You’re No Good If You’re Dead

Posted on: May 2, 2019, by :

You’re No Good If You’re Dead

I recently spoke with a fervent lifelong activist. We talked for roughly an hour about a wide range of topics, touching on both our backstories. I asked her, “How many hours per week would you say you spend working on this?”

She tells me (and I am paraphrasing here a bit): “All of them. I can’t not think about it. I’ve lost friends. I don’t do any other work. I think sometimes, “you know? You should really take some time to rest, or have fun … And then I turn on Netflix and wonder about how that show was made, written and cast. I try to eat something indulgent, and I think about where my food comes from and what’s in it and whose pockets I’m lining.”” I nodded.

For a long time — maybe since 2010-ish, yet definitely by the time Zimm murdered Trayvon — I found it hard to enjoy things. I was too hung up on assessing how “problematic” things are. I would scour each moment, place, thing and person for flaws. “Who funded this?” “Where are the conflicts of interest?” “What kind of person made this?” “What else happened here?” “What’s the rest of the story?” And with every one-note news story I read, I nudged into bleaker, darker territory — a cynicism that bled into fatalistic nihilism. Some of that draws roots from, undoubtedly, my own particular personal traumas, depression, anxiety and whatever other mental health conditions I happen to face.

Last September, I thought about ending my life. I’d reached a point where all I could think about was how flawed everything and everyone are. About how if you zoom the lens out far enough, everything is problematic, nothing matters from space, the work we do — as anyone aiming to improve the world — is never finished, and we seem light years from where we need to be. I was tired. Mournful and angry. As I got help for it, and crawled out from under it, I wondered why.

As I think about it, I think the Internet has made our eyes bigger than our stomachs, when it comes to how much pain and suffering we are able to consume vs our capacity to do much about it. We’ve never had that before in history: a centralized repository for all of human knowledge. We can now each, individually, see the scope of the wildfire … and yet we are all, individually, still just carrying one hose. We used to only be able to see the tree in front of us.

And so what I think is worth doing, for activists anyway, is just putting out the fire one tree at a time, and maintaining laser focus on it until it’s out. Whatever tree is closest or most important to you — aim your hose at that. I don’t carry a hose; I’m more the guy who talks about the characteristics of the fire, analyzing causes and predicting how it’ll spread, defining and creating what it’ll take to put it out. I know that’s my skill set so that’s what I focus on.

By and large, none of us are going to be lead actors (activist leaders), directors (politicians) or producers (investors) in this narrative. We’re supporting actors, extras, key grips, sound technicians, associate producers. Small, but necessary, jobs. They might seem insignificant and thankless, yet without them, the movie doesn’t get made.

I know that was an 18-wheeler full of metaphor, but I think that’s the best way to put it. If your thoughts, feelings, intentions, actions and dreams are all good, just, kind and equitable, and you curb your darker impulses, I think that’s enough. No one can really do conceivably more than the work of one person. There’s only so many hours in the week, and we should all be allowed to rest every now and again.

And so, after running myself into the ground through overwork and feeling just way too damn much, I refocused. I stopped keeping up with the news. I turned off Twitter. I got bigger picture. I divert funds where they’re needed. I aid people and causes close to me in ways I’m best suited.

I reckoned that if I can’t take joy or pride in my surroundings, and the work to change them is never finished, then I suppose I can try to take joy in the work itself. And it is tremendously exciting to do the work I do. To use words and ideas to change how people can see the world, inspire people to meet the visceral challenges we face, and to tell the stories of people who are already making a major impact or could if given the chance.

I’m not an activist, really. You won’t often find me screaming at rallies, or shaming public officials, staging die-ins or breaking laws. I’m not mentally or emotionally built to handle all that. I’m not wired to excel at doing most of it. I’m more of a writer. And that’s okay … writers are important, too. After all, how we tell our stories today inform how we react to them tomorrow.

Still, it’s exhausting to constantly point out in print “ayo, things are bad.” Of course they are. I’ve said it so many times (on Medium alone!) and everything I read elsewhere just reconfirms what I’ve known and felt for years. Instead, I’ve tried to give myself the space to answer, “What’s the way forward?” I’m in the writer room working on the next scene once this one’s wrapped.

I have a saying: “Burning down your neighbor’s house doesn’t make yours look any better.” And so I’m working on caring for myself and making my house the best it can be, so that I can continue designing and building a *new* framework that allows us to radically re-imagine how we can coexist as people. That next house.

I’m less mad now. Hopeful, even. Not in the near-term, no, let me be clear and unwavering: we’re unequivocally fucked. For at least the next half-decade. Globally. Arab Spring meets French Revolution meets World War II type stuff. But if we can manage to curtail climate change — big if — perhaps the mid-term and long-term prospects are not so bleak. Like I said, we’ve never had a centralized repository for all of human knowledge and all of human history before. It allows us to understand the scope and depth of what we’re facing, and allows us to think and grow at tremendous speed and scale.

We’re at war with our neighborhoods — not with our neighbors — and we need all the builders we can find. I, for one, choose not to be an arsonist, but an architect. We’re going to need a new place to live when the old one’s finished burning.

You’re No Good If You’re Dead

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136 thoughts on “You’re No Good If You’re Dead

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