Taking responsibility for a better world

This year, I’ve seen vividly opposing views on display, especially in the US election season. Given the stakes, the passion was understandable. But the most extreme responses seemed to have roots deeper than the slogans and political issues on the surface.

Behind each heated individual response I saw a person who believed that their reality falls short of what they deserve. For each person, the nature of the gap and the way they think it can be resolved differs. However, I believe the underlying pain and hurt are similar across people and groups. And I believe a key contributor to the pain and hurt and the vitriol they cause is the feeling of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming problems.

Infinite problems

Society is the result of billions of human actions. In the midst of so many actions, problems inevitably arise. History, art and religion tell us that this has always been so, the result of fate and human nature. 

Thanks to modern media, we have constant, instant reminders about all of our collective and personal problems. The internet can give me a potentially infinite feed of all the suffering and pain in the world. Conversely, it can show an endless parade of shiny objects and ideas that I believe will make life perfect, if only I can acquire them. Worse yet, all of these problems feel unbelievably urgent. And with the time scale on which we expect (and quite possibly need) to act, the situation seems hopeless. 

Faced with infinity, It’s hard to react in any reasonable way. I find that problems of infinite scope trigger my fight or flight instinct. I want to take every problem fully upon myself and solve it as quickly as possible. If I can’t do that, I want to run and hide. It’s impossible for me, or anyone, to fight all the world’s problems at once. But if I flee, I am powerless.

It’s easy to try quick fixes and hope for miracles. And when these don’t work, it’s even easier to blame others. Especially when others join us, it seems logical and even invigorating to blame others. Pick any target: outsiders, insiders, liberals, conservatives, foreign powers, fate.

It’s much more difficult to take responsibility.

Taking responsibility

My impact is so close to zero when compared to the magnitude of the world’s problems. I am only one person out of close to 8 billion. Yet one is infinitely greater than zero. 

We each have the potential to create infinite impact. (Remember the butterfly flapping its wings?) If we pay close enough attention, we may recognize that our impact is already at work in the world. 

If we recognize the impact we make, we are likely to act more intentionally. With patience, we can expand our abilities and connect with others to direct our efforts toward the areas in which we hope to make a difference.

Believe in yourself

We can each define the difference we wish to make and look for what actions are most likely to make it real. When we see faults in the world, we can seek to understand them. Are they really problems? We can look within ourselves for solutions before we ask others to solve the problems for us. We can each ask what is the best action for us to make a meaningful difference. What brokenness do we feel called to fix? What is causing the brokenness? Where is the balance of power, and how can we put a finger on the scale?

Believe in others

When we see others are behave in a way we don’t like, we can try to understand why they behave that way. We should consider that they probably have good intentions. What actions are they actually taking and why are they taking them? 

Slow down

Though we need urgent action, we also need patience. Urgency creates fear and haste. It raises the stakes, makes us less likely to listen, makes us closed to dialog and compromise, makes us ignore the problems or turn to blame. 

Move toward action

Responsibility enables action. Understanding based on facts enables us to identify the problem and define the outcome we want. Once we’ve identified our goal, we can move toward it. 

Responsibility is hard. It means absorbing some of the pain that exists in the world and acknowledging our part in creating it. It means acknowledging that not every problem can be completely solved, especially not as quickly as we hope. 

There will always be brokenness and differences of opinion. But responsibility unlocks action. We can choose the world we want to live in by the way we define our relationship to it. If we believe that we are powerless, we surrender our agency and powerlessness becomes our reality. 

If we recognize our capacity to take action and move toward a clearly defined goal, we can start to use our inevitable influence. If we join with others, our efforts can go even further. We can each make a difference, as individuals and communities, empowering one another to create the world we wish to live in.