A few years ago I attended a free screening of a film which exposed the horrors of the food industry. The event was organized by volunteers through a program called Cinema Politica which makes a library of educational documentaries available for small community organizations to screen.
Immediately following the viewing/discussion period, I noticed a woman perusing the many pamphlets and informational booklets that had been displayed by the organizers. The material ranged from more information about Monsanto and the great GMO debate, to Fair Trade initiatives, climate change, and child sweat shops. The woman stared down at the information, wide-eyed, a clear expression of disbelief on her face.
When she noticed me observing her, she said, “How can anything be done when there’s so much to do?”
Cause burnout can strike at any time. For this woman, her social awakening and burnout were about to happen in the same night!
I said to her, “I know how you feel. It’s overwhelming to realize just how many problems there are out there. I find it helpful to think of it all as one cause, the cause of humanity.”
She thanked me, but I don’t know how helpful I actually was. I had myself only recently begun exploring the hideous truths hidden in our societies, and I was in no position to be giving anyone any advice.
Yet the look on her face begged me for reassurance of some kind. Surely the world was not this aweful beast perpetually chewing up people and spitting out horror. Say it ain’t so!
But I couldn’t say it wasn’t so. All I could think to do was reframe her perspective on the matter to a more simplistic model. It’s all just one thing that needs our attention. The problem with that is that denying the complexity of a thing does not erase the complexity. The complexity is there exclusive of our acknowledgement.
So what is a person to do in the face of all this injustice?
Nobody expects you to right every wrong.
I suppose if everyone dedicated themselves to activism in every sphere that touched their sensibilities, society itself would screach to a hault and the problems would all become moot. No single person can affect everything, and neither should they try.
The truth is the problems that ail our planet are the results of directed and continuous effort of a privileged ruling elite to create social structures that reinforce the status quo in their favour, at any cost to the environment and human life and dignity. No single person ruined the world and no single person can fix it. It has to be a cooperative effort as energetic and complex as the systems of oppression and destruction are, which means we need all hands on deck. We need everyone to wake up and help.
‘Knowlege is power’ is a cliché for a reason.
You don’t have to know everything about everything to make a positive impact. You just have to know that knowing means asking questions and accepting nothing as given. If more people challenged the assumptions that patriarchy stuffed down our throats, we would have a much more enlightened society than the commodity prison we all seem to enjoy inhabiting in ignorance.
So get to knowing, that is questioning, those assumptions. That is probably the single most productive thing any person can do to fight the power structures responsible for our current state of affairs. The masters don’t want us to know, they want us to accept. Whether we accept the lie, or we accept the reality, we play into their hands.
There is nothing acceptable about patriarchal, imperial, criminally insane societies such as the one we in the West implicitly support. The only thing that counters this is refusal to accept either the lies we are spoon-fed or the realities we are afraid of, and work to make change.
Burnout serves the masters.
They want us to remain ignorant and shut off from working together to find solutions to things like racism and sexism, imperialism and war. They want us to leave events like Cinema Politica feeling helpless and bereft of power in a callous and overly complicated world.
But we are people, damnit! We are possessed of enormous creative and transformational power! As individuals, as groups in our societies, as societies as a whole, we make and remake the world every single day.
We can therefore make a better world tomorrow than the world we made today.
Find your thing.
We have so many inequalities, injustices, and ‘isms’ that need addressing, that we cannot afford to lose a single soul to burnout or apathy. So, what is my advice to anyone thinking there are too many problems to do anything about anything?
If I met that woman I opened this essay with today, I might say, “Just find the things that matter the most to you and do what you can. That’s all any of us can do.”
I’ll close with a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley in ‘The Mask of Irony’:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew.
Which in sleep has fallen on you.
Ye are many – they are few.
Randy Edward Nicholas