It can affect any gender — and it’s really not about penises
People do things. Huge things. They direct movies, publish novels, contribute to the advancement of science, they run billion-dollar companies, launch cars into space, start business from seemingly nothing, volunteer as crew-people to help clean the ocean, they crowdfund their dreams, save lives in the ER.
Me? I wrote the copy on this PPT. Please. Hold the applause.
I’m lucky enough to have a good job where my work is valued and I am incentivised to give my best and grow as a professional. I’m surrounded by awesome people I have a lot to learn from. Sometimes I’m a little proud of the work that I do, especially if it gets good feedback.
But I don’t work in the ER. I don’t help protect endangered species against barbaric slaughtering. I’m not a neurobiologist. I didn’t start an NGO to help forward LGBT+ rights. I’m just a content writer. I write content.
It’s daunting, to say the least, to even consider beginning to make a contribution to anything one average Joanna cares about in life, when your newsfeed is booming with crowning achievements and success stories yet most of your own time is spent performing 8 hours per day in the grand corporate hamster-wheel.
It’s a medical-insurance & free coffee, fun, crazy, self-development friendly corporate hamster-wheel, if you’re lucky. So don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful for what I have and know I count amongst the lucky and privileged. That’s exactly the point.
Though we are surrounded by proof of our privilege, few of us middle-class folk have what you’d call a meaningful job in that help better the world sort of way. But just like you can’t expect your partner to be responsible for making your life happy and complete, you can’t expect that from your day-job, either — unless it’s specifically in a field that’s invested in bettering the world, like say, cancer research. Most of us understand this.
Maybe our skill-set is just not cut out for high-volume world bettering, or maybe we’ve never considered how we could make use of our skills to better the world in our spare time, or maybe we’re just fucking tired. But the irk to better the world is there, buried deep in your subconscious, deep into the roots of our visceral restlessness.
The middle-class dilemma
This is something that happens to a person after you’ve crossed the threshold.
I’m a 29-year-old, middle-class white woman living in a 2nd world country. There are worse things one can be, when it comes to one’s chance at contributing meaningfully to humanity or the planet. Obviously, there are also better things one can be, at least in theory, like a born-billionaire. The point is, I’ve officially passed the threshold.
I’m not living in poverty: I’ve been decidedly middle-class for a good few years. I know where my next meal is coming from (spending irrationally and being broke doesn’t count). That’s quintessential to the middle-class dilemma, because you can’t afford to care about the state of the world at large if your own world is a crushing mountain of uncertainty and unmet basic needs.
The middle-class dilemma is not about one’s actual struggle with basic unmet needs or basic violated rights. It’s about being surrounded by the struggle others are faced with and realising that remaining idle about it is akin to a subtle form of privilege. In other words, just because it’s cold as balls outside today where I live, doesn’t mean global warming isn’t a thing.
The middle-class dilemma is for a nice, middle-of-the-road set of circumstances: well-fed enough to have the time to worry about the state of the world, empathic enough to be willing to care about the state of the world, yet not nearly rich or powerful enough to be able to snap my fingers and instantly create noticeable change within my local LGBT+ community (i.e. you have money, but not nearly enough of it to be able to throw a substantial amount at the problem.)
We care, the middle-class folk, most of us, deep down. We’ve got the growing depression rates to prove it. We just don’t know how to care efficiently. It translates into this kind of vague mental pain, like a need or vital longing that you cannot place or verbalise.
Every time we try to address that ache, to invest our compassion into some kind of meaningful action, it feels privileged and dirty. Whenever we try to advocate for the better treatment of the poor and donate to organisations that cater to such groups while holding an almond-milk latte on our way to the gluten-free salad bar, it feels superfluous and meagre.
Through the incessant comparison with everything that is out there and also everything I believe I could be doing more of myself in theory, I feel like it’s never, ever, big enough to matter. Nothing I can do right here, right now, will make a contribution that can even begin to amount to anything significant.
This is the middle class dilemma: having your needs met to the extent where you can afford to care about others’ basic rights being violated, yet having no clue how to make the slightest dent of a difference about the injustice.
Why it’s never big enough
I write obscure stuff on the internet about science awareness, mental illness, logic and tolerance, secular life and meaning, and the human mind. Did you yawn while reading that? Yeah, a lot of people do. That out there is, decidedly, nerd territory. Do I think that’s stuff that humanity needs more of, in general? Yes, I sure do. Do I think I do enough to even count as a contribution to any of those? Nope, I sure do not.
We all feel the need to make some sort of contribution to society. We all long to feel useful. Preferably useful in a sense that feels at least somewhat meaningful to us. Yet it’s overwhelming to even consider putting some measurable action out there, in a world where people do so many things, so many big things.
My thing is decidedly not big enough.
But you know what I’ve found helps even less than writing obscure shit online on those causes I care about and donating to those organisations on my way to the salad bar? Doing absolutely nothing at all.
It’s that simple. I’m sorry, it just is. The truth might set you free, yet more often than not, it will not fail to disappoint thoroughly on the way to said freedom. Think about philosophical truth like that crawling-through-the-pipe-of-shit-to-freedom scene from The Shawshank Redemption.
Through the pipe full of shitty truth and onto the light
The truth is all you can do, is something that resembles measurable action, to the best of your abilities, consistently.
Find literally anything you are literally capable of doing to contribute to something in this world that you care about, like puppies or sick children or the environment, and just fucking do that.
If you expect any other revelation from anywhere, the present included, about that yucky feeling you get on a Sunday afternoon, when everything starts to feel sort of repetitive and bland, like your emotions have been reduced to the stimulation level of chewing on cardboard, you’re going to be disappointed.
There’s no magic formula to make it big enough, to make you feel like it’s worth chasing that vague mental ache away with measurable action. The spam you get all the time claiming any such magic pill or formula, is a scam. Don’t waste your resources waiting for the magic pill to take effect. Don’t buy into the pill. Don’t go near the snake oil, just don’t. It’s all bullshit.
You need to learn to live with its size. Because, unlike the size of one’s adult erect penis, your contribution to the world does have the chance to grow, if you invest your time and effort into it. You get better at your thing. More people find out about your thing. It touches lives and shit.
You start off with an impact on zero mindsets, in effect, zero lives.
You start doing your small thing, in this example, writing obscure shit on the internet.
An excruciating amount of time passes. Eventually, if you continue to build it, even reluctantly and not every day like you read in the really good advice for over-achievers without depression, if you do your best to keep at it, eventually, they will come.
The nerds arrive. It’s just a few dozen scattered people who stumble upon your thing. It feels like a confirmation that someone is out there, like you had been probing space for a sign of another species, and they finally respond. You have sent your Voyager Golden Record out into the Great Web. It has travelled across cultures, mentalities, realities, day to day struggles, clickbait titles, to finally arrive upon a hundred lonely nerds, for which you are so fucking grateful, because they give you a reason to continue making your small, barely-significant contribution.
So your thing is extremely small, by any and all standards. In my case, a few people read it. It’s extremely few, it’s really bad KPIs. My thing is, decidedly, way below average. Not very good performance indeed. If informing the planet on secular values was my job, I’d fucking fire me.
But, at least, I’m doing something. Who am I to decide those few people don’t matter, who am I to reduce those aliens who have found solace, empathy, reason or a good talk in my small contribution, to corporate KPIs?
Lives are not KPIs
You out there, you few people who have found anything of use in my small thing, I do not believe you are numbers. I choose to believe there is reason in sending words out there into the great unknown of the internet.
Replace sending words out there into the internet with literally anything. Your thing. That you can do. To help forward a good cause that matters to you. Because in the end, it amounts to more than nothing.
Volunteer at your local shelter to help feed abandoned animals. You can’t save all of them, but each and every one that you will have saved, will be more than a number. Donate to an alcoholism research and treatment foundation. Write long-form that only a handful of nerds read and release it into the great online void. Paint. Feed some homeless people a warm meal. Film a vlog on your iPhone and advocate for cruelty free vegan makeup.
Whatever feels right to you that you are physically capable of doing right now, just do it. Whatever feels good to you that also helps someone other than yourself, get to it, today.
Should the worst come to past, nobody will want to buy your painting. They won’t give jack shit about your independent feature film. But give that probe time enough to travel the vast world and, eventually, it will come across life.
Save one kitten. Change one person’s mind about climate change denial. Help one person with chronic depression feel less like a failure. Care about one thing that is you-inspired, yet bigger than yourself, and do something about it.
Your thing may not be big enough, compared to your self-imposed standards. Yet to someone, somewhere, it just may be a good fit. So get out there.
Don’t be afraid to make a small contribution.
To be fair, it even applies to feeling more gratified in your day-to-day job, regardless of what you do. Slay that PPT. It will help the next person working with that PPT not hate their life, so it’s fucking something, if you think about it.
Shit you not, the last person to really bloody make my day, to really bring me to near tears of joy, was someone who put a nice template on a PPT I had been creating content for, without anyone asking her to and knowing full well it wasn’t her job. It was just a job that needed to be done, so we as a team could deliver this PPT on deadline.
It made a workday that would have ended with 4+ hours of overtime be over in time for dinner. She didn’t change the world. She changed her colleagues’ world for the better, on that given day.
In the grand scheme of things, the world being what it is and all, my colleague’s gesture is not clickbait-worthy. Yet it inspires me, some other person, to do my best in turn, to put in that extra effort. It changes me, by reinforcing a good set of values about cooperation and work ethics. It touches my life. It helps make the corporate wheel better for all of us.
Case in point: you can make anything matter to someone out there, if you really go all in with it.
You can change mentalities, one conversation or small gesture at a time. Build empathy, one painting at a time. Change your environment for the better, by removing and recycling one bag of trash at a time from it.
That your thing is small, is no excuse to resign to never using at all. You’re missing out on a really gratifying experience of touching just one living creature’s life and making it a little better. And, also, it helps keep that yucky Sunday afternoon feeling at bay.
If you too feel like a case of the Not big enough syndrome, I’d love to chat about some of your strategies of coping through selfless, helpful action. I’m interested to expand the variety of such coping mechanisms in my life.
And, as ever, thank you for taking the time to debate with me. Until next time, stay safe, nerds.