There are times when, looking at the state of the world, I want to give up. I want to stay in bed. I want to go to theaters and watch movies and just let the whole thing go to hell. Stop taking insulin, gorge on chocolate and pie, and slip into a coma. Sometimes this is about other people; sometimes about social processes we can’t control, about ideas gone wrong.
The reason I’m tempted to give up is that while I know (for example) that when I help feed someone, I’m making their life a little better, I can’t see a way to (a) make their life a lot better; or (b) to solve the structural problems that force them to come to a soup kitchen for food. Why can’t I seem to make a meaningful difference?
This morning, I started out to read, then skimmed, an article on climate change that I was certain would be depressing as hell. Then I got to this paragraph:
In “Annie Hall,” when the young Alvy Singer stopped doing his homework, his mother took him to a psychiatrist. It turned out that Alvy had read that the universe is expanding, which would surely lead to its breaking apart some day, and to him this was an argument for not doing his homework: “What’s the point?” Under the shadow of vast global problems and vast global remedies, smaller-scale actions on behalf of nature can seem similarly meaningless. But Alvy’s mother was having none of it. “You’re here in Brooklyn!” she said. “Brooklyn is not expanding!” It all depends on what we mean by meaning.
The trick, as the mother in the paragraph seems to be saying, and as the author of the article states, is that it depends on what we mean by meaningful.
Do we take meaning from the fact that our efforts have radically reshaped the world into one of peace? Or from the fact that we have made the world one in which one child goes to bed a little less hungry? We have been taught that change is necessarily large. That anything that doesn’t produce structural change should be treated as a failure, or a delusion.
But maybe we shouldn’t be assessing meaningfulness in that way. The bag of groceries you hand someone may not change the structural problems of food distribution and may not even seem like much to you. But to the person taking that bag home who now has food for a week, maybe it’s pretty meaningful.
In other words, small change—one meal, one vote, one letter of protest among millions—matters. Is meaningful.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do our damndest to make the world a better place than it is, but it is to say that even if the change we do make is tiny; even if we only change one person’s life when we’re trying to resolve a world-wide issue, that matters. Even a small change in a direction for good is a change. Hope remains.
I want to say a lot more, but since it largely amounts to repeating myself, I’ll stop here. If anyone wants to read the article—which is mostly not on this pop psychology topic but which is interesting in its own right—it’s here.