How can I practice gratitude while recognizing and fighting injustice?
May 1, 2014 12:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to practice gratitude, release old grudges and generally be a happier person. However, I find that a lot of the advice like 'don't compare yourself to others,' 'count your blessings,' 'assume that others have good intentions,' ... doesn't address the fact that some people DON'T have good intentions, workplaces are often sexist and racist, and privilege means some people automatically have an easier time of it. How can I be content with what I have while still working for a better world?

I've spent a fair amount of my professional career working for social-justice-related organizations and even though I'm not doing that at the moment, it's permanently changed my world view. When I hear people say, "don't compare yourself to others, just be happy with what you have," I feel angry because I hear a patronizing subtext of "there there, don't challenge the status quo" -- especially when the advice comes from people who are older and more financially secure than I am. (I'm in my early 30's.)

But running around with a big megaphone saying "Aaaaauagh!! The world is unfair!! This is an emergency!!" is not sustainable (or effective). I know that it's not doing me any favors personally to be keeping score with people around me, resenting others' success and focusing over-much on the predicament of, for example, homelessness or the predatory for-profit college industry. Being angry or in a funk all of the time is not making the world better and it's sure not making my life better.

There must be something I'm not seeing. How can I both appreciate the world and want to change it? Personal experiences welcome, especially if you've struggled/are struggling with money.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto to Religion & Philosophy (35 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
".. privilege means some people automatically have an easier time of it."

It's not their fault that they have an easier time of it, and they shouldn't accrue blame solely based on an accident of their birth.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:50 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you need to change your worldview. You are looking for evidence of a shit world against The Man and you are finding it. Are colleges predatory? Possibly. And also people are really just trying to get by, doing their job, trying to make some money, in whatever class strata they find themselves in.

People are animals. We are animals that speak language. But just like how my cats fight at the food bowl, so do humans fight for ego, status and money. This is 'normal' but of course not ideal. Human nature has the devil on our shoulder and the angel. We can choose our higher self or snarl greedily over the pie.

Snarling is based in fear. Sharing is based in love & confidence.

You will change the world when you cultivate love in your heart. Shouting at the fearful just entrenches them in their bubble. When people's hearts are open they are more generous and accepting.

Finally equality of class does not solve all problems. Look at Prince Harry. Dumped again! None of his high-class girlfriends wanted life in a fishbowl. You think Kate Middleton doesn't suffer? She has such a narrow life. She can't pick up and go to Burningman. She won't eat on camera. It wouldn't be fitting.

Buddha's 1st Noble Truth: You should know suffering. That is, understand the true nature of suffering, and how those at the top and the bottom are not immune.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:58 PM on May 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

"I prefer to have a successful and meaningful career and will work hard to help that along" rather than"I should have a successful and meaningful career because I work hard and I want it". The former makes me feel more in control while the second makes me feel it's not in my control, and therefore not very happy. The words we use make a big difference in how we feel.
posted by waving at 1:00 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Robert Emmons' book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier is on this topic. It's much more "evidence-based" than the typical self-help book. Well worth a look.
posted by HoraceH at 1:01 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I could be wrong, but I think it's not just about money; it's about money as a proxy for power. You see that there are power imbalances in the world, and you're absolutely right. Wanting to change the world (even with the best of intentions: to make it a better place, to correct those power imbalances) is seriously craving power. I trust that if you had the power to change the world in a big way, you'd use that power for good, of course. But I think a focus on noticing the power that you currently have, at least over your own life and some influence over your small circle of people you know, will make you both happier and more effective at gradually making a bigger difference in the world over the course of your life.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:03 PM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't have any dazzling insights.. except I think peoples pain is there pain and it's relative. One thing that came to mind when I was reading your post was my own resistance to applying to work in an exclusive hospital because it was just for the rich and I come from a country with a (currently) free health service that I believe in. A colleague said "they have all the money in the world, but they've got nothing"... this made me rethink things a bit... and I went on to work there and saw she was right. Not sure what I'm trying to say exactly.. just that to some extent we're all in it together it just manifests in different ways. Am knackered so hope that makes a crumb of sense :-s
posted by tanktop at 1:04 PM on May 1, 2014

There's a difference between "be grateful for what you have" and "be content with what you have." Being grateful doesn't mean not wanting more, it just means giving what you do have the level of appreciation it deserves while you go on working for change. I don't know what sources of happiness you might have -- good friends, an awesome dog, a nice view of the sunset on the way home -- but don't you deserve to get the full measure of happiness that they can provide by being conscious of that happiness? Gratitude -- better, joy -- is self-care, not surrender.

It's fine to be rightly pissed off about some things while also giving what you do have its full measure of attention and appreciation. Working for change is good, but it tends to mean giving a lot of brain space to things you experience as negative and painful -- hence (in part) the rates of burnout. Gratitude is more a matter of stewarding your brain space and making sure you reserve enough of it for things that don't feel unpleasant.
posted by ostro at 1:17 PM on May 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

But running around with a big megaphone saying "Aaaaauagh!! The world is unfair!! This is an emergency!!" is not sustainable (or effective). I know that it's not doing me any favors personally to be keeping score with people around me, resenting others' success and focusing over-much on the predicament of, for example, homelessness or the predatory for-profit college industry. Being angry or in a funk all of the time is not making the world better and it's sure not making my life better.

I think this is a really cool question, because it exposes the normalizing/conservative force of a lot of bourgeois self-help platitudes, most of which attribute far, far too much control over the world to the individual.

Honestly, I think you're trying to think yourself out of a problem that can't be thought-out-of. History is a slaughtering bench! It is, it really is. The older I get, the more I recognize that in any given situation, the more powerful group is going to benefit while avoiding bad consequences, the weaker group is going to get screwed, and it's an immense, immense struggle to change this even a little bit. Also, even at the individual level, we are far too often blind to the ways we have it easy and resistant to the ways we might help others, even when it wouldn't cost us much. People from rich backgrounds get channeled into rich people jobs and lives unless they fuck up in elaborate ways; people from poor backgrounds get channeled into shitty, marginalized lives and hugely punished for small errors of judgment. And what's more, you're embedded in this too, and you can't get out. That's the real and you'll have to kill part of yourself if you want to forget it or unsee it - which is what a lot of advice culture urges you to do, to kill the part of yourself that dissents and refuses so that you can "be positive" and "focus on the things you can change" and "be your best self".

I'd suggest a lot more exercise, a consuming hobby and involvement with something meaningful outside of work. Enjoy being in the world so that you have more strength to face its more terrible aspects. Spend time with people who share your politics. You can enjoy the world by enjoying what is good about it instead of trying to unsee what is bad.

I've found a lot of happiness in teaching workshops about radical science fiction. It's a way of engaging with my politics that isn't as crushing and as full of defeat as other things tend to be. It's also a way to take some joy in my beliefs. Perhaps there is some kind of hobby that is a natural fit with your beliefs and life?

Frankly, I also focus on compartmentalizing my life. This isn't always great - for instance, I wish I were more outspoken about certain things at work. But I've chosen to keep my head down because I want this job and I want to keep sweet with people - I try to own that choice instead of making it something it's not.

There's this particular error that it's easy to fall into - thinking that if you get your head right, you're going to be happy. Like, you just need the correct way to think about the world and then its contradictions and pain will cease to bother you - if you have the right philosophy, you can sail right through the horrors of capitalism, simultaneously a team player and a social critic. I don't think you can.

I think one way that you get through all this is to embrace it. I myself find some solace in thinking about human history as a whole - not because it's cheering, but because I think about other people with similar experiences and viewpoints and I see myself as part of a line of people rather than isolated. Even when I think "consider all those working people who got trampled and were poor and never were able to leave anything behind, that's my lot too", it helps to recognize that history is too big for me. If it rolled over labor organizers and radicals of every stripe, there's no shame in being flattened myself.

I also think that vacations are a good idea. Take some time off if your job permits and spend it trying to be in the moment - cook something, be in nature, go dancing, draw. Those things are good things and can help you keep from getting lost in the bad.
posted by Frowner at 1:21 PM on May 1, 2014 [54 favorites]

There must be something I'm not seeing.

One bit that's left out here: talk, including self-talk, is performative and contextual. Just because something's true doesn't make it appropriate. I imagine you don't answer questions like "How are you" with a medical report.

When I'm having a horrible day, I'll typically answer "Not too bad." It's not false, either -- once I say it, I'll feel like "OK, it's bad, but it's not TOO bad." Meaning "I can deal with this", NOT "This doesn't need to be fixed."
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:22 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stop trying to "work for a better world." Start trying to work for a better you.

The missionary impulse will only make you miserable, because you cannot do it, so it leads to endless frustration.

The world isn't fair. And you can't change that. If you accept that simple fact and stop worrying about it, you'll be a lot happier.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:27 PM on May 1, 2014

Wow, there's a lot to unpack here ... coping with the fact that the world is very imperfect, people who tell you to "count your blessings" when you are struggling with something, your difficulty feeling happy for others' success, your bean-counting/comparing. This sentence struck me as I re-read the question, trying to pinpoint the issue:

"How can I be content with what I have while still working for a better world?"

I know you're just putting sentences together while trying to ask a complicated question, so I don't mean to overassign meaning like you're a TS Eliot poem or something, but what strikes me is that working for social justice hasn't cured your personal dissatisfactions and frustrations with the world -- in other words, it sounds like you're angry that the world is unfair to you.

While personal injustices done to you (underpaid, over-indebted, discounted at work for reasons of race or sex) may result from social injustices, they're not the same thing, and working to fix social injustices will not fix your personal injustices. Sometimes the two will coincide and working to improve society will improve your life, or vice versa, but quite often they do not. Social justice burnout is a real thing, and depression/rage/disconnection due to personal injustice is a real thing, but I think you've got to disconnect these two things. Getting into a negative downward spiral where you being underpaid and homelessness are the same issue IS going to leave you in a funk all the time; your personal problems become too big to tackle if they're social problems, and social problems become too emotionally fraught (for many of us) if they're intimately personal ones.

I'm a pretty "look on the bright side" sort of person (to the point where my friends tease me for it), but I avoid social justice burnout primarily through a profound gratitude for the awesomeness of the world and a deep conviction that awesomeness should be shared with everyone. If the world were unabashedly terrible, what would be the point of trying to make it more fair, you know? But the world is pretty great, really, which is why we HAVE to make it more fair. I guess my take on personal frustration is pretty similar: If I'm posting on metafilter, my life's going pretty well by global standards (I have a computer and internet access, and probably a climate-controlled building in which to use them! I write and read English fluently!) and I AM grateful for that, even though there are definitely things that suck and could be better.

But I think you've got to try to disconnect what is frustration with the world at large, and what is frustration with how you personally are treated, and recognize that while they're related, they're also separate issues, and the responses you make to them are different. It's very hard to redress a sense of personal injustice, a sense that you personally have been or are being wronged, with work for a larger cause. Sometimes it's all you get, but it takes a long damn time to swallow that personal wrong when you can't seek redress for it directly.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:28 PM on May 1, 2014 [17 favorites]

The Serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Even if you aren't religious, there's wisdom in that.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:29 PM on May 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thank activists. Plug into the community you came from. Find support and support others.

Unless you're some kind of prodigy, you'll have learnt about critical race theory, feminism, privilege theory (I'm using these terms broadly - the discourse around privilege and oppression is really properly grassroots but also has roots and shoots in thinking structurally) from other people. You've read and heard conversations and seen social movements happening. You've worked with other people who are engaged in the same work you are. This is where your gratitude should go. It's pointless to expend energy trying to be grateful for difficulties, blessings in disguise etc if this means you don't get to spend any time thinking of what definite good things you have been given. I know it's tough - but it's tough for everyone else too, having to face structural inequalities close up, and I'm not saying this to say "suck it up", but to say your pain is shared, your experience is shared - you (we) get to support each other.

Thank activists - not in person, although maybe sometimes in person, as people don't get enough recognition for their roles in resistance (think of how you feel - recognition would help, right?). Thank authors, blog writers, past figures in the movements you care about most and the ones that maybe you don't but which still fight toward the erosion of the whole set of the world's inequalities. Remember you're part of something that's not just you, and that's what there is to feel gratitude for.

You also need practical support (it's super isolating being poor, and finding other folks you can share/hang with helps a lot). You can't do this alone - that's the sure route to burnout. Besides, individual responsibility and lone shouldering of burdens is not how this game works. Social justice is collective action. You definitely know this.

So it's imperative to find places and people that aren't (or are much less) oppressive. This is the time out we need; this is what's most supportive. Shared anger too is important! You seem to be surrounded by people who don't quite get what's important to you, or you're not very strongly connected with the people you know who do. Nourish that - get talking, get sharing. It's absolutely the most important thing for feeling like you're doing okay as a human being.

If after some searching you can't find any groups or people to connect with, offline or online - it's okay to step back. It's okay to have a dormant period. Don't fight on alone, because you'll get sick of it. Wait until you're feeling better supported, not so discouraged, not so trapped and disempowered. There is time - months, a few years, however long. There's still always time and it's always worth it.
posted by lokta at 1:34 PM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Man if you find the answer, you'll be a kabillionaire. Lots of things about being alive are super awesome, and LOTS of them really suck. I have a friend whose kid is at the age of realizing we're all gonna die and bad things happen, and my friend is having a really hard time explaining it to her kid. I think unless you're religious a lot of this will never go away, and honestly thinking about explaining some of the worse points of being human to a child is one of the reasons I don't and won't have any.

Since life is so long and the world is so big, your job is to figure out your balance. I hate my job and heard a lot of, "You should be happy to have a job" and "Make a list of the positive things about your job!" and that's all well and good for some people, but for me it wasn't enough. I went and found a new job, and it's going to be better! And if it's not, then I'll find ANOTHER one and I'll keep doing it until I have one that doesn't make me miserable.

Same thing with you. Keep fighting until it makes you miserable, and then figure out something else to do. You can't solve all the world's problems, and sometimes being a good ally is all you can do. Yelling about the world being unfair won't fix it, but sharing your opinion in all avenues might. I mean--I am very liberal and pro-choice and into body acceptance. Some days I don't have it in me to post how I really feel on Facebook. But some days I DO and it feels really good to be my authentic self, even when my conservative uncles are judging me or whatever. You don't have to decide today, right now, how to handle everything! Just go little by little doing what you can tolerate. It might be the very definition of selfish to put yourself first, but selfish isn't always a bad thing. You really only ever have YOU in this lifetime, so make sure YOU are taken care of!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 1:40 PM on May 1, 2014

How can I be content with what I have while still working for a better world?

I've come to believe that this is only truly possible for people who are already coming at this from a position of relative privilege--people who are willing and able to say hey, I'm quite lucky, but the rest of the world isn't so great, so I'm going to advocate change, even though said change is unlikely to have any great affect on my life.

For everyone else, and this is most of us, we're interested in changing the world at least in part because of the myriad ways in which the world is screwing us and people like us over. If you're aware of this, I think that you only have two options, really: resignation or anger. The status quo would prefer that everyone skew towards resignation, and resignation is the more socially appropriate response. Resignation is, to some extent, a survival response--anger is the response that elicits punishment. Resignation is how we end up with a narrative of "good [minorities]", the implication that they know their place and aren't fighting for better ones.

I think that one of the most difficult narratives for someone socially minded right now is that our work should be intersectional. And that's hard to say, because objectively, fuck yes, it should be. But for at least some people, it leads to the feeling that we have to be actively championing all the causes, all the time. You can't just work towards x and y; you have to be working towards the whole alphabet or you're a bad feminist/ally/social justice whatever. And maybe some people are genuinely able to detatch themselves enough that they can do this and not burn out, or some people have a much higher tolerance for burning inner rage than I do. But that's not all of us, and that's ok.

So possibly a first step for you is admitting to yourself that you can't change the world. You might be able to help change one or two things about the world, and you have to trust that there are other people out there who are going to be working towards the things you can't. Pick a few things--like, definitely no more than five, probably fewer than three, and hopefully things that you have a friend or two also involved in it--and tell yourself that these are going to be Your Things, and you're going to argue to change those things, and you're going to pass out flyers and make phone calls and explain things to people as your life allows. With everything that is not one of Your Things, you're going to remind yourself that the thing sucks, and you're not going to support the thing, but not every battle is yours, and it's ok for you to let other people fight for the Their Things.

Some people will find this approach offensive. I have some friends who can't believe that I do this. I remind myself, though, that for me, at least, if I try to do ALL THE THINGS, I will ultimately do...none of the things. Anger and frustration and the feeling that nothing you do will ever be enough are toxic, toxic things. Burnout and mental breakdowns are not effective ways to fight against anything except yourself.
posted by MeghanC at 1:49 PM on May 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

...doesn't address the fact that some people DON'T have good intentions, workplaces are often sexist and racist, and privilege means some people automatically have an easier time of it....

I know that it's not doing me any favors personally to be keeping score with people around me, resenting others' success and focusing over-much on the predicament of, for example, homelessness or the predatory for-profit college industry. Being angry or in a funk all of the time is not making the world better and it's sure not making my life better.
If you are judging life quality by, basically, wanting everyone to have the same level of "privilege" and financial success, I think you are doing it very, very wrong.

I have been on the street for over two years. I left my corporate job to go be homeless. I find the social stigma really upsetting. I find the fact that people use it as a means to dismiss me and act like I can't be competent really crazy-making. But living in a tent isn't the worst thing that ever happened to me and I did make a choice. I wanted to build an online income first and then leave my job. But with my health issues, that really was not working out. A point arrived where I felt it was time to go, and it sucked that I didn't have a nice answer, but I felt staying would lead to worse things.

Also, much of that sexism and racism is not intentional. It is more like bugs in the wetware. We all grow up with all kinds of unspoken messages and we often don't realize that they amount to institutionalized racism, sexism, etc.

In my twenties, my then husband kept going on ad nauseum about his new best friend at work. This went on for months. Then he and said friend finally arranged for both families to meet. His new best friend and the wife and kids were all black. Hubby never once told me that. This was a surprise to me. In fact, it was kind of a shock. I grew up in the deep south and that's just not the kind of information you leave out when introducing people.

The surprise showed on my face. And I realized that my expectation that his friend and the family would be white was really a form of racism -- a horrible, subtle form of racism, worse than the overt stuff. And it deeply upset me. I thought I was better than that and here I was being smacked in the face with how deeply I had been poisoned by the culture around me in ways I was unaware of. The upset also showed on my face. It made for a very awkward meeting. I could not figure out how to tell them "Um, hubby never told me you were black and I am having this horrifying realization that my assumption that you thus must be white is racist and I am so sorry. I am really not bothered by your skin color. I am bothered by this realization about myself."

That moment has been food for thought for many years. I think we are all a mishmash of conflicting internal messages and assumptions and what not. Most people don't even deeply examine such questions, so they don't much realize it. So I try hard to affirm the good parts of a person's programming where possible, overlook or subtly discourage the crappy stuff. Over time, sometimes they get less crappy. But most of us, even if we are not all sweetness and light, do a lot of crappy things every day without really meaning to be crappy people. We just think that's how it's done. Or we only have so much time and energy and money and ...whatever.

I am not the only person on the street who landed there in some sense by choice (though, granted, I wish I had some other viable option but I did not -- still, I did make a choice). Life is not black and white. It is not even shades of grey. It is very complex in a Technicolor way. I am off all medication. I sleep pretty well most nights. I am no longer in constant, excruciating, please-kill-me-now pain like I was for 3.5 years. Would I like to be both healthy AND have a middle class (or better) life? Sure. But if I have to choose one or the other, being homeless is not the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Nor is being raped and molested as a child. The worst thing that ever happened to me is being a prisoner of my body and tortured by it 24/7 -- tortured so badly that death would have been preferable. I decided to get well or die trying because what conventional treatment had to offer me was not anything I wished to live for.

I don't know what you need to do exactly but perhaps you could start by examining your own assumptions about what is "good" and "bad". Although it galls me to feel like no one has any respect for me because I am homeless, the last year has been the best year of my life. Staying at my corporate job and not getting well would have been worse, both in terms of quality of life and finances, though on paper I made too much money to quality for public assistance.
posted by Michele in California at 2:11 PM on May 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

The world is imperfect. People are imperfect. Even though life will never be perfect, it doesn't mean we should stop fighting to make it better.
posted by oceano at 2:51 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Personally, "don't let the bastards get you down" works better for me.

'assume that others have good intentions,' ... doesn't address the fact that some people DON'T have good intentions

This is also true in reverse. Understanding that will help you to see the utility of this attitude. It's actually quite practical and not necessarily starry-eyed.
posted by heatherann at 3:04 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you heard about that "mind like water" idea? It shows up in a lot of productivity stuff and the point is that a placid pool of water reacts to being hit by, say, a stone, with ripples that are exactly proportional to the stone that hit it, and then those ripples taper off and it's calm again.

Going through life assuming everybody is horrible is basically like making all these big waves because you heard that there might, at some point, be a stone in the future--does that make sense? No. The point of assuming people aren't horrible is that if someone turns out to be horrible, you need to react to that, proportionally, when it happens, not beforehand. You don't assume that everybody is so saintly that nothing bad will ever happen to you, you just don't borrow trouble before it's actually happened. You can waste all your energy reacting to things that haven't actually happened, and run out of energy to react to the things that have.

Privilege absolutely exists, and you can act to do what you can to reduce its impact systemically, but you can't make yourself not privileged in any way you are--and you can't make yourself privileged in any way you're not. In a personal way, you can only respond to your life as it is and try to do so in the most productive way in the moment. You have twenty-four hours in your day, the same as anybody else. Angsting for an hour over things being awful does relatively little good. Look for the opportunities to do things that have a concrete positive impact, whether it's social change or just cleaning your bathroom so you'll feel a little better about the state of your home and your life--doing is nearly always more satisfying than dwelling.

All of which I'm pretty sure even people who are very good at mindfulness fail at sometimes, and I'm kind of terrible at it, but I'm way better at it for trying than when I don't try.
posted by Sequence at 3:15 PM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has replied so honestly and thoughtfully -- I'm really getting a lot out of reading these responses so far. Lots to reflect on.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:22 PM on May 1, 2014

An easy first step would be to be grateful for your amazing allies and mentors and role models in the social justice movement. So when you think "arrrrgh this guy doesn't get it!" quickly add to yourself "thank goodness I can tell so and so later and we will laugh" or "thank goodness so and so educated me and I'm no longer that ignorant" or "how did Role Model manage to stay in the effort so long without burning out and achieve all that amazing stuff" or "well, I'm grateful for the opportunity to practice patience" or "I'm grateful for wry humor because from that lens, this is hilarious."

I think you have to start from the position that you're not as clueless as some and you will notice these injustices. You can't turn that off. But you can find things to be legitimately grateful for from that starting point.
posted by salvia at 3:30 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Whenever one of my kids complains about something (anything!) I tell them this:

"You were born in America. A free country. You are lucky. Not only that, but you were born white and your mom and I make more money than the national average. That means you don't have to worry about if you will have food today or if the water will make you sick. Your biggest problem is if the wi-fi stops working. You basically won the lottery by the circumstances of your birth. You don't get to complain."

It's a tad melodramatic, I admit, but I want them to realize that their complaints might be valid from their point of view, but they are "first world problems" and not really that important.

I'm not saying you are complaining too much. I'm just saying that sometimes we get so wrapped up in the injustices we see that we fail to see how good we have it.
posted by tacodave at 3:41 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is an indirect answer, but if you haven't already read it, consider picking up Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins (wherein said Resistance-weary existentialist considers what sense can be made of love, art and collective action after the close of WWII).
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:47 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

'assume that others have good intentions,' ... doesn't address the fact that some people DON'T have good intentions

This is a conversation I've had with some people in my life a lot. I have a very strong "assume good faith" worldview and work very very hard to avoid the fundamental attribution error (which is: if I speed and cut you off it's because I had something really important but I'm generally a good person; if you speed and cut me off it's because you're a jerk).

I do this because it makes me happier. If someone said something weird to me at work and I'm not sure what they meant by it, my life is better if I assume that they meant well, I remember people make awkward mistakes a lot, and generally I revert to the default that people like me and they may have meant something different from how it comes out. It allows me to shrug it off and move on. If the same thing happens to my husband, he ruminates on how this person hates them for hours, and comes home livid until we can talk it out and he can take a couple deep breaths. I don't make this assumption because it's necessarily true, I do it because I can't change what happened, and my life is improved if I look at things that way. And when my life is improved, I'm happier, I treat other people better, I have more compassion, and -- ever so slightly -- the world is improved.
posted by brainmouse at 4:03 PM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am not sure how helpful this will be but I spent my childhood and teens in poverty, some of it in a developing country. The injustice and cruelty in the world is staggering, and it truly is a struggle to survive with limited (or no) income. Something that may help you is to remember that many of the people you are fighting on behalf of, in spite of their difficult situations, also have much happiness and good in their lives. While they are dealing with horrible situations and are truly glad to have wonderful people like you as allies to help, there are aspects of their lives that bring joy in ways that privileged people may not notice. For example, when I was poor I didn't realize how shocking it was to be using a chamber pot and outhouse, bathe outside with a bucket, or own only one bra. I had great friends and pictures of my favorite rock singer on the wall, and therefore felt like the luckiest teen in the world. It is only now looking back on my life from a place of financial stability that I can see how awful some of my experiences were. Sometimes we only see the worst flaws when we are living reasonably pleasant lives. Maybe this perspective can help you appreciate all the little beauties and miracles in this amazing world, without losing your passion for helping others.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 4:35 PM on May 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

How can I be content with what I have while still working for a better world?

By spending more time dealing with the challenges faced by those who are less fortunate and less able to handle the challenges they have to deal with and less time moaning about the petty injustices you face. I assume you are doing ok for yourself. Keep up with that. Even if you were facing some grave injustice, there would be little you could actually do about it without the help of others. And getting the help of others is going to be more about being concerned and working with them rather than making a struggle all about you.

As far as people who don't have good intentions, that is correct-- many people don't. But if you take the cynical view every time, you no one will ever be helped, because you will be assuming the worst of them. It is in fact WHY people don't help others and correct injustice: they will think, "the person is just out for themselves and wants to take advantage of me" (and to be fair, sometimes this is true).

Is your concern about correcting the problems of an unjust world, or is it about correcting the injustices you face, because you want things to be less unjust for you? I don't think that the latter struggle is something you can win, which is why so many AskMe answers about how to deal with bad employers and relationships is generally "move on and leave" outside of that with which a lawyer can help with.
posted by deanc at 4:39 PM on May 1, 2014

Hi there, I hope I can offer a few things that might help. Here are some things that I do.

I give myself permission to switch it off. I know a lot of folks who care so much about whatever they are working on that they live and breathe it and get sucked in to so many different things. So I make a point of giving myself down time, on a regular basis. I say no a lot. Basically I take care of myself first. If you want to be in a struggle for the long haul, you have to think of it as a marathon and not a sprint. A whole lot of things will happen even if you're not there. You can't fight every battle - pick the ones that are most important to you, and let the other stuff go. Learn a new skill, read a book, go for a run, or just shut the fuck down and play video games.

I give myself full permission to grieve, to feel anger, to celebrate - basically all those emotions were given to us by god/evolution/whatever to help us survive, and holding any of it back is not healthy. Cry when you need to. Scream and punch things when you need to. Dance like an idiot when you get the chance. This will help you move through the emotional struggles and be a little more present and emotionally aligned when you work.

Actually practice gratitude. You seem to be asking how you can feel more gratitude/contentment/happiness - and it really seems to be a practice. The more you do it, the more you will feel it. Some examples: some of my friends practice "thankful Thursday" where they post on facebook everything that they are thankful for. You could also start a practice of thanking the people you work with/hang with - take time each time you see someone to think about why you are thankful to have them in your life. You might also try building this into your meeting culture. Put gratitude on the agenda - do a go around or popcorn to allow people to state what they are thankful for or appreciate about the others in the room. Or just make a point to open and/or close every meeting by stating your own gratitude for the beautiful people who came out to share in the struggle with you. It will help you and it will help them.

Actually sitting down and thinking about what you have going for you, even if it is hard to think of stuff - well, the more you think about it, the easier it gets to think about how fucking lucky you actually are to be living in this time. If you're anything like me, you probably have some life struggles but you've met some amazing, passionate people and learned things that many people don't ever get the chance to.

As for money issues - cultivate things that don't require money. Work on your relationships. Learn to garden, or how to cook tasty stuff on the cheap, or make wine or yogurt. Go dumpstering and make useful stuff with what you find.

And I guess one other thing is, don't short sell yourself. You are a worker, and you deserve to be treated justly. Make sure you are getting paid and treated how you deserve. Property may be theft, but you need to be able to get to the doctor and take vacation time and have a regular schedule so you can spend time with your family and friends. Don't sacrifice yourself for the cause. You want to organize for a living, but have web design skills? Web design pays better - you can organize in your spare time. You know?

Good luck. I hope you can sustain yourself and be doing this for the next 40 or 50 years.
posted by natteringnabob at 5:46 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Someone on here recommended Cheryl Strayed's book "Tiny Beautiful Things" which is sort of a compilation of advice columns. She talks about this sort of thing (and everything else) a lot.
posted by bquarters at 7:23 PM on May 1, 2014

How can I be content with what I have while still working for a better world?

I have a bunch of mantras that help me through this, personally. I used to be a lot more of an all-the-time fuck-the-man activist. Now I am a lady with a job (several) that get money from place that aren't entirely guilt-free and I have to make my peace with that. I am happier, actually, not being stuck in the activist quagmire that was my former anarchist hangout. This has some to do with me and some to do with other people and some to do with seeing how any group of people has a tendency to either argue incessantly over terms of engagement or (accidentally or on purpose) recreate shitty power dynamics. So... a few things that help me

1. "Everyone's hardest struggle is their hardest struggle" having empathy for people who are dealing with suffering, even if they're more privileged than me, is a way of being gracious and even though I think I can determine relative "difficulty" (in that "boo hoo your Porsche is at the garage" way) it's still snotty and non-useful and I can just understand other people's feelings, I don't have to share them. Hard struggles are hard struggles. I have sleep anxiety. It seems stupid and petty compared to "real" problems but it's really real to me
2. "Be tactical and sometimes realize you're playing the long game" After a long time of general dues paying, I now get paid to stand up in front of a lot of people and tell them that copyright reform needs to happen and Fair Use is essential and necessary and people listen to me. I had to do some things along the way that got me to where I am now. Sometimes you can't just be there, you have to get there and that takes time and stuff that feels less important along the way. Bide that time.
3. "Put on your own mask before helping others...." Total AskMe maxim but no one is expecting you to be an ascetic monk while you walk your path. Be mindful but don't self-abnegate, you can't help people from a hermitage, or most people can't
4. "Everyone, everywhere, is in some sort of compromise position with their values" You may not know what compromises other people make, but they make them. It's okay for you to make them too.
5. "Sometimes there are problems that money can solve. Know which ones those are" Being an activist can sometimes mean DIYing just about everything. Know when it may be worth tossing money at a problem to make it go away so you can free yourself up for other things.

I'm pretty happy with my position in the world relative to where I'd like to be as an activist. I think I've sold out a little, grown up a little and gotten a lot done and spread my message in useful and fulfilling ways. Being able to reflect form time to time and see if you think you're on the path you want to be on is a useful exercise. You are asking good questions. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. You get one life. Try to do more good than evil and go from there.
posted by jessamyn at 8:01 PM on May 1, 2014 [25 favorites]

You are alive. Simply being alive is quite amazing if you are mindful about it. You can cultivate a feeling of gratitude through a mindfulness practice.

Take breakfast. Perhaps you have a hot drink and small meal in the morning. Take the meal time and do nothing but eat and drink. Observe what happens, focus on what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste without judging it or wishing it was different. If you start thinking about something else, simply label the thought (say planning or judging or whatever) and return to the experience of breakfast. Odds are, parts of your breakfast are pretty damn good but you've eaten it on auto pilot for so long that you've forgotten. Maybe next time you drink your tea you will remember and enjoy that experience.

When I did a lot of mindfulness training I found I really appreciated my dog. If you like dogs, spend three minutes doing nothing but pet the dog. Again, label thoughts and let them go, just experience petting the dog.

There are lots of things in life like this if you are in good enough health to enjoy them. Your health is another place to find gratitude. If you can walk, do nothing but walk. Feel every single muscle and bone and ligament. It is a damn miracle we can move like this with our ridiculously designed pelvises and spines. We execute complicated patterns over and over and we don't even notice. Take some notice.

All these things, many wondrous things, happen every day but somehow escape your notice. Noticing is a practice. Letting thoughts go that are unrelated to your current experience is a practice. I find it helpful sometimes.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:57 PM on May 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's a saying that comes up a lot around here: Put on your own oxygen mask first before attempting to help others. And you do. You have to take care of yourself first. And if all your social justice stuff is burning you out, it's time to step back. Maybe work locally. Like you can't fix the entire society that leads to homelessness, but maybe you can work at the soup kitchen on weekends. Maybe you can't single-handedly stop Congress from barreling in to cut down on a woman's rights, but maybe you can be a mentor for a local girl.

The state of modern social justice is such that you're considered a bad person if you're not screaming at the top of your lungs and fighting about everything, but that's exhausting and probably not sustainable once you're outside of the Tumblr demographic. Sometimes you have to pick your battles even if that is the most infuriating thing for me to say.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:48 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

What I think about this is... a lot of problems need to be approached at multiple levels. So if the goal is to have a kind and fair society for all people, we press on the philosophical level to promote that philosophy, on the various political levels to enact appropriate policies, in our everyday conduct in how we treat others, and we also look at how to bring it about in our own life. Should people have peace of mind? Then we, as people, should individually have peace of mind, and in our direct dealings with other people we should look to promote their peace of mind.

I think there's a tendency sometimes to look at the top levels that have a lot of excitement and seem very challenging, and now that we're so closely connected by communication technology they loom larger than they did -- but it's spending all the time drawing on plans, and never building the house. We need to build the house too, we can't always wait to have the plans perfect. Doing that is a process of doing a lot of small things, picking things up and putting them down, things that are individually very simple but ultimately add up (I think) to a larger whole.

Maybe it's a bit facile, but sometimes I try to bring things down to literally where I am, and what I see -- like who and what is in the room I'm in, or in the part of traffic flow that is relevant to me as a cyclist or driver, or whatever -- who I'm really interacting with as a biological organism, and I think: What can I do right now, for these actual people? Or what can I do that is good for the actual person that is me? Not the big philosophical concepts, or things like the penumbra of abstract data that follows me around (my bank balance, the NSA analysis of my social network, that ridiculous figure that is my FICO score, a thousand some odd tweets, what the fuck ever), but... I'm in Market Street Station, I have a bag full of miscellaneous crap and two books of bus passes, if you put the pass in the ticket box then you get to ride the bus, I observe a guy whose money was et by the bus pass machine and now has nothing to put in the ticket box so that he can ride home, what do I do in relation to this human with the physical objects surrounding me to make this sphere of twenty feet or so a better place? Or, here I am, existing within the walls of this apartment which contains among other things a beer and a cat; I shall drink the beer and hug the cat, the reverse being rather more dangerous to my face. That sort of thing.

We are small and imperfect creatures. It is to be expected that much of what we do is small and imperfect.
posted by sparktinker at 11:30 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Continue being angry. But stop keeping score.
posted by univac at 11:37 PM on May 1, 2014

Life is never fair, it doesn't care.
posted by waving at 4:19 AM on May 2, 2014

Someone recommended this to me on my AskMefi last week. I think reading it could help you with mindfulness and Self Care:

On the Shortness of Life
posted by winterportage at 7:45 AM on May 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Best Hike near St. Louis   |   When should I sleep? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.