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Taking the guilt out of activism

Published: April 29, 2011
Section: Opinions


I was hiking along a trail in the Blue Hill Nature Reserve in Milton, Mass. with a few friends the other day and I felt a nagging feeling of confusion and guilt. I heard a voice in my mind saying, “This is indulgent! Going on a hike with friends! When there are hundreds of acres of rainforest being destroyed every day, women being raped in Darfur and a huge academic achievement gap in our country; the list goes on. The point is: You should not be enjoying yourself on this hike. You should at least be doing something and that something had better be the most you could possibly do to make this world a ‘better place’ ’cause otherwise you are not doing enough and should feel ashamed of yourself.”

Does that voice sounds familiar to some of you? If it doesn’t, I hope you might understand where it is coming from.

I believe it comes from the idea that as a white person living in America, born to two parents—one second-generation and the other third-generation American, who both have jobs to support my brother and myself without needing us to work to support the family—I am obligated to be taking actions to help people meet their needs and, if I’m not working on school work or activism work, I am doing the wrong thing.

While I would like to meet my needs, one of which is to contribute to life and the other to have all human beings have their needs met, I do not want to be motivated by guilt, and thus by obligation, duty, or a sense of doing right or doing wrong.

Rather I’d like to be motivated by a desire to meet my own needs for peace, harmony, meaning and contribution.

The question remains as to how I can be motivated internally without having the voice in my head asking: “Is this really enough? Is this really all you can do? There are still people suffering out there, so your need for harmony hasn’t been met? What are you doing going on another hike? Huh? To meet your need for fun and joy? How dare you meet those needs when there are people not meeting their needs for food and safety?”

I’d like to share with you some of the ideas I have currently come up with as a response to the above question. I have yet really to apply these thoughts to my life and am aware that they may change. For the time being I hope you will find them stimulating; I appreciate the chance to think about them and share them with you.

The key to feeling satisfied with how I am already behaving while desiring to behave so as to make even more of an impact is receiving and giving gratitude.

I believe that while part of my hunger to do as much as I can to make the world a better place comes from a desire to meet my basic human needs of enriching life and harmony in the world, I think more so my hunger comes from a lack of meaning in my life.

Thus, my hunger is like being an emotional eater. I’m not eating because I’m actually hungry. I’m eating because I feel a hole in my stomach and I have the notion that eating could fill it, while actually that hole stems from another need, like loneliness, rather than a need for food.

Similarly, I believe I am already meeting my need for enriching life in so many ways. I’ve given friends advice they really appreciate; I’ve encouraged friends to work out with me, which they appreciated; I helped gather a group together to sing in the SCC atrium Monday nights, which all of us are happy to have a chance to do; I’ve helped first-years through tough class decisions as a Roosevelt Fellow; and I’ve said “hi” to folks I did not know while walking around campus.

So, if I’m meeting my need for enriching life through these actions and others large and small, why am I asking myself: “Am I doing enough?” Why does my mind focus on how I have not called my grandma or sent my homestay families from my study abroad experience letters or organized a blood drive?

I believe it is partially because I have not taken the time to recognize the impact I am already having on other peoples’ lives. I am not taking a second to think, “Wait, who knows what impact I’m having on the world? My ripple effects could be huge! And even if they are small, if there is one person out there whose day was drastically improved for a second because of the singing we were doing in the atrium, then that is enough.” That is the definition of enough to me. This does not mean that then I would not want to do more but getting that sort of gratitude, either from the person herself or at least imagining it for myself, provides fuel to do even more work.

Thus, I believe it would be easier for me to enjoy my hiking trip if I had taken time to ask people for gratitude or imagined receiving it. As Marshall Rosenberg, author of “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” puts it, “Gratitude is fuel for life.”

We are all already doing so much for ourselves, our families, our friends and strangers. Yes, we can do more and, if it comes from guilt, I’m guessing we and the people receiving it from us will enjoy it a lot less. Furthermore, guilt has the potential power to immobilize us and lead us to want to do nothing (like an emotional eater who eats even more because he feels guilty for eating). Instead, I’d love to see us recognize the impact we are already having and use the joy that comes with that recognition to spur us toward more wonderful work!