The world is a shitstorm right now. I don’t need to go into details, this has been plastered all over our social media feeds and news sites. The world is hurting.
I have noticed, though, that many of the members of my community are hurting as well. This includes health problems, family emergencies, accidents, anxiety, etc. Some of these apply to me, to a large or a small extent.
As someone who struggles with mild anxiety (most of the time), sometimes I feel guilty that I’m taking up space with a psychiatrist, when other people probably have far worse problems. And when I struggle to be productive at work due to these anxieties, I feel guilty that there are other people who don’t even have a steady source of income while I have a stipend. And when I come home to relax, I see videos of people being murdered by trusted members of society while I sit at home watching others’ lives being turned upside-down, guilty that I’m not affected.
This sense of guilt is misplaced, and it may take some rational thinking to come to that conclusion. You need to take care of yourself. And you don’t need anyone’s permission.
One of my biggest heroes is someone who thrived on analytical thinking and rigor, Richard Feynman. Watch any of his videos and complicated physics and abstract concepts will immediately come to life. He had a way of solving problems by thinking so clearly about everything, and communicating those ideas so simply to those who would listen. When a former student expressed shame at doing work that he felt was unimportant or simple, Feynman responded in a letter.
“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it”
This speaks to the importance of what we do from day to day. I not only speak for myself, but also the members of our community, that we want to change the world for the better. There seem to be so many important problems. That’s because they are important. But any alleviation of suffering is important.
That includes you. And if your problems are solvable, then they are the most important right now.
We aren’t going to solve police violence overnight. We will not eradicate terrorist attacks next week. A year from now there will still be homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, and bigotry of every stripe. These are problems we will have to continue to pick and chew and scrape away at, bit by bit, little by little, and we will still be dissatisfied every day with how far we have gotten.
But today, you can disconnect from social media. You can take a breather from volunteering to visit your sick or dying relative. You can talk to a counselor next week about your mental health issues. You don’t have to pay attention to the news, you can drive your cousin to the doctor. You can just reach out to your friend who are just as distressed about the world as you are. You are able to detach and have a beer with a friend. And if this is able to ease anyone’s pain including your own, then it is worth doing.
You aren’t selfish for taking care of yourself, and you need no justification for alleviating anyone’s pain in your life no matter how trivial it may seem. You are solving a worthwhile problem, that is all the justification you need. As humanists, we know that this is the only life we are certain to have. Please make it better for someone, even if the life you make better is your own.
The big problems are worthwhile problems too. When you are ready, when you have all the mental health spoons in order, your presence will once again be welcomed to the fight. These are problems we can do something about too. It will be incremental and tedious, and we will have to remain vigilant to both keep ourselves educated and to speak out when we are needed. But if something is holding you back, something you need to take care of first, then why aren’t you doing that? Please, take a step back. Work on anything you can make a difference in. And do so without apology.
If you’re done taking care of your immediate needs and are looking for some problems that you can help solve a bit, please start by listening to the voices of people who have been affected. Here are a few. After that, take action, even if it’s a small donation of time or money. Due to recent events at the time of this piece, I recommend Showing Up for Racial Jusice (SURJ).