I watched an interesting documentary recently about overpopulation and overconsumption called “MOTHER, caring for 7 billions”. I was overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, indignation, frustration, rage, and powerlessness that made me want to start a revolution, hop on the first plane to Africa, and solve all the world’s problems.
I ended up overwhelmed with wrecking guilt for being a healthy, happy and free woman, doing a job that I love in a country where I have chosen to live; when there are women my age in some parts of the world who are grandmothers already, who could get beaten to death just for showing their face in public, who don’t have access to water, let alone a (good) health care system or education.
Being overwhelmed with guilt used to be a fairly common reaction for me whenever I was reminded of any of the world’s problems. And as always, after watching such a documentary, I would find myself in a weird state of numbness and shock.
Honestly? Those feelings usually didn’t last long. Eventually I would go on with my life, you know, do the dishes, and go to a coffee shop so I could start working on things like writing this article, for example. And eventually, although I know that deep down I still really cared about the issue in that day’s documentary, all these revolutionary feelings would slowly fade away and I would find myself just going through the motions again.
To take action or not to take action?
I believe that some NGOs do a tremendous job. I have an immense respect for people who spend months away from their family and friends and light-years away from their comfort zones to help people they don’t even know and actually make a difference.
But then I look at myself and at my life, and that wrecking guilt comes back again. How can I be so useless? I will never have it in me to volunteer in a high-risk area, I am not part of a charity, I generally don’t donate to those NGOs that I admire so much…
Like most people, I am often worried about petty things like what or where I am going to eat, what I am going to wear, trying to find inspiration at work, and how well I did at my last yoga practice.
Moreover, I find it quite hard to keep a balance in today’s sea of information. We are constantly bombarded with guidelines on how to be the perfect human being: what to eat, where to shop, how to sleep, who to date... how to think and who to be. What’s worse, the information constantly changes.
So if I look at the big picture (I’m talking world-scale, here), really, what do I do to make a difference?
Replacing guilt with awareness
So first of all, before spending life uselessly whining about feeling guilty for not doing more (whatever that means for you), I think it is crucial to take a long look in the mirror and really ask yourself if you could, or even would want to be that person on the front line, in the trenches so to say, to make a difference.
I did (look at myself in the mirror, not go in the trenches), and as inglorious as it might sound, I have to admit that the answer was simply no. I would not want that for my life.
Not everyone can do it. Not everyone can take those beautiful, big and loud steps to change the world. What’s more: not everyone has to. It kind of takes a weight off your shoulders when you start seeing yourself as you really are. You stop forcing yourself to think you should want to do more and stop feeling guilty for not doing those beautiful things, just because you admire people who actually do them. And you start being more aware.
Careful now, I am not saying that it is OK not to care, or that it is OK to continue feeding the consumption frenzy that has taken over our so called “developed” countries.
All I am saying is: I am not an awful person just because I don’t go to the Arctic to rescue baby polar bears from glacial melting or help the victims of Ebola in Africa. I finally see that big changes can come from a number of small actions combined.
With this in mind, I slowly started to make conscious changes to my day-to-day life. I really do believe in helping others and I believe in kindness. I have an infinite love and respect for mother earth and I do want to change the world. I think that across the globe we should be ashamed of ourselves for the extent of devastation we have brought to our planet. But I also truly trust that there is good in the world, and that human nature is after all not that bad.
I am sure that if all of us applied (at least some of) the following principles to our lives, the world would be a better place already.
You know, small things like, talk to people you don’t know: the cashier at the grocery store, the cab driver, your cleaning lady. Look them in the eye. Ask them how they are and actually listen to what they have to say. When you leave a room, turn the lights off. Turn off the water when you brush your teeth. If you see someone who seems to be having a hard day, ask him or her if they need anything. Do your best to always shop at local farmers markets and stores. Find a way to avoid plastic at all costs, for example use reusable straws. Get rid of your car if you don’t REALLY need it. Make friends with people outside your social class or your comfort zone. Stop being stuck in that “all or nothing” way of thinking. Don’t overlook the small steps!
Try to be in tune with your inner compass. You know? Does this feel good? If it feels wrong, I actually choose to walk away. Being unhappy and frustrated is no help to the world.
I make conscious choices, and I own up to them.
Be conscious. Stop focusing on “I should” or “I should have”. If you do something you’re not proud of, own up to it, learn your lesson, and make a better choice next time.
That’s how we get rid of guilt. That’s how we can save the world.