to be more selective in my compassion and not offer it to people who wouldn’t grant it in return, that doesn’t help. Even if I resolve to limit my sympathy to the deserving, however you might define that, there’s still more innocent suffering than can be ameliorated in a thousand human lifetimes.
When I try to picture the cumulative effect, it’s as if there’s a vast gap between what we can do and what’s needed; between the world as it is and the world as it could be. It seems so simple, and yet impossibly far out of reach.
There has to be a happy medium between being so cynical that you never care about anyone but yourself, and being so fixated on the big picture that you feel swamped by futility because there are a hundred evils you can’t fight for every one you can. I struggle every day with finding the right balance. But even when I feel I’ve reached some approximation of it, another headline sends my emotions off in a tailspin.The only way out that I can see, like a narrow illuminated path through darkness, is something like humanist stoicism. Accept, with as much serenity as you can muster, that there are evils you can’t do anything about. Then try to focus on the ones you can.
That may mean starting with the easy cases and the obvious needs. But there are plenty of those, like the Foundation Beyond Belief’s drive to fight a famine in East Africa, caused by drought and war, that’s threatening as many as 20 million lives:
After their home was burned to the ground, Idil and her two children waded through swamps for three hours in search of safety. She was five months pregnant at the time.
Idil is one of hundreds of thousands struggling to survive in Unity State, South Sudan’s famine zone. Because her family can only manage one meal a day, her son Diric is now malnourished, and has been admitted to an outpatient therapeutic program.
Idil lost everything in the war, when violence swept through her village. Her home, with all of her worldly possessions, was burned to the ground. Pregnant and separated from her husband in the chaos, she grabbed her children and fled into the swamps seeking safety.
“Before, my husband was a businessman,” she says. “My children weren’t malnourished, they had enough to eat.”
They survived on water lilies and fish, finally reaching an island where they reunited with Idil’s husband.
South Sudan’s famine is a man-made disaster, instigated by a years-long conflict that has caused several hundred thousand people to flee to neighboring countries. Now, up to a million people, like Idil, are at the brink of starvation.
Just a little money, a little caring can lessen burdens like these. Like the famous story about the starfish – or this updated version with snails – it seems as though the only option is to plug away doing what you can. Accept that the whole world isn’t yours to save, and then do the good that’s in front of you.
Maybe dreaming of saving the world is too grand an ambition, and the best we can hope to accomplish is to make one person’s life better than it otherwise would have been. Compared to the enormity of need, it seems futile, like trying to bridge a chasm with a single brick.
On the other hand, it’s only through the sum of such small efforts that humanity has come as far as it has. And whatever disappointments the world may deal out, I’m not ready to believe that we’ve reached the end of progress.
It’s bitterly discouraging to see things we’ve labored to build get torn down in front of us. But we can always rebuild, tend other’s hurts, mend what’s broken, and abide until the world inevitably turns again. If we’re patient, diligent, and a little stubborn, then perhaps one day we’ll live to see a shining bridge spanning that gap.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons